Although I have always felt fairly ambivalent about her crime series (reflecting my 'meh' feeling about crime fiction in general I suppose) I felt nothing but shivery anticipation picking up The Small Hand; a huge wave of relief washing over me at the neat little book that promised so much, particularly after the damp flannel of a Gaskell novel I have been suffering the hangover from since April...
Adam Snow is a mild mannered, solitary man; a prosperous intellectual and dealer in antiquarian books whose work takes him around the country and beyond; getting all warm and fuzzy about first edition Shakespeare folios and ancient manuscripts. On his way to see one particularly impassioned collector and customer, Adam loses his way, finding himself down a winding country road ending in an abandoned Edwardian house and gardens, once seemingly open for admiration to the public. As he stands at the gateway, Adam suddenly feels a small hand grasping his own:
'as I stood I felt a small hand creep into my right one, as if a child had come up beside me in the dimness and taken hold of it. It felt cool and its fingers curled themselves trustingly into my palm...'
Although it is completely unfair to compare this book to its predecessor The Woman in Black, the comparison is inevitable and, perhaps to Susan Hill's detriment, I did it throughout.
A good ghost story, particularly one after the traditions of M R James and Charles Dickens, never fails to impress and delight me (however predictable they might be). After the unrelenting wordiness and repetition of Mary Barton, Susan Hill's bare prose and clean, clear descriptions were precisely what I needed and Adam's fickle ghost (watching over him or out to harm him?) kept me guessing until the final chapters.
My single reservation, and granted I understand it may be one that is quite personal given my taste in fiction, is that I found that the modern setting for this novel made everything, well, just not as scary as I'd hoped for. I wanted pure, unadulterated terror and got the occasional goosebump here and there. I found the narrator to be weaker than his Victorian counterpart and with tools at his disposable to remove himself from most unsafe/scary situations. What's the point in a ghost if you can escape from it?
Chilly (rather than chilling) with some unpredictable elements thrown in for good measure (Daddy Relish will be pleased), this was good and a welcome break ... but The Woman in Black is better.