I stood in the dim, green-lit clearing and above my head a silver paring of moon cradled the evening star. The birds had fallen silent. There was not the slightest stirring of the air.And 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 and rested there, and the small thumb and forefinger tucked my own thumb between them. (6-7).
Susan Hill’s ‘A Small Hand’ is a ghost story about a middle aged man, Adam Snow, who finds himself at the White House (not the Presidential kind) and for a moment feels the presence of an invisible child’s hand holding his. This moment is reflective and peaceful, but as his life becomes more filled with night terrors he decides the only way to be free, if he can be free, is to find out what happened in the house’s gardens and to the child so long ago.
As an author, Hill has been around for a while and has written novels, short stories and nonfiction; her fiction ‘The Woman in Black’ will hopefully ring a couple of death bells since it became a movie starring Daniel Radcliffe. One thing to note about this author is how atmospheric her writing is: brilliant imagery and description combined with an old-school feel haunting.
Hill’s descriptions of place are incredibly vivid and beautiful, even for such a short novel. I especially enjoyed the fact that the hero of the story searches the world procuring rare books for wealthy people, the literary references also making me incredibly happy. The story also creates strong characters, such as Hugo with his past haunted by mental illness and monks that seem to replace the spiritual element to this ghost tale instead of the everyday fortune teller or palmist.
However, because this tale is so beautiful, I never felt much tension. Like Adam I could be distracted by the hunt for rare books more than obsessed by the haunting. While I understand that the character is trying to live his life as free from the obsession as possible, there is a lack of constant horror in his life (and therefore obsession with the haunting) and throughout the book. In saying this, having the story told from Adam’s perspective suggests that this is what should happen to the reader as they pass through the pages. It just means that the tension that you should feel builds rather slowly.
I enjoyed this book. I didn’t find it terrifying as a lot of horror perhaps these days can be, but it held intricate details that made emotions and places come to life. While this book is marketed towards adults, I would have no problem giving this story to younger audiences (at least young adult age) or anyone willing to go back in time to when ghost stories could move you to the plight of the hero and were not just written to scare you senseless.