The Travelling Bag And Other Ghostly Stories by Susan Hill

 

She wrote The Woman In Black, which – if the publicity is to be believed – has been virtually turning innocent people to stone for decades, but Susan Hill never turns the Phantom-O-Meter up to 11 in the four tales which make up The Travelling Bag And Other Ghostly Stories. Restraint is the key – perhaps a little too much restraint, actually: less is more but then sometimes more is more too. However, having just four stories does make it seem pleasingly like one of those slightly dubious portmanteau horror movies which had a vogue in the sixties and seventies. The final one in the collection is by far the most frightening, perhaps because of its domestic setting. With P.G. Wodehouse it was maiden aunts who would reveal their cloven hooves sooner rather than later. But in Hill’s world mother-in-laws can do it, too – almost literally in this case. There is an odd feel throughout the collection, in part because the names of her protagonists and their conversations often seem rather old-fashioned. But that helps achieve, perhaps inadvertently, an unsettling dislocation for the reader: the stories often float in a limbo, outside time. In Alice Baker, some office workers (in the sort of female-only, typing pool sense which doesn’t exist any more) find that the new girl sometimes has a rotted aroma about her. Lovers of urban myths might be able to guess at how this is resolved. The promising title tale fades a little after a bright start: a gentleman’s club and whispered true-life tales of the supernatural told over the brandies in a darkened library  – what could be better? But after a lot of academic in-fighting The Travelling Bag requires you to believe someone could be mortally afraid of moths. Chris Packham would have sorted this in a jiffy. Boy Number Twenty-One also begins intriguingly enough but reads a little like a first draft. Some nice ideas, but there is an unsatisfying logic gap somewhere. However, as I say, it is worth keeping the light on for a couple of seconds after finishing the final one, The Front Room. It has, as someone once said in another context, something of the night about it.

 

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