The Small Hand: I’m giving it a big hand

The Small Hand by Susan Hill horror book reviewsThe Small Hand by Susan Hill horror book reviewsThe Small Hand by Susan Hill

Susan Hill’s first ghost novel, 1983’s The Woman in Black, had recently surprised this reader by being one of the scariest modern-day horror outings that I’ve run across in years. Thus, I decided to see if lightning could possibly strike twice, and picked up her more-recent The Small Hand (2010). This latter title is the fourth of Ms. Hill’s five ghost novels to date, following The Mist in the Mirror (1992) and The Man in the Picture (2007), and preceding her recent Dolly (2012). The Small Hand was Hill’s 24th novel overall since her first one, The Enclosure, was released in 1961, when the author was only 19 years old.

Unlike The Woman in Black, which was a period piece that took place in what the reader must infer was the early 20th century, The Small Hand is set in modern times, and its inclusion of such words as “Internet” and “e-mail” may strike the many fans of that earlier work as a bit jarring. The latter novel is not nearly as spine-chilling as the earlier book had been (but then again, few novels ever do attain to that level of shuddery terror), but yet remains a most gripping and at times truly eerie exercise. And sadly, both books end on a tragic note, making the events that had come before all the more horrible, indeed.

In The Small Hand, our narrator is a middle-aged (one assumes) man named Adam Snow, whose occupation will strike most bibliophiles as one to be envied; as he puts it, he is “a dealer in antiquarian books and manuscripts.” While driving home to London from one of his wealthy clients in Sussex, Snow finds himself lost on a lonely back road and comes upon a deserted old house, adjacent to the overgrown remains of what had once been a world-renowned, showplace garden. While walking through the forlorn and dreary grounds, Snow is startled to feel a child’s hand press into his own … although no one seems to be in the vicinity!

Over the next few weeks, the gentle clutch of the child’s hand returns ever and again, but Snow is now aware that the grip has become more insistent, and indeed, is even trying to pull him into park fountains. On a trip to France to acquire a rare Shakespearian First Folio from a group of mountain-dwelling, cloistered monks, the ghostly image of a boy almost causes Snow to wreck his car during a thunderstorm, after which the invisible hand practically pulls him off a precipice! And at the cloister itself, the face of a young boy looks at Adam from beneath the waters of one of the courtyard fountains. Thus, it is with an ever-mounting sense of panic that our good book dealer decides to return to the abandoned home and try to riddle things out. The abode was once called the White House, he had recently learned, and its sole living occupant turns out to be almost as frightening a proposition as the White House occupant we currently have here in the United States! But even this living relic of a bygone age cannot fully explain Adam’s problem of the small, ghostly hand…

Like so many spook stories that have come before, The Small Hand does not bother to fully clarify all its spectral occurrences to the reader; just enough to make us understand why the ghost of a young boy might be doing what he’s doing. Whether Adam was specially chosen for the ghost’s attention, or Snow’s advent at the house was merely a coincidence, is left up to the reader to decide. And yes, I am trying to be coy here, so as not to spoil any of the book’s surprises, of which there are several. Hill ratchets up the suspense quotient in her story nicely, and adroitly spaces her scarier moments for maximum effect. She is an immensely readable author who writes simply yet effectively, and who has that rare gift of being able to evoke atmosphere and clear-cut images with little excess verbiage.

Besides Snow, who is a charming and sympathetic narrator, Ms. Hill provides us with some other interesting characters: Adam’s brother, Hugo, who lives in Suffolk with his Danish wife, and who had, many years earlier, also suffered with a compulsive mental problem or sorts; the kindly monks of the St. Mathieu des Etoiles monastery; Fergus McCreedy, Adam’s librarian friend at Oxford; and Sir Edgar Merriman (the magnificently wealthy book collector in Sussex) and his wife, Alice. Hill’s novel is replete with any number of memorable scenes (I’ve already mentioned that stormy road in the Vercors Mountains, the monastery fountain, the meeting with the White House occupant), but equally compelling is the book’s final section, culminating in the aforementioned tragedy. The Small Hand is a short, compulsively readable novel that most readers will probably feel the need to gulp down in a sitting or two; preferably on an autumn night, with rain pattering on the windowpanes…

I might add that the author, besides making the occupation of being a book procurer seem an exotic and desirable one (during the course of a few months, Adam flies to New York several times, as well as France, San Francisco, North Carolina, Munich, Berlin and Rome in his pursuit of rare volumes), evinces a great knowledge of the world of books, of Oxford, and of rare works in general. Whether Ms. Hill has done laborious research or has come upon this knowledge naturally (I suspect the latter), I don’t know, but she sure does seem familiar with the Kelmscott Press (of William Morris), First Folios, libraries (the Bodleian and Duke Humfrey Libraries in Oxford, Dr. Williams’s Library in London, the Huntington Library in California), medieval writers (such as Aelfric, and Gilbert of Hoyland), psalters and so on.

I could only detect one flaw in Ms. Hill’s work here, actually, and that is when Hugo, late in the book, seems to know all about Adam’s experiences with the ghostly hand. However, much earlier, Adam had clearly stated that he’d mentioned all his problems, except that of the small hand, to his brother. But other than this one minor flub, The Small Hand is a very impressive piece of writing, for which I am personally giving (you will forgive me) a big hand.

But to tell the truth, I would applaud this book for two lines in it alone, which Adam delivers early on, in the second chapter. As a book collector myself, and one who finds it almost impossible to get rid of any of my precious volumes, these lines of Adam’s really spoke to me: “My resolution every New Year is to halve the number of books I have and every year I fail to keep it. For every dozen I sell or give away, I buy twenty more…” Adam, I feel your pain … just like you felt the touch of a child’s ghostly and invisible hand…

Published in 2010. Late one summer evening, antiquarian bookseller Adam Snow is returning from a client visit when he takes a wrong turn. He stumbles across a derelict Edwardian house, and compelled by curiosity, approaches the door. Standing before the entrance, he feels the unmistakable sensation of a small cold hand creeping into his own, ‘as if a child had taken hold of it’. At first he is merely puzzled by the odd incident but then begins to suffer attacks of fear and panic, and is visited by nightmares. He is determined to learn more ‘about the house and its once-magnificent, now overgrown garden but when he does so, he receives further, increasingly sinister, visits from the small hand.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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2 comments

  1. Sandy, you make this sound intriguing and wonderful, and just right for the season. I’ll have to get it.

    I have to say, even without having read earlier work, that cover leads me to think “period piece.” It’s beautiful, it just has that vibe.

    • Sandy Ferber /

      Hope you enjoy this one as much as I did, Marion, but again, for REAL shivers, I’d go with “The Woman in Black”….

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