The Mist in the Mirror: This ghost story didn’t quite live up to the hype

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Mist in the Mirror by Susan HillThe Mist in the Mirror: A Ghost Story by Susan Hill

The beginning of The Mist in the Mirror is lovely, evocative of turn-of-the century London and the surrounding English countryside. I felt like Susan Hill had been there and merely transcribed her experiences:

It was early afternoon but already the light was fading and darkness drawing in. A chill wind sneaked down alleyways and passages off the river. The houses were grimy, shiny and black-roofed with rain, mean and poor and ugly, and regularly interspersed with more, looming, sheds. The air was filled with the hooting of tugs and a plaintive siren, and there was the constant thump of boxes onto the wharves.

If that doesn’t set the mood for you, then nothing surely will.

All of the required spooky set pieces are on full display in this tale: a pale, dirty boy of roughly thirteen years who appears when there is trouble and vanishes without a trace; a middle-aged man who has tired of life in the British Empire’s furthest reaches, and who has returned to England in an effort to find new purpose; constant warnings from strangers to “leave be,” “be wary,” and “go back;” the slow reveal of a horrible curse, paired with a once-revered hero’s nefarious secret; there’s even a parrot-bearing gypsy woman who may or may not warn of something more sinister.

The narrator of The Mist in the Mirror is Sir James Monmouth, whose tale begins as a simple attempt to write a biography of his boyhood hero, the famous adventurer Conrad Vane. Events rapidly become strange beyond all reason, and Monmouth is given several chances to abandon his quest for knowledge, but consistently refuses. He knows he could save himself — though he never thinks of it that way — but the compulsion to learn more goads him onward. It wouldn’t be a proper ghost story without free will leading someone merrily into Hell, would it?

It is evil of which I speak, Monmouth, wickedness, things best left concealed, undisturbed. Whoever is touched by Vane suffers.

Unfortunately, multi-generational curses that ensnare members of a family and drive them to doom are only interesting if we’re told what the purpose is of tormenting these people. If Hill doesn’t tell the reader why or how this has been going on for hundreds of years, then it’s difficult to care whether anyone escapes. The creepy “house upon the moors” touted in the blurb is not actually seen by Monmouth until page 162, and the story’s big reveal was more confusing than illuminating or satisfying. My edition of The Mist in the Mirror doesn’t seem to be missing any important paragraphs of information, so I can only guess that this is the ending that Hill intended.

Other than creating a nifty book title, I couldn’t discern any purpose for the mirror. Was it meant to show the future, or perhaps a certain man’s fate? Furthermore, the mirror’s eventual resting place is far too convenient for my liking. It seemed like more of an effort to create a deliberate twist than a logical, organic ending — one which already existed, just two pages prior.

Overall, I felt that this ghost story didn’t live up to the hype. Hill’s superb gift with atmosphere and description weren’t enough to salvage the vague ending of The Mist in the Mirror, though they did make for a satisfactory way to spend a few hours. I’m intrigued enough to consider reading more of her work, though I won’t consider them to be impulse-buy material.

Published in 1992. A chilling, classically-inspired ghost story from Susan Hill, our reigning mistress of spine-tingling fiction. For the last twenty years Sir James Monmouth has journeyed all over the globe in the footsteps of his hero, the great pioneering traveler Conrad Vane. In an effort to learn more about Vane’s early life—and his own—Sir James sets off for the remote Kittiscar Hall on a cold and rainy winter night. But he soon begins to feel as though something is warning him away at every turn; there are the intense feelings of being watched and the strange apparitions of a sad little boy. And as he learns more about his hero’s past, he discovers that they are only the beginning, for Kittiscar Hall is hiding terrible secret that will bind their lives together in ways he could never have imagined.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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6 comments

  1. I’m never usually one to pick up a ghost story but I love a bit of evocative description, especially when London’s involved. Though I wonder what the deal with the useless mirror is…

    • You and me both, sadly. I even asked a friend of mine to read the book, just in case I’d completely missed an important detail, and my friend was just as confused by the ending as I was.

      • Is it a first novel? Maybe this is a writer who is still learning to juggle all the elements.

        And some mornings I *wish* my mirror was misty.

        • Unfortunately, it’s not her first novel–Hill had been writing and publishing her work for about thirty years before The Mist in the Mirror came out in 1992.

          • Oh, well, maybe it’s just a miss then. That does happen. [Ponders pun including “miss” and “mist…]

            [Gives up attempt.]

  2. Years ago, I read and loved “I am the king of the castle” and “The bird of night”. I can’t recall the plots well enough to say if these books would fit for Horrible monday or The edge but the prose is evocative and the characters sound just and weird.

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