I hated the picture from the moment I first saw it. Partly, of course, that was because it came from someone unknown, the same someone who had sent me the letter and who wished us harm. But it was more than that. I did not know much about art but I had grown up among delightful pictures which had come down through my family on my mother’s side, charming English pastoral scenes and paintings of families with horses and dogs, still-life oils of flowers and fruit, innocent, happy things which pleased me. This was a dark, sinister painting in my eyes. If I had known the words ‘corrupt’ and ‘decadent’ then I would have used them to describe it. As I looked at the faces of those people, at the eyes behind the masks and the strange smiles, the suggestions of figures in windows, figures in shadows, I shuddered. I felt uneasy, I felt afraid.
Susan Hill’s The Man in the Picture is a brilliant ghost story. The language is deceptively simple; although it reads as a straightforward and traditional spooky tale, full of recognisable motifs from the ghost stories of old, it has already left me wanting to revisit its unsettling pages.
I want to tell you all about The Man in the Picture and yet I don’t. To revel in it may be to spoil it. I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but I’m itching to talk about it as much as I can. For anyone familiar with The Woman in Black it is similar territory. In this story a horror cascades through time and generations, a horror inherited that will revisit again and again to wield its terrible power. The Man in the Picture reminded me of the chilling power of the stage adaptation of The Woman in Black. The theatre brought out the use of narrative in the story, how one man’s telling of a haunting tale to another is a fantastic device to evoke the raised hairs on the necks of those who listen. Susan Hill’s latest does something similar. Told as a sequence of stories by alternating narrators, the reader is slowly drawn into this disturbing tale.
So I’m only offering teasing glimpses of The Man in the Picture. An atmospheric setting shared between Cambridge and Venice, a mysterious Miss Haversham type, a haunting oil painting and perhaps one of the most effective final lines in a novel. The Man in the Picture allows the reader to guess what is happening next, but only just, only as it is about to happen. By then it is too late to withdraw from the horror. Susan Hill has a real skill in that you can only really say you’ve guessed the outcome with seconds to spare. Read this short novel in one sitting if you can. And prepare to be afraid.