Susan Hill knows exactly how to please. This small, smart, elegantly printed little notepad of a book is a delicious Victorian ghost story, nostalgically and expertly comforting.
It opens as smoothly as an M. R. James or Conan Doyle short story, over a good fire in a shadowy room on a winter’s night:
The story was told me by my old friend, Theo Parmitter, as we sat in his college rooms one bitterly cold January night. There were still real fires in those days, the coals brought up by a servant in huge brass scuttles. . . .
We know this room and we know the professor’s story, too. It is the fine old chestnut to roast upon the coals: the story of the haunted painting. Oscar Wilde examined it in The Picture of Dorian Gray and M. R. James in his short story about the painting above an author’s desk where a distant smudge on the landscape grows nearer and clearer until it is revealed as the devil himself. Paintings are favourite repositories of malign power. Even today a crashing portrait is thought to precede a death. Films, especially farces and thrillers, are full of portraits with moving eyes.
The painting owned by the professor is not a single portrait but a crowded 18th-century Venetian scene where masked revellers throng the Grand Canal. But it is not so much a Canaletto as a Brueghel where there is always a tiny figure in an inconspicuous place standing suffering and alone and sometimes turning a terrified, supplicating face out of the frame towards the viewer. Sometimes the face looks out of a high window that seems not to be Venice but the professor’s set of rooms in Cambridge, where the painting hangs. Over the years more of these figures keep emerging and they are the faces of generations of the same family just after they have died a violent death. With every murder comes the smell of fresh paint in the professor’s room!
It is purest Gothick and Mrs Radcliffe would be envious. Catherine Morland, of Northanger Abbey, would thrill to it and Henry Tilney of the same address would detest it. Jane Austen herself would think it utter rubbish but read it to the end before making fun of it.
And the common reader of today, like the common theatre-goer who year after year buys tickets for Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, a ghost story adapted from her novel and which threatens to be another Mousetrap, will gobble it up and say that it would make a good film.
Which it would, but as all the characters are so stupid — why not burn the beastly painting? — maybe it could be a comedy? I very much liked Stephen, ‘the silken-footed butler’, who could provide a wonderful title for it.
Jane Gardam’s latest book, The People on Privilege Hill, is published by Chatto, £12.99.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 3, 2007