Saturday, 9 April 2011

The Small Hand - A Ghost Story by Susan Hill, Profile Books

Contrasting two women writers of the genre this month; one from the present and one from the distant past:

Adam Snow is a specialist book dealer, en route to London to seal his latest deal.  Losing his way in the gathering dusk, curiosity takes over as he wheel-spins his car into an un-signed country turn-off.  At its end is a seemingly derelict country house hidden by an overgrown garden.  Getting out, he absorbs his atmospheric surroundings – and then feels a child’s hand slip into his own.  Looking down, he ‘sees’ no one there…
  So begins the latest in Susan Hill’s long line of supernatural novellas; conventional in construct, conservative in tone, yet, for these very reasons, an object lesson all novice authors should trail.  Where plot elements placed early within the first chapter, may or may not significantly percolate later in the story but, to which, must always be returned.  Thus, the small hand drags us onward alongside the story’s protagonist.
  Hill – so well known for 1983’s ‘The Woman in Black’ and its regional theatre adaptations for twenty years since – writes each line with perfect pitch.  Coolly sparse, each edited down to its constituent point for economy of space and time.  Atmosphere never appears sacrificed.  This is so often the writer’s fear, of being overly reductive before you even start.  Thoughts arise of a literary self-harm; what if you undersell the tale?  What if the reader thinks, ‘does he mean this?’ at the precise moment clarity is needed?  What must I hold back?  What must I show?  Too many writers in panic thus overcompensate.
  Hill overcomes such fears by being open and literal with every line.  It justifies the ironic paradox that ambiguity can only be successfully depicted unambiguously.  You, the writer, have sole responsibility to lead the reader on. There will be no second chance to fuck up.  Yet, this can only be achieved if the reader can see where they are going, from the outset, even if they have no idea (and they shouldn’t) where they will arrive.  I found this out for myself very late in the day - as true for a novella as it is for the short story.
  What lacks? – perhaps characterisation of any real depth.  As if that usually considered a necessity might also slow the tale’s already moderate pace.  Its absence deprives us of heightened descriptions, but at least we feel encouraged to make up the spaces there.

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