I read The Woman in Black last year, and it was easily one of the scariest ghost stories I have ever experienced – it was beautifully, masterfully written, and it left me with chills. I often read in bed at night, and I rate scary stories on how keen I am to leave my room and walk down the dark corridor to the toilet before I go to sleep. After finishing The Woman in Black I wasn’t quite brave enough to leave the safety of my duvet despite the fact that I was absolutely bursting for a wee. I just knew that if I was to set foot outside my bedroom she would be there, waiting for me…
That’s the power of a good ghost story. It totally seeps out of the pages and becomes real in your own world. A good ghost story is like the Grudge – it’s a contagious haunting. Those ghosts totally know who you are and don’t leave you alone. It’s terrifying, but it’s exhilarating too. It’s why we read them. And I was so hoping that The Mist in the Mirror (which was a Christmas pressie from my Mum, thanks Mum!) would have the same bladder-splitting, spine-chilling effect on me.
For a while, it did. It tells the story (well, the story within a story, as the book is told by a narrator reading Monmouth’s account of events) of Sir James Monmouth who, after spending almost all of his life abroad, returns to England. He intends to write an account of the explorer Conrad Vane, the man who inspired his travels, but the more he delves into Vane’s life the more dark secrets he uncovers about the man’s exploits – and the more he learns about his own forgotten childhood. The two are mysteriously intertwined.
There’s absolutely no doubt that Susan Hill is capable of spinning a fantastic tale. Her gothic style is brilliantly authentic. The world she describes is a world lost, but it feels so real. You’re right there in the heart of it. She is also a genius at creating atmosphere, permeating her words with a palpable sense of dread. There are moments of horror in this book, passages that literally leave you with a cold sweat. And it’s not always the obvious ones, either, the sightings of a ghostly, crying boy or the mist that swirls in the mirror. For some reason the passage in the book that chilled me the most was an apparently innocuous scene on a wooden bridge, and a flock of geese flying overhead. It was so real, so vivid, so imbued with atmosphere, that it gave me goosebumps (no pun intended).
It’s a great mystery, too. Conrad Vane is like a ghost himself in the sense that he dominates the story, and Monmouth’s life, even though he is long dead. The more Monmouth learns about him, the more imposing a figure he becomes. Hill really does keep us guessing about Vane, and about the explorer’s connection to the narrator’s own increasingly sinister childhood. It’s page-turning horror at its best.
Until suddenly you get to the end… And you realise that nothing has really been explained. Without wishing to give away any spoilers (which itself would be quite hard, considering how little is revealed), Monmouth’s investigations lead to a highly anticlimactic conclusion. It really does feel as if Hill had found her stride, built up towards a wonderful ending, then realised her favourite show was on the telly so finished with a couple of halfhearted explanations before rushing off to the sitting room. I finished the book and wondered if maybe I’d missed something, and it was only after checking other reviews that I realised I hadn’t. Who was the ghostly boy? Who was the spooky gypsy lady? What really did happen to Monmouth’s family? Nothing is truly answered. Worse still, the final scene in Monmouth’s story, which has the potential to be utterly terrifying, just peters out. It is so disappointing.
It’s maybe unfair to compare this to The Woman in Black, but it’s impossible not to. Whereas that book slowly charges up the atmosphere before releasing it in a brilliant, devastating ending, this one blows itself up then releases like a balloon, squeaking and whistling and farting itself to nothing. I finished it at about one in the morning last night, then happily got out of bed and went for a wee without the slightest trace of fear or anxiety. I didn’t even turn on the hall light. Such a shame!