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Book Review: The Man in the Picture by Susan Hill

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Author Susan Hill's novel The Man in the Picture by is an old-fashioned ghost story. Open it up, step into another time and place, and prepare for an eerie time.

The tale begins when Oliver visits his old teacher, Theo Parmitter, at Cambridge and is told a strange story about a picture hanging on Dr. Parmitter's wall. It is a late eighteenth century painting of Venice, a party with masks around the canals, lit by torchlight. One figure looks out of the scene at the viewer, beseeching, while the others continue in their revelry.

Dr. Parmitter has had the painting for many years, "more than I have a right to," he says. It has had a strange hold on him; twice he was offered whatever price he would name for it, but he would not give it up. Now an old man, he feels sharing its provenience with Oliver would relieve the burden he feels it places on him. Oliver agrees to stay overnight to hear the whole story, something he comes to rue, as a spectral presence ensures that he is drawn into the picture in the worst possible way.

The Man in the Picture is a short work, published in a small hardback and only 145 pages. Hill does a good job of setting a creepy atmosphere for the Venetian picture's tale. The characters have a nineteenth-century feel to them, no doubt aided by the environs of Cambridge University and the date of the painting's creation.

The story is compelling but somewhat predictable, and the writing about individuals is not always as descriptive as one might like, although Hill does a fabulous job of describing the painting vividly. Also, the sense of time is confusing. The painting is from the Victorian era, and the writing puts one in mind of Dickens, but it apparently takes place in modern times, as in the final chapters reference is made to a mobile phone.

Regardless of any drawbacks, The Man in the Picture is atmospheric and entertaining. Recommended for a quick read of the spooky variety.

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About Nancy Fontaine

Nancy Fontaine is a librarian and freelance writer living in New Hampshire with her husband, two cats, and every four years during presidential primary season, the national press.