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I used to read a lot of horror stories when I was younger but lost interest in them for a long while. I've only recently rediscovered the genre and whilst I was browsing in my local library I found this intriguing ghost story called 'Mist in The Mirror' by Susan Hill. I was unfamiliar with the author but I really liked the title of the novel as it was quite creepy and mysterious!
First published in 1992 this is a rather short novel by writer Susan Hill. I had never heard of the author before but when I read the insert inside the books sleeve it said that she also wrote 'The Woman In Black' which is undoubtedly her most famous work and which is credited as being one of the scariest ghost stories ever conceived!
Mist In The Mirror focuses on a man called James Monmouth who returns to England, where he was born, after years of having lived and adventured abroad. Monmouth's return is based on his ambition to chronicle the life another famous traveller called Conrad Vane whom has been a massive influence and inspiration in his life. Soon after arriving on English shores Monmouth begins to feel haunted and his investigations into the enigmatic Conrad Vane take an unexpected turn.
I found this novel very easy to read and often had to force myself to close the book or I would have read for hours on end! The writing style is pleasing to me as it's quite simple, not too verbose or complex. It sort of feels like you are being lulled gently into the story which perhaps an old uncle is reading aloud to you! I love how often Hill uses descriptions of the environment and the weather to create atmosphere in the story. She's an expert at describing scenes without wasting one word so that we are quickly drawn into this ghostly, oppressive vision.
Throughout the story there is a sense of uneasiness, tension and the skin-creeping sensations that hauntings generate. This is partly due to the rather lonely figure of the protagonist and his sense of sadness and confusion throughout the story. I did find Monmouth to be a very likeable narrator and I was very much interested in what his fate might be.
I would describe this novel as a rather old fashioned sort of ghost story. This refers to the era in which the novel is set as well as the style in which it is written. It's definitely a gentle and chilling ghost story rather than something that sickens or frightens with gore. I did feel unsettled throughout although I did feel certain scenes are repeated too many times in the first half of the novel so that the initial horror of the situation wears off somewhat.
The plot quickens towards the end of the novel and the conclusion is fairly satisfying although I would have liked a little more drama and action here too. One thing that I noticed was the title of the novel is really rather irrelevant to anything at all. It almost feels like the references to misty mirrors in the novel are inserted to fit the novel's title, rather than having any deep relevance to the story. There are also a few loose ends to the tale that are never fully resolved.
Ultimately I found this enjoyable and engaging though and I would recommend it to anyone who likes gentle and yet psychologically disturbing ghost stories as well as older literature. I did get the sense when reading this that it had been written in the 19th century rather than by a modern author. It felt very authentic. I would not call it a classic novel or ghost story but it is a good novel nonetheless.
Describing something as "old-fashioned" can be a good or a bad thing. Old-fashioned can mean "fusty" "outdated" or "old"; or it can simply mean that it is evocative of a particular period in history. When describing The Mist in the Mirror as an "old-fashioned ghost story" it is very much this second definition which should be borne in mind.
Taking its tone and style from the ghost stories beloved of Victorian authors, The Mist in the Mirror examines the life of Sir James Conway, a man with a past in shrouded in mystery. Brought up in Africa after the death of his English parents, Conway spent 20 years following in the footsteps of Conrad Vane, a renowned explorer. When he eventually travels to England, he uncovers some unsettling truths about his past and appears to be haunted by the tormented spirit of a young boy.
Unlike many modern horror writers, author Susan Hill doesn't feel the need to fill the book with gore, violence or cheap scares. Instead, the book thrives on atmosphere. It is not a particularly scary book in the sense that it will make you afraid of the dark (the reviewer from the Telegraph quoted as saying it is "thoroughly frightening" must be of a particularly nervous disposition). However, it is an effective and atmospheric tale. It feels like the sort of mildly unsettling ghost tale that should be told in front of a roaring fire. It fascinates and is creepy but it's not frightening.
That early 20th century ghost story is exactly what Hill is aiming for. The setting and language capture the tone of early late 19th/early 20th century works, evoking the novels of Bram Stoker or Arthur Conan Doyle. Without going into massive amounts of descriptions, she re-creates Victorian London in a way which is both recognisable and suitably spooky. The slightly flowery language is reminiscent of the style of the Gothic Victorian writers without becoming impenetrable for the modern reader.
The Mist in the Mirror is very much a slow burner and anyone expecting lots of plot twists and scares is likely to be disappointed. Instead, it's a book about layers. As the narrator slowly discovers a little more so we, too, come to realise that not all is what it seems. As new facts come to light, they shed more light on Conway's past and why he appears to be being haunted. This gradual revelation makes for interesting reading.
So, why only three stars? Well, despite authenticity, the book is rather staid for modern eyes. Yes, it's atmospheric, but there were more than a few occasions when I felt it was simply slow, rather than slow-burning. Elements of it are also rather obvious and it will not surprise anyone who is familiar with the conventions of ghost stories. That said, it's not meant to be particularly innovative - it is an exercise in re-creating a Victorian ghost tale; and in that it is very successful.
The main disappointment is the ending which rather fizzles out leaving an awful lot of questions unanswered. After the slow pace of the rest of the book, it appears rather hurried, wrapping everything up in around 30 pages and not really addressing one of the most crucial links in the whole book. In particular, the reasons for Conway's fascination with the explorer Vane and the darker elements hinted at elsewhere are brushed away in very desultory fashion, leading to a slightly unfinished, unsatisfactory feel.
The Mist in the Mirror is one of those little oddities that probably would have sunk without trace had it not been penned by Susan Hill. I wouldn't say it's essential, but neither will you regret reading it. It's a good old-fashioned atmospheric ghost tale that will pass a few hours. It's a pleasant and easy enough read, but it's not a book I'm ever likely to read again.
Bizarrely, although originally published in 1991, a new edition (published 2012) is still quite expensive -around £5 in both hardback and Kindle format. I'd say that's actually quite a lot for a book that, in reality, you are only like to read once and I'd recommend keeping an eye out for a (cheaper) earlier edition or picking up a second hand copy for a couple of pounds.
The Mist in the Mirror
© copyright SWSt 2013
This book has a great cover. Judge it by its cover!
I remember this tale with affection for its sheer atmosphere seen through a quaint, 19th century style of writing but which adds to the vivid and absorbing quality. Her writing is always vivid and dark, and this is a tale in the old sense.
It reminded me of the Polanski film The Ninth Gate, where curiosity leads us into an ultimate trap....It is a good old-fashioned ghost story, particular and yet elusive; vaguely compelling but it is not frightening. However, it is well-crafted to a point where the mystery that so unfolds can be ultimately estimated or deduced.
The manipulating evil of a man lays a curse that befells all who look into a mirror? A meticulous and absorbing account of changing temperaments......
We are led on to where there is the usual brand of Hill darkness, elusive but chilling and real. An adventure by someone who seeks to reveal his own past....A dark tale that lingers......
The night on which Sir James Monmouth returns to England from Penang is not auspicious. The Cross Keys Inn provides shelter from the chill wind and rain, but it offers few comforts. The pale boy, the old woman and the mist in the mirror - do they have any reality beyond Monmouth's imagination?