Last week I read The Small Hand by Susan Hill. It was a choice based on the feeling that a ghost story was the right sort of thing to read in winter. It would be weird to feel too spine-tinglingly chilly in the heat of summer, whereas now it would be forgiven for prompting another cup of tea or making one draw a little closer to the fire. Or radiator.
I’m not sure that I’ve ever read a proper ghost story, other than The Turn of the Screw and a few various gothic moments that have incidentally come my way via bits and pieces of literature. So I read The Small Hand with a certain naïve scepticism. In other words I wasn’t expecting to find it particularly scary.
And I’m not sure that it was scary in a gory, terrifying, panic-inducing way. But it only took ten pages or so to get me completely gripped, longing to know what would happen next, where the eerie ghostly grip of the hand would take me. And perhaps that kind of tension and thrill counts as being scary in its own way.
The story is narrated by Adam Snow, an antiquarian bookseller, who gets lost on a winding country road and ends up by a derelict house. He is strangely drawn to the house and then,
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.
Of course, there is no child. Surprisingly, Adam Snow doesn’t feel spooked in a horrid way by this sensation, in fact he rather likes it, and wishes he could feel it again. The reader gets the impression that it’s a friendly kind of ghost, one who might help him.
But things take a turn for the worse when the tugging at his hand recurs, swiftly becoming violent and trying to pull him to his death. Adam suffers alarming panic attacks and feels impelled to throw himself into any nearby body of water. Even a quiet pool in a very holy French monastery. Adam discovers that there was a boy who drowned in the pond at the derelict house, and suspects that this small hand belongs to his ghost. Then there are a couple of brilliant twists in the plot and it ends with a sudden raw feeling of slack-jawed surprise – and of admiration for Susan Hill’s storytelling skill.
It’s tricky to discuss it without giving things away. While I have tried not to really spell it out, perhaps it’s only fair to warn you that if you want to avoid any risk of potential spoilers, you better look away now.
I thought there were two very interesting things about this book, which made it far greater than just any old ghost story.
Firstly, I recently saw Susan Hill give a talk, in which she was predominantly talking about her Simon Serrailler crime series. She said she found it fascinating when the nation was gripped with a particular news story. It doesn’t happen all that often, but every now and then something truly terrible happens, like the Soham murders, for instance, and something about it really grips everyone. She said that as a writer, she was often looking for new ways to engage with that.
And so, reading this book where it becomes clear that a two-year-old child has been drowned by an older child, one can’t help but think of the James Bulger case. This is a similarity pointed out by James Dyson in his review in the Guardian too. It doesn’t dominate the whole book, but somehow Hill’s ghost story casts a new slant of light on this appalling case. She gives us another instance of cruelty from one child to another, and looks at how that impacts upon the surviving child’s life, its repercussions, first muted and then fatally pronounced.
And, linked to this, is something Susan Hill hints at at the very beginning of the book, when Adam Snow first comes across the house:
But I wanted to know more. I wanted to see more. I wanted for some reason I did not understand to come here in the full light of day, to see everything, uncover what was concealed, reveal what had been hidden. Find out why.
It is immediately after this confession of an inexplicable desire to discover something that Adam Snow first feels the small hand. What if one decides that the ghostly small hand isn’t actually real, if the ghost isn’t really there, but is a manifestation of something psychologically repressed by the narrator?
Later in the book, Adam Snow returns to the house, determined to discover what is prompting this ‘ghost’, driven to get to the bottom of the mysterious violent urge that plagues him. There then follows an extraordinary few pages, where a strange old lady draws him into the derelict house, where she shows him pictures, and then leads him to a part of the house’s garden which isn’t overgrown and neglected like the rest of it, but is well-kept, freshly-mown, thriving. After this strange dream-like experience, he describes how he came to, ‘dazed’ and wonders if he had fainted. The reader can’t help but be puzzled by this episode. What’s happened? Where was he? Who is the mad old woman? How can he have found a hidden garden? Did he travel back in time?
Perhaps it is a strangely-realised journey into the subconscious, a delving into parts of his memory that had lain still, forgotten, a sudden flash of a photograph, integral to unlocking the mystery.
But I don’t think this psychological interpretation of a ghost story makes its ghosts any less real. The ghosts are there for Adam Snow; they are his ghosts. If anything it’s an argument that ghosts do exist. For we all have things that we have tried to forget, many have had traumatic moments of childhood that they have pushed deep down inside themselves. So it stands to reason that at some point we might feel an eerie familiarity with a place, or smell, a strange urge to go somewhere, an uncanny feeling of deja vu, something that could almost be described as supernatural. We all have our ghosts. Perhaps the lesson here is to face them, for there is no point in running away – they will always catch up with us and then the truth will out.