Halloween Read: Two by Susan Hill

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The Man in the Picture and The Small Hand today on a ghost story double feature!

Both of these tales are little gems of revenge from beyond the grave.  In The Man in the Picture, a mysterious painting of a Venetian scene becomes a tool for malice.  And in The Small Hand, a ghost reaches out of the past and quite literally touches someone.

Hill has a very elegant but spare style that suits these stories well.  Both employ lots of wonderful tension-building and atmosphere, and a fantastic sense of the strange and foreboding.  They’re slim stories, and Hill manages to pack a lot into a small frame in each one.

There’s a sort of dusty old feel to these, as if you’ve uncovered a box in an attic with a lot of forgotten, oddball items inside.  And then those items somehow unleash the supernatural on you.

Pick these stories up this October if you like barely-there scares and old-fashioned strange tales.  They’re straightforward ghost stories with some elegant layering, perfect for an afternoon during the witching season.

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Marie’s Reading: “Burntown” by Jennifer McMahon

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BurntownJennifer McMahon’s latest, Burntown, feels like a return to her classic form after The Winter People  and The Night Sister.  It’s an intricate mystery with just the hint of the supernatural around the edges, filled with well-drawn characters and well-crafted scenes.  And the writing is compelling as ever.

This time, the supernatural comes in the form of speaking to the dead and having visions.  The reality of both, in the narrative, is taken as a matter of course–but the reader can decide how much the characters themselves inform what they believe they see and hear.

The story is this:  Eva’s father is professor named Miles, who as a child witnessed his mother’s murder.  He is an inventor who builds a machine which can supposedly allow people to talk to the dead, based on plans smuggled out of Thomas Edison’s laboratory.  One night there’s a terrible storm and flood, and only Eva and her mother escape alive.  But from there the two of them live on the streets.  Eva doesn’t remember anything about what happened to her father and her brother, Errol.  After her mother’s apparent suicide, Eva is left alone.  And then, in a series of violent ways, her mysterious past starts to catch up with her.

Two other characters’ paths cross with Eva’s eventually.  There’s Theo, a high school senior who has been selling drugs to please her girlfriend.  There’s also Pru, the overweight cafeteria worker at Theo’s school who has dreams of the circus.  Those are the primary players, but there’s a web of relationships in this Vermont town.  The intricacies of their relationships and the unexpected ways they all connect and influence each other is nicely done.

The setting, a down-on-its-heels mill town in Vermont (those on the street call it “Burntown”), feels very realistic if you’re familiar with broken-down mill towns in northern New England.  McMahon sets many of her novels in Vermont, and she’s got a gift for painting a picture of the landscapes and people, both good and bad.  There’s a very strong atmosphere and sense of place in her books.  In Burntown, you always have the feel of being in a ruin, in the underbelly.  Sometimes literally, as when the story focuses on a group of women who live under a bridge and claim to have visions.

I always enjoy the people in McMahon’s books, particularly their motivations.  She can craft characters who seem very real, whose desires and impulses and secrets ring true.  In this story I particularly enjoyed Pru, with her outsize fantasies and her happy ending.

The ending to Burntown, if not entirely happy, is at least hopeful.  It ends with a wonderful image that, to me, summed up the book very well.  The climax and reveal of the mystery wasn’t a huge twist or anything, but it rang true.  But then, this is more a story of the strange than it is a thriller, so it works.

If you’ve read and enjoyed McMahon’s books in the past, definitely check this out.   And I’m always reminded of Sarah Waters when I read McMahon’s work.  If you like Burntown, you might enjoy The Night Watch, for the intricate relationships between characters and the setting, London during the Blitz, as well as the compelling writing and great characters.

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “All Things Cease to Appear” by Elizabeth Brundage

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all-things-cease-to-appear-1Quick one for today, post-gorgeous holiday weekend.  It’s a blend of suspense, mystery, ghost story, and family story told with rich prose and a haunting tone–All Things Cease to Appear by Elizabeth Brundage.

At the beginning of the story, George Clare finds his wife murdered in their old farmhouse in upstate New York.  He’s the immediate suspect, but his parents manage to bail him out, and the police can’t get enough evidence to bring a case against him.

From there, the story goes back in time to show the backstory of the Clares and the story of their marriage, and how the murder is just the latest crime in a string of them.  We also learn the story of the Hales, who owned the farm before the Clares moved in.  Soon the story shifts to more of a “how-dunnit” than a “who-dunnit,” blending with the story of a poor small town and the people who try to survive there.  There’s also just a hint of the supernatural, but just enough to add another dimension to the story and characters.

The sense of place and the atmosphere is wonderfully evocative–the whole book feels cold, a little desperate, a little bleak.  The intense moments sneak up on you.  This is a very rich, well-crafted story, with strong characters and a good dose of atmosphere.  The pace is slow, but the characters and the mystery keep the story going.

If you enjoy the Dublin Murder Squad books by Tana French, or the slightly-otherworldly intricate suspense of Jennifer McMahon, give this one a try!

–Marie