Monday, October 27, 2008

THE MAN IN THE PICTURE: Halloween Treat from British Master Susan Hill

Jay Strafford of the Richmond Times-Dispatch gives a rave review to Susan Hill's ghost story, The Man in the Picture: "Think The Picture of Dorian Gray was scary? As the paranormalist said to the ghost-hunter, you ain't seen nothing yet. Just in time for Halloween, prolific British author Susan Hill bestows upon readers a slim but weighty ghost story, The Man in the Picture. And Hill knows the genre: Her "The Woman in Black" was adapted for theater and has been playing for 18 years in London's West End. Her current outing begins one cold January night in Cambridge, where a former student has gone to visit his old tutor, Theo Parmitter. Theo, an expert in Chaucer and a lover of art, counts among his prized possessions an oil painting of a Venetian carnival scene he acquired as a young man. Now elderly, he unburdens himself to his former student about the painting. One acquaintance, Theo says, studied the picture and saw the face of an old friend. Theo himself began having nightmares, followed by long periods of calm. But then came a magazine article about Theo's Chaucer scholarship, accompanied by a photo that, strangely, focuses more on the painting than on Theo. Within days, Theo receives a letter from the secretary to the Countess of Hawdon, imploring him to visit Yorkshire and listen to her ladyship's story about the painting. Visit he does, listen he does, and... But why spoil this elegant little book for you? And stylish it is. Hill's prose is understated but evocative, as in this passage about Theo: "He spoke lightly, of a jaunt to the north. But a haunted and troubled look had settled on his features that belied the conscious cheerfulness of his words." Dickens would have been hard-pressed to put it better. Hill masterfully builds the dread as she lays out the story, but she never oversteps the bounds of edginess into excess. With a refined touch that other authors should envy, she makes The Man in the Picture sing by melding the ethos of the traditional ghost story with the assurance of a contemporary prose artist. So grab a throw and light the light — you'll be up late tonight. "

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