Susan Hill's novel, The Mist in the Mirror, is the story of gentleman adventurer James Monmouth, who becomes obsessed with the exploits of one Conrad Vane, whose dark secrets beckon Monmouth onward to more and more intense research into his own connections with the mysterious explorer who has inspired our protagonist's travels. A simple enough plot, but in the end it's horrifying in an unexpected way.
Most people think of the ghost story as popcorn lit -- something you consume not for substance or sustenance, but as a light snack, an aperitif to some literary main course. But the idea of the restless shade is ancient; the first ghostly apparitions appeared as far back as the Odyssey and the Old Testament. Literary scholar Jack Sullivan delineates a golden age of the ghost story occurring between the 1830s to the 1910s in his 1978 treatise on the topic, Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story from Le Fanu to Blackwood.
M.R. James, who some critics maintain wrote the most influential ghost story canon of the 20th century, cites professor Frank Coffman in "Some Remarks on the Ghost Stories". The five definitive features of English ghost stories are:
- the pretense of truth: the story is presented as the rational narration of a credible individual
- a level of fear that leads the protagonist forward instead of making him flee: "a pleasing terror"
- an absence of gratuitous elements, e.g., bloodshed, sex, sensational plot devices
- no "explanation of the machinery" -- the mystery of how a ghost exists is never explicated
- a contemporary setting: the writer's story is set in his own era
From Hamlet to The Ring, the idea of restless spirits and unfinished business is a mainstay of literature. Hill's haunting stories are plotted simply, with subtle language and detailing that makes the resolution of her stories all the more frightening.
The Mist in the Mirror, by Susan Hill
February 2014 reprint, originally published 2011.