The Mist in the Mirror, by Susan Hill

mist mirror

Susan Hill’s ghost story features some familiar components.  There is a person who is possibly being haunted – but by ghosts or his imagination?  It has a dreary winter setting in which many of the people might as well be ghosts, for all the life they have in them.  The rain only stops when it begins to snow, and the only refuges from the uncaring world are either an elegant country mansion or a comfortable gentlemen’s club with roaring fires in Pall Mall.  The use of a frame for the main story is also a familiar technique.  All the elements are present for a tale of dark creepiness.

An elderly gentleman, James Monmouth, gives an autobiographical manuscript to an acquaintance at the club.  This we read, the acquaintance topping and tailing the manuscript which forms the bulk of the narrative.  After his parents died when he was five, Monmouth had spent his early years travelling abroad, firstly with his guardian, and then from the age of 17, after his guardian’s death, on his own.  Monmouth knows nothing of his origins, without even his birth certificate to tell him who his parent were and where he came from.

At the age of 40 he returns to England on impulse, to settle and research an earlier traveller who had inspired some of his journeys and with whom he has become obsessed, Conrad Vane.  But people who have information about Vane are reluctant to share it, and Monmouth becomes increasingly disturbed by their innuendos.  There is obviously more to Vane than Monmouth had first thought, but oblique attempts to discourage him only serve to increase his determination to discover the facts, especially when he discovers that Vane and his forgotten childhood may have a connection.  Meanwhile he repeatedly sees a young boy, poorly dressed and seemingly in distress, who keeps popping up and unnerving him.  He perseveres with his investigation, but the more he uncovers, the more disturbing he finds the truth to be.

It’s a lean book with a lean storyline.  The tone is convincing, and you can feel the dense atmosphere of London and the steely sharpness of the Yorkshire moors.  Modern writers are often tempted to pile on the urban squalor in period tales, but this is a restrained account of a capital stranger to Monmouth than the cities of the Far East in which he has lived for much of his life.  The major characters are well drawn too, but the minor ones often less so, and Monmouth’s interactions with them feel creaky at times.  He tracks down those who might have information on Vane, and they prove unhelpful, but in an odd way, because they will agree to see him and then refuse to tell him anything.  He visit’s a publisher/bookseller who first gives him lunch, and then annoyingly dark warnings to lay off the quest.   He visits a school to do research, but once there is met with a reluctance to facilitate his investigation.  Why on earth do these people invite him then?  It’s bound to whet his appetite.

The structure is odd as well. When he finds a reference to a place, Kittiscar in Yorkshire, that appears to be key to the entire mystery, instead of jumping on the next train, he goes off to visit people for Christmas, and doesn’t even bother to look Kittiscar up in an atlas; he only gets really excited when someone mentions it by chance during a meal.  His visit happens later, when it can form a climax.  There are also odd threads that are not integrated.  Who is the old gypsy woman, a ghost or a memory?  What did the malevolent parrot have against him exactly?  The ending feels underpowered and the root cause of Monmouth’s persecution so underexplained that it feels lazy, as if Hill really couldn’t be bothered to come up with anything stronger to tie it all together.

The story’s time period is set is hard to pin down.  The foggy Victorian ambience is reinforced by the cover illustration on the edition I read, a detail from John Atkinson Grimshaw’s evocative 1880 Silver Moonlight.  However, one character (still of working age) mentions having been a soldier in South Africa and France, and Monmouth is collected from the station by car rather than pony and trap, all of which suggests 1920s or 30s.  As Monmouth is describing events set forty years before the writing of his manuscript, that would make the present of the frame at least the 1960s or 70s.  The country house that was so tastefully decorated in Monmouth’s narrative has subsequently been modified in a spectacularly vulgar way, which is in tune with the post-1950s emphasis on ‘improvements’ that often weren’t.  Yet the two periods feel the same; there is even a reference in the frame to lamps being lit at the club, which feels like it belongs to a much earlier period.  Perhaps this obfuscation is deliberate, to convey a sense of timelessness, but it feels like muddle.

The Mist in the Mirror evokes writers such as M. R. James, Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (there is a moment where the narrator sees a  mysterious figure across a lake which seems to have been lifted straight from Henry James’ masterpiece), even Hill’s own The Woman in Black, but the comparisons are not to this book’s advantage.  Hill is good at conveying unease, but here leaves the impression that it is a story we have heard before.  You might call it atmosphere in search of a decent plot.

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