Ideally spooky Halloween listening.... A chilling ghost story by the author of The Woman in Black.
One murky November evening, after a satisfying meal in their Fleet Street lodgings, a conversation between four medical students takes a curious turn, and Hugh is initiated into a dark secret. In the cellar of their narrow lodgings in Printer's Devil Court and a little used mortuary in a subterranean annex of the hospital, they have begun to interfere with death itself, in shadowy experiments beyond the realms of medical ethics. They call on Hugh to witness an event both extraordinary and terrifying.
Years later Hugh has occasion to return to his student digs, and the familiar surroundings resurrect peculiar and unpleasant memories of these unnatural events, the true horror of which only slowly becomes apparent.
Susan Hill is a prize-winning novelist, having been awarded the Whitbread, Somerset Maugham, and John Llewelyn Rhys awards as well as having been shortlisted for the Booker Prize. She wrote Mrs de Winter, the best-selling sequel to Rebecca, and the ghost story The Woman in Black, which was adapted for the stage and became a great success in the West End.
Her books include a collection of exquisite short stories, The Boy Who Taught the Beekeeper to Read, and the highly successful crime novel series about the detective Simon Serrailler. Susan Hill lives in Gloucestershire, where she runs her own small publishing firm, Long Barn Books.
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A young medical student has taken rooms in Printer's Devil Court in London, sharing them with three other medical men. One evening, the four men have a discussion as to whether the story of Lazarus could possibly have been true – is it scientifically possible to bring someone back from the dead? Two of the men hint that they have been carrying out experiments on the subject and ask Meredith and the fourth man if they would like to join in. The fourth man considers the whole idea to be blasphemous and refuses, but Meredith's curiosity wins out, and he agrees to be a witness to the experiments – a decision he will regret for the rest of his life.
Susan Hill has written this very much in the style of a Victorian ghost story although it's set in the 20th century. It feels very much like working to a recipe...
1 notebook revealing a terrible secret
1 creepy street name
4 medical students
2 or 3 graveyards to taste
1 late night adventure in a mortuary
1 man racked by conscience and haunted for the rest of his life
Mix all together with a wooden spoon until smooth, and bake for 1 hour and 40 minutes.
Unfortunately, the resulting cake is somewhat bland – a Victoria sponge without the jam perhaps. One feels that a vital ingredient has been forgotten...
1 generous splash of essence of horror
The quality of the writing and storytelling is quite high – it's just that it's a story we've all heard so often in various forms and Hill brings nothing new to the recipe. I felt she was so busily ensuring that she got it to sound authentically Victorian, which she succeeds in doing very well, that she lost sight somewhat of the fact that a ghost story ought to be scary, and in order to be scary it must have some element of unpredictability. I kept hoping there was going to be a twist that would turn expectations on their head, but I'm afraid it ran along too smoothly from beginning to end without deviating from the obvious route. And there's no added ingredient to make up for the lack of the scare factor – no great moral questions are raised, there's no element of humour.
The most effective bits are the mortuary scene and the first graveyard scene, in both of which the quality of the writing does manage to create a chilling atmosphere, but from there on the story meanders on, not really going anywhere at all, until it reaches a completely anticlimactic end.
I listened to the audiobook version which has a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes. The narrator Stephen Pacey does a good job with the material available, but I'm afraid that my spine remained untingled and my hair unraised.
NB This book was provided for review by Audible UK via Midas PR.
Short horror story