[13 February 2014]
Hidden rooms, the ghost of a little boy who wanders the cobblestone streets of London, a mysterious figure in black carrying a lantern: Susan Hill’s novel, The Mist in the Mirror, has all the makings of a classic Victorian ghost story. Originally published in 1992, the book has recently been re-released by Vintage in paperback.
Hill is not new to ghost stories; she has written several in her prolific career. Her most successful novel, The Woman in Black, about a ghostly woman haunting a small English town, was made into a play that has been running for over 20 years in London’s West End. The book was also adapted into a film, which was released in 2012, starring Daniel Radcliffe. The Mist in the Mirror shares The Woman in Black‘s supernatural atmosphere and gothic mood.
The novel is a story within a story, beginning with a young man at a gentlemen’s club, meeting up with a melancholy loner named Sir James Monmouth. When the subject among the men in the club turns to ghosts, Monmouth begins to act strange. Soon after he begs the young man to read a manuscript he has written and eventually has it delivered to him. The manuscript is Monmouth’s account of his brushes with the paranormal, and also the novel’s principle story.
After having lost both his parents at the age of five, Monmouth moves to Africa where he is raised by a man he merely refers to as his “guardian“. When his guardian dies, Monmouth begins to travel the world, visiting all the same places as Conrad Vane – a travel writer he idolized as a child. After years of travel, Monmouth decides to go back to England where he originated and further investigate Vane.
Once in London, Monmouth finds himself renting rooms in a number of boarding houses run by grumbling innkeepers. Around this time, he starts to see a pale boy with dark hair and “dark, anxious eyes”. The boy appears in windows, on streets, and in parks when Monmouth least expects it, and then vanishes as abruptly as he arrives. Monmouth even hears him crying through walls, but can never reach him.
Meanwhile, as he delves further into Conrad Vane’s life via books in the library of the college Vane once attended, Monmouth finds his hero was not as genteel as he once seemed. Apparently he dabbled in the black arts and had something to do with the boy that Monmouth keeps seeing. Additionally, various people warn him against following Vane’s path.
Monmouth eventually winds up amid the wintery moors of Yorkeshire in a rundown mansion called Kittiscar. Here, he learns from a dying old woman the answers to the mystery he’s been trying to solve. While he may feel fulfilled in the answers he receives, there are a lot of unanswered questions that I was left pondering. Personally, I like a bit of mystery at the end of a book and having to fill in the blanks myself so it wasn’t a problem. However, this could be off-putting to readers who like their mysteries solved by the end of a book.
There are places in the book where I found myself really having to suspend belief. For example, it becomes unseemly that so many people would just hint at why Monmouth shouldn’t follow in Vane’s footsteps. He is continually warned against doing so, but no one will come out and say exactly why he shouldn’t do it and Monmouth never asks. I began to think his dissuaders would befall some terrible fate or fall under some curse if they spoke of Vane, but this never proves to be the case.
Another detail left to the imagination is when the story actually takes place. It feels like it could be mid- or late 19th century, with all the dark winding alleys filled with vagabonds and all the boarding houses teaming with servants. However, Monmouth travels by train and there is mention of “traffic“ and even a cab and a Bentley, which could place the story in the early 20th century.
As she proved in The Woman in Black, one of Hill’s greatest strengths is her ability to create an absorbing setting and atmosphere. Her portrait of England with its bleak, rain-soaked streets, windswept moors, and crumbling English manors is hypnotic. Hill managed to pull off the literary trick of taking me completely out of my surroundings and transporting me to the place I’m reading about.
Despite the book’s dark setting and spooky happenings, surprisingly I got an underlying mood of serenity and warmth from it. Perhaps all the fires Monmouth warms himself by or the blankets people continually heap upon him generated the feeling. It seems he’s often drinking something hot or settling into a toasty, comfortable space after fighting the elements and things that go bump in the night.
This is not to say the book isn’t spooky. Hill is excellent at giving her readers a chill. Like The Woman in Black, this book is creepy in a quiet, understated way. Monmouth spends a lot of time wandering along the Thames at night and through the dark alleys of London, bumping into wraithlike figures and dark characters. A few times an “unseen, unknown presence or force“ grips him and momentarily paralyzes him. It’s all the things readers can’t see or must leave up to their imaginations that make the book so eerie.
The Mist in the Mirror is a gripping read in spite of the plot’s holes and unanswered questions (what was the mist in the mirror?). It was hard to put the book down, and when I did, I wanted to brew a cup of tea, wrap up in a blanket, and read another ghost story by Susan Hill.