A curious manuscript. The specter of a small child. Cold fevers. Unheeded warnings. Rain and a ubiquitous sense of gloom. That’s right, it’s a ghost story. The Mist in the Mirror, originally published by Susan Hill in 1992 and now available as a Vintage original, never strays far from convention, and while this is a bold choice, it is not altogether successful.
The tale begins, typically, with a chat about ghosts in a private club where gentlemen don’t take the matter of phantasms too seriously. Their collective attempt to pass the time telling ghost stories fails, and one of the company finally declares: “We had better leave the telling of them to the professionals.”
That would be Hill. Indeed, at times The Mist in the Mirror is as much a reflection on storytelling as it is on the supernatural; the characters are more likely to be found in libraries and old schoolyards than in crypts or dungeons, and when one of the gentlemen is sent a manuscript by a mysterious man from the club, he does what Hill clearly wants the reader to do:
“I settled into my chair, turning off all the lights save for one shaded lamp beside me. I suppose that I intended to read for an hour at most, expecting drowsiness to overtake me again, but I became so engrossed in the story that unfolded before me that I rapidly forgot all thought of the time, or my present surroundings.”
The manuscript tells the story of Sir James Monmouth. Monmouth has lived abroad all of his adult life, and he has little recollection of his childhood or his parents. When his guardian passes away, swept by the passion of youth, Monmouth travels in the footsteps of his hero, one Conrad Vane. His journeys take him to the Far East, to Africa. The name Conrad may or may not be an allusion to Joseph Conrad, but the story of Monmouth’s return to England in his middle years reads like the inverse of Heart of Darkness. In the most exotic locations, Monmouth was fine; it is in England where he suffers a sort of existential malaise.
“I had begun to feel that everywhere I went was a haunted place, and to wonder why I had such ill luck. I had never experienced these things in other countries—why was it in England that I felt observed, followed?”
As Hill’s novel unfolds, psychological explanations are eventually ruled out as explanations for Monmouth’s visual and olfactory experiences, many of which are beautifully described. It’s a pity that Hill does not explore the psychological aspects more than she does, because Monmouth is really doubly haunted: metaphysically, he is plagued by ghosts; existentially, he is beset with alienation and a middle age crisis in meaning.
Monmouth may be a British citizen, but a woman he meets on the train considers him “alone in a strange country”, takes pity on him, and invites him to spend Christmas with her husband and family. Monmouth too admits, “I was, I confess, still out of place in London and isolated too, without a home, family or friends… I needed a purpose, and exploration into the life of Vane was giving me one, for the time being.”
Yet, as Thomas Ligotti points out in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, all life is vain/Vane, and Monmouth struggles with the vanity of his existence.
“‘My future,’ I said blankly. I had no idea what that might be. Everything I had been planning, and the book I meant to write… seemed to be part of another life altogether. I wondered if any of it would ever interest me again, my mental powers seemed so debilitated. But if not that, then what? What purpose had I? I had none, and could not imagine what the future… might possibly be”.
Disappointingly, Hill never fully develops these existential themes. For want of meaning, Monmouth works, and researching Vane, he uncovers the mystery of his past and of the hauntings he has been experiencing.
The conclusion of The Mist in the Mirror, which I will not spoil, is a bit of a letdown, and even Hill seems to know it. When all is revealed, we are told that Monmouth feels a “depressed sense of anti-climax”, which is exactly what the reader feels. Not cheated, but disappointed.
Fans of the genre will find plenty to please them here, because horror fiction is not so dependent upon plot resolution. What makes for good horror, again according to Ligotti, is atmosphere: that is the horror writer’s signature—not plot, not character, but atmosphere. The horror writer shows us that “behind the scenes of life there is something pernicious that makes a nightmare of our world.”
In this regard, Hill shines like a black sun, depicting everyday life with a lugubrious hue that is somehow more honest and more reassuring than the world we live in. As an architect of atmosphere, Hill is well worth reading. Just don’t expect the unexpected.
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