BOOK: The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill (2008)

After reading and enjoying Hill’s ghostly novel The Woman in Black, I went looking for other spooky tales she might’ve crafted and found this one right away (thanks to its subtitle, “A Ghost Story”).  This novella is about an evil painting, but not in the way of The Picture of Dorian Gray (or Amityville: The New Generation, for that matter, though technically that was a mirror, not a painting).

It begins with a young man named Oliver visiting his elderly mentor, Theo Parmitter, who is ailing and close to death after years of being a revered but lonely scholar.  The two begin to talk and as Oliver studies Theo’s apartment, a painting along the back wall catches his eye.  He goes to look at it more closely, and finds there an 18th century scene of a carnival on the streets of Venice.  It’s very detailed work, and obviously old.  Only, the more Oliver looks at it, the more he becomes somewhat troubled by certain elements.  First, it seems every one of the people painted in it is looking right at him, even as he moves from side to side, and then Oliver notices that one of the men, who is depicted looking terrified as he’s being carted off by two others, seems to look anachronistic.  Wrong clothes, strange facial expression, something just a little off.

When Oliver mentions the painting to Theo, Theo decides it’s time to tell someone the true story of the piece, so he sits Oliver down and begins.  After telling the first part of the story, which is primarily about how Theo came to own the painting, Theo is so exhausted he begs Oliver to let him finish the tale another day.  Frustrated and wanting to know more, Oliver reluctantly agrees and then is horrified to discover Theo nearly dies of a stroke later that evening.  Blaming himself for pushing Theo to tell him a story that was clearly upsetting, Oliver decides to stay in town and help him get back on his feet.  When Theo’s feeling better, he finally tells Oliver the rest of the truth about the painting, a story that involves an evil woman and the disappearances of several people who later appear in the painting as if by magic.  Or, more accurately, by curse.

It’s not a terribly scary story, all in all — in fact, it’s kind of hokey.  But the same was true of The Woman in Black, and, as with both books, the reason I ended up really enjoying them is because Hill is extremely talented at setting a scene.  Her descriptions of both characters and the spaces they inhabit are subtle perfection.  She never spends paragraphs simply describing things — instead, you pick up on things slowly, forming a detailed image in your mind as you read.  The way the characters talk, for one thing, plays a major role in how they start to look in your mind.  That’s crafty writing, right there.  Same thing goes for physical sensations the characters report — the smell of a room, the touch of an object.  She’s very, very good at that sort of thing, which goes a long way toward letting me overlook some flaws in her storytelling.

Hill is also the author of a six-part series of mystery novels about a London detective named Simon Serrailler — I have the first one out from the library right now (The Various Haunts of Men) and it’s up next in my pile. Here’s hoping it’s as well written as her ghost stories have so far been!  If you’ve read it, let me know what you thought in the comments section below?


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One Response to “BOOK: The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill (2008)”

  1. Kristel Says:

    It’s hard to find really scary fiction these days, but will definitely get this book. 🙂

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