The Small Hand – A Ghost Story is a book I’d bought but just never got round to reading. I’d studied Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black many years ago at college and after watching the Hollywood movie when it was released on DVD, I decided I should finally get round to reading the small, beautifully covered, follow up book sitting on my shelf.
It is coined as a ghost story, so I had prepared myself to be scared. I needn’t have bothered, because it wasn’t remotely frightening. This was the biggest disappointment for me, second to it being written by such an acclaimed writer who should’ve been able to make it startling. Expectations can often ruin a book for its reader, so perhaps the fault is my own for expecting something from the story that it couldn’t deliver.
When the book’s protagonist, antiquarian bookseller Adam Snow, takes a wrong turn on his drive home after visiting a wealthy client, he stumbles upon a derelict Edwardian manor house. Compelled by curiosity and a strange pull, Adam decides to investigate. As he stands in the entrance he feels the sensation of a small hand slipping into his own hand, almost as if a child had clasped it. Then, as if nothing had happened, the sensation disappears and Adam is left feeling tense and bewildered at what really occurred.
From this moment Adam’s life is thrown into a whirl of fear as he starts having inexplicable suicidal tendencies and as a result is plagued by panic attacks, something he’s never experienced before. In a different take to traditional ghost stories, the haunting is not exclusive to the house where Adam first felt the presence, it moves with him as he travels internationally. He continually feels the grip of the small hand and it begins to take over his life.
What was perhaps more interesting than the ghostly element of this story was the way it dealt with the issue of mental illness, something which is often difficult to explain and even more difficult to understand. I only wish Adam’s troubled brother, Hugo, had been given more development. There was scope for him to be a very interesting and intricately wired character, but he was skimmed over. Perhaps this would have taken the book in an entirely different direction though. I think I would have preferred it that way.
The gothic milieu of the Edwardian house was described perfectly and provided a beautifully atmospheric setting for the book. This is exactly what you expect from Hill though; it’s what she’s good at.
Whilst both the writing and the premise of the book are quite brilliant, the story was sadly lacking. It seemed awfully rushed and not in a fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat way. The story does build-up to a certain extent, but it needed to accumulate some more for me to finish the book feeling satisfied. It was simply too quickly resolved for my taste and the theme was probably more suited to a full-length novel, rather than a short 167 pages.
The story felt original, but the lines seemed to get confused between the separate issues of ghostly hauntings and mental health. It was a refined ghost story, and therefore the reason I wasn’t left chilled to the bone after reading it. I personally don’t believe a good ghost story can be subtle. Subtlety is not frightening. I want a ghost story to hit me in the face, make me panic as if I were actually a character within the book.
I was left feeling that there was just so much more Hill could have done with the story to make it into a terrifically bloodcurdling book. Obviously this was not what she was after. The short length of The Small Hand made it an easy book to read in an afternoon, but don’t expect to be scared to your wits end unless you have a very low fear tolerance.
As ever a great effort by Susan Hill, but I would suggest reading The Woman In Black over The Small Hand any day. Better still, go and watch the stage version or the movie. I was left with a few sleepless nights after watching the film and whilst I haven’t watched the stage version, all reports point at it being equally terrifying.