SUSAN HILL’s long and diverse career will surely always be defined by The Woman in Black.
Printer’s Devil Court
Susan Hill Profile Books, £9.99; Kindle, £3.35
She’d already enjoyed an acclaimed early blossoming, which saw her lauded with such major industry honours as the Somerset Maugham Award, the Whitbread Award and the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, but it was her Gothic ghost story that truly caught the public imagination.
Published in 1983, it attained instant classic status and immediately established her as a master of the genre. The smash-hit stage version continues to chill West End audiences some quarter of a century after its first production, and, in 2012, it was brought to the big screen in blockbusting fashion by the recently resurrected Hammer Films company.
Just as her most famous book borrowed its framing technique from Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, with a Christmas Eve ghost story recital, so her latest horror offering, Printer’s Devil Court, begins with another of the genre’s well-worn plot devices, that of an unexpectedly discovered manuscript.
Following the passing of his stepfather, Dr Hugh Meredith, a young doctor is presented with a hand-bound memoir, a confessional, of sorts, that tells a very strange story.
Hugh, as a young student attending medical college, lodges with three other doctors in an old house in London’s Printer’s Devil Court. They are friends and enjoy one another’s company, frequently chatting away the small hours over a bottle of something strong. But when two of the young men, Walter Powell and Rafe McAllister, bring up the Bible, and the raising of Lazarus from the dead, everything changes.
The fourth member of their quartet, James Kent, a devout sort, wants nothing to do with such talk, and quickly distances himself, but Hugh is curious.
Though his role is strictly that of a witness, the dangers and horrors of their game become quickly apparent, playing as it does with life and death and drawing into question all previously-held notions of morality, ethics and belief. Furthermore, the consequences of their ‘medical experiments’ are far-reaching, perhaps even eternal.
Given the standard she has set for herself, expectation surrounding any new Susan Hill ghost story will inevitably be high, perhaps too high. Originally published in e-book format as an Amazon Single, and now finally issued in attractive style as a pocket hardback, Printer’s Devil Court is a novella, barely a hundred pages long, that can be easily read in a single sitting.
In terms of plot, it doesn’t break new ground. Miss Hill’s greatest strength as a writer of ghost stories is readily to the fore, namely her ability to create and sustain atmosphere, and the late-night lanes and back-streets of late Victorian or Edwardian London are vividly rendered, but the chills within the story itself are intermittent at best, and lack the deep-boned intensity of The Woman in Black.
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