3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
An Exercise in Anticlimaxes
, 3 Jan. 2013
This review is from: The Mist In The Mirror (Hardcover)
The Mist in the Mirror is the fourth ghost story I've read by Susan Hill and while I usually try to judge a book on its own merit, it's hard not to think that perhaps the author peaked with The Woman in Black. Her ghost stories seem to get progressively worse. The story follows retired amateur explorer James Monmouth as he returns to England with the intention of writing a biography of his hero and spiritual mentor Conrad Vane. During his research into the mysterious Vane, James finds himself experiencing ghostly goings-on as he finds that Vane had a dark side as well as uncovering his own forgotten past.
Firstly, it has to be said that Susan Hill is a wonderful writer. She describes scenes, characters and events in a wonderfully descriptive way, much like a classic Victorian writer and as such, The Mist in the Mirror feels authentically "Gothic" in style. Hill has a way of portraying a chilling atmosphere on the page through her writing style and it's very easy to lose yourself in her imagery, which is perhaps why her previous ghost stories have been so successful. Unfortunately this is about all the book gets right. In a moment of unintentional fourth wall-breaking, there was one passage in particular that summed up the entire reading experience for me:
"I felt as though I had been excitedly following some path, with great difficulty, led on, led on - only to arrive at a dead end, a blank wall. Nothing.
Is this all? I asked. Apparently it was."
Sadly I found the story to be full of anticlimaxes and deeply unsatisfying as a result. The Conrad Vane story arc is suitably mysterious and I wanted to find out more but it never really comes to fruition. Likewise, Monmouth discovering his past fizzles out without much explanation, as does the identity of the ghostly child who plagues Monmouth's journeys. At one point, the lead character admits that he feels he knows who the boy is, yet never reveals to the audience. And as for the titular "Mirror," it appears twice in the whole story and collectively takes up approximately two paragraphs. I felt myself reading through wondering when the story would really take off, but it wasn't until I noticed that I was two thirds of the way in that I realised it wasn't going to happen.
I think after reading Woman in Black, Man in the Picture and to a lesser degree The Small Hand, I was expecting more. The aforementioned stories all started slowly, gradually racking up the tension to a chilling climax. However The Mist in the Mirror starts off with a mild amount of tension and never gets much scarier. Whenever a "scary moment" would happen I'd find myself getting worked up - this is it! This is going to be the big payoff! - but they all fizzle out like a joke without a punchline.
Ultimately The Mist in the Mirror isn't a terrible book and had it been longer, or had Susan Hill made more of an effort to tie everything up nicely it could have been something special. The plot's premise is intriguing but it's very, very unsatisfying - not just at the ending but throughout. There are too many threads left hanging, there is a massive pacing problem two-thirds into the story and the ending is clearly rushed in favour of a twist, despite the fact that said twist is the result of a huge plot hole (see comments below for spoilers). I'm a huge fan of Susan Hill, and I'm being generous with 3 stars (more like 2.5), but The Mist in the Mirror is by far her weakest ghost story yet. To summarise with an analogy, reading this book is like craving a curry at the end of a night out, and instead going home to a slice of toast. I hope Hill's next book, Dolly, is a return to form.
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