Susan Hill's The Man in the Picture: A Ghost Story is a story within a story within a story. It's the sort of story I like best--rich in atmosphere and small detail, much like the Venetian painting at the heart of this novella. It's a story that wends its way circuitously until a smashing ending. And it's a story best enjoyed on a rainy afternoon curled up on a sofa with a cup of tea or hot chocolate in hand. I have to give it to Susan Hill, she really 'does' ghost stories well. Even if this one didn't shock in quite the same way as (one of my own favorites) The Woman in Black, this was quite a satisfying and chilling (if you give yourself over to it) recounting.
I've not read enough of Hill's work (her ghost stories in any case) in order to compare, though I have read The Woman in Black three times now, but I do see similarities in how she structures her stories. I think, too, there is a strong nod of inspiration in the direction of ghost-story-teller extraordinaire M.R. James. Hers are truly stories that are told to the reader (and the 'listener' in the book) often in front of a roaring fire, looking back on some dark and grisly occurrence--either something that happened to the storyteller himself or someone close to him. They involve malevolent spirits who bear an awful grudge and demand some sort of recompense or revenge.
In the case of The Man in the Painting, the story involves an academic setting. It is told to the narrator, Oliver, by his old Cambridge tutor Theo Parmitter as they sit in his college rooms in front of a fire one "bitterly cold January night". Theo is one of a dying breed who lives for his college and has devoted his life to it and his students.
" . . . Theo was tremendous company, witty, acerbic, shrewd, a fund of stories which were not merely the rambling reminiscences of an old man. He was a wonderful conversationalist--people, even the youngest Fellows, had always vied to sit next to him at dinner in hall."
One night after a good dinner and a bottle of claret the two sit in front of the fire with hail pelting down and the wind rattling the windows as it blows in off the Fens, and Theo offers to tell Oliver a "strange story" concerning a valuable eighteenth century painting that he had purchased in an auction many years ago.
"The picture was typical of those whose scenes are lit by flares and torches which throw an uncanny glow here and there, illuminating faces and patches of bright clothing and the silver ripples on the water, leaving other parts in deep shadow. I thought it had an artificial air but it was certainly an accomplished work, at least to an inexpert eye."
This is not an ordinary painting, however. It is one with an unusual history that seems to have a strange pull over any observer. Theo has placed it in a dark section of the wall in his rooms where it sits in shadow until someone comes along and looks at it. Then it is hard to ignore. A lingering gaze reveals fresh depths to the picture, which is a city scene of Venice during Carnevale. People mill about in the street, hanging over balconies, sitting in gondolas--all revelling in the decadence of the season. Theo tells Oliver how the painting seemed to come alive after he had had it cleaned.
"But now, it was only one person, one figure which caught my eye and stood out from the rest, and although he was near the front of the picture, I did not think I had noticed the man before. He was not looking at the lagoon or the boats, but rather away from them and the scene--he seemed in fact, to be looking at me, and into this room."
Although of the period the man is not dressed for the festivities and seems if anything quite plain and out of place. Two of the revellers seem to have him gripped by the arms and are leading him away, pulling him further into the painting. And on his face is a look of fear and astonishment.
Oliver tells us the story that his tutor recounts to him, and it is this secondary story within this framing device that is so chilling. After Theo had owned the picture for many years, a photo of him sitting in front of it happened to appear in a magazine prompting a letter from a wealthy and elderly Countess who once owned the painting. She implores Theo to sell it back to her. She tells him to name his price, she will pay anything at all to get it back. Strangely, though Theo had always thought it a dark and curious painting, one he never especially cared for, he all of a sudden cannot imagine letting it go. Once again the painting seems to exude a strange pull towards whoever gazes upon it.
The Countess once owned the painting and it is her story--how she came around to owning it--that explains the man in it and what he means and what he fears. It's her story that really draws the reader in and elicits the chills and spine tingles. A painting that Theo might normally have had few qualms of getting rid of won't allow him to turn away from it. And there is always a price to pay with this painting.
Venice, as always, makes a wonderfully atmospheric backdrop. Like a subject in a painting that seems to follow the 'viewer' with his eyes wherever he walks, this story too, has a mesmerizing quality to it. It's not scary in a conventional way, but quite subtly has its share of chills and thrills. I must look for more of Susan Hill's ghost stories (maybe one for Christmas? For some strange reason ghost stories always seem to be appropriate at holidaytime).
That's my first RIP read down. I am reading Wilkie Collins's The Haunted Hotel and Other Stories a the moment and contemplating which book to pick up next. If you enjoy a good ghost story, Susan Hill's The Man in the Picture is most definitely worth a read.