Map of Blue Book Balloon

12 December 2016

Review - The Travelling Bag by Susan Hill

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The Travelling Bag
Susan Hill
Profile, 29 September 2016
HB, 183pp
Source: bought from my local independent bookshop

From the foggy streets of Victorian London to the eerie perfection of 1950s suburbia, the everyday is invaded by the evil otherworldly in this unforgettable collection of new ghost stories from the author of The Woman in Black... 

I look forward to Hill's ghost stories, the more so because you can never be quite sure when or if they will appear. So it was great to see this in the bookshop and I snapped it up. Then, blogging being what it is, I didn't manage to read it until last week when we were staying in a B&B for the night while Son did a university interview. That slight sense of dislocation - being in a strange place at a strange time - makes one more receptive to ghost stories, I find, as does reading them while travelling. And there is much here to thrill and chill.

There are four stories in the book. My favourite was the last one, The Front Room. A married couple living in an anonymous town hear an inspiring sermon in church and decide to invite the husband's widowed stepmother to stay - despite the almost palpable loathing she seems to have for them. It's a grand, generous act but, of course, no good deed ever goes unrewarded and horror soon follows.

Hill excels here in creating a palpable sense not just of menace and evil but of almost tangible (tasteable?) hatred - bearing comparison to her best known ghost story, The Woman in Black. This is buttressed by the sheer physicality of the writing - the bad smell which accompanies the haunting, the use of lights and shadows.

Truly a story that will stay with me.

Boy Twenty-One is a strange story, more unsettling than scary, almost an exercise in "spot the ghost" (if, indeed, as the events are narrated, there was a ghost - I'm not sure). A young boy with a tragic background finds sanctuary at boarding school where he meets and becomes close friends with another who is also grieving. Events play out, though it's left studiedly vague exactly how we get to the point where the story's framing narrative begins - one senses something lurking just out of sight, some event or perspective that's being withheld - but by who, and why?

Alice Baker is set in a modern office, albeit one located in a decaying building. Again Hill uses all the senses to convey what's going on, and creates a subtle menace and rising tension. Again she leaves the reader with a question: just what really happened? There's less sense perhaps of malevolence than in The Front Room, but - and maybe this is worse - instead is a miasma of despair, of hopelessness - worse because one can't ascribe it to evil or see a purpose in it.

All of these stories worked for me, though in very different ways. The remaining story, The Travelling Bag itself as it were, I found much less effective. I'm not sure why. The trappings are all there - a London gentleman's club in its pomp, dark evenings, bright fires, two members sitting with the brandy and telling stories - of something that happened in that very club!

But somehow the story itself didn't quite do it for me. It all goes back to a rivalry between what seem two rather unlikeable doctors. Bad things are done and revenges are taken. However somehow - despite the solemnity with which the narrator (a paranormal detective) frames his story, taking an evening to ponder and recall it - it all seems a little flat. There are no real shocks or surprises and the supposedly horrifying finale just... wasn't. Worth reading, if only for the atmosphere, but don't make the error of judging this collection by the title story - the others are so much better.

So a fine collection on the whole, the three better stories easily justifying this book.

For more information about The Travelling Bag see here.

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