Two ghost stories: “The Man in the Picture” and “Isis”

It seems that ghost stories have been told since the beginning of speech itself, and have held a special place in the imagination of people for just as long.  It is hard to characterize what sets a “ghost story” apart from other tales of horror — the stories can be extremely varied in their locations, characters, and hauntings.  As a guideline, I would say that a ghost story is one that is concerned with the negative effects of past actions and events on the present day; however, it’s probably best to say that a ghost story is like pornography: “I know it when I see it“.

The late 1800s and early 1900s were a golden age for ghost tales, with authors such as M.R. James and E.F. Benson producing numerous classics.  In our more skeptical modern times, horror’s center of gravity has shifted away from ghostly encounters,  but occasionally authors pay tribute to the classic style.

I recently read two of these stories: The Man in the Picture (2008), by Susan Hill, and Isis (2009), by Douglass Clegg:


Both books are small hardcovers: 150 pages for Hill’s book, 113 pages for Clegg’s.  Due to their size and similarity I thought it would be worthwhile to talk about them together in this post.

The Man in the Picture begins with the narrator visiting his old tutor, Theo, at Cambridge.  Theo is in his eighties, likely in his last years of life, and on this particular visit he decides to tell the narrator a long-repressed story about a painting hanging almost hidden on his wall.  The painting shows an image of a Venice festival at night, with crowds of masked revelers both joyful and strangely ominous.

Theo purchased the picture at auction in his youth, but unknowingly inherited along with it a curse borne of revenge decades earlier.  He shares its dark story with his former student, not realizing that they will both be drawn into the painting’s history, metaphorically and literally.

Isis is narrated by Iris Villiers, a young woman who has spent her entire life at her aging ancestral home.  With an absent father and a sickly mother, Iris is ruled by her harsh grandfather — the Grey Minister — and a cruel governess.  Her solace comes from wandering the ancient grounds of the home, including the family tomb, and spending time with her beloved brother Harvey.  When Harvey dies in a tragic accident while protecting her, Iris (known by her sibling as “Isis”) discovers that he has the ability to commune with the dead.  Her understanding of that power leads her to actions with horrifying and eternal consequences.

Both novels are well-written and atmospheric, with strong characters and a growing sense of dread.  Both really fit the mold of classic style ghost stories (though, as I noted above, I would be hard-pressed to tell you exactly what makes them such).  Perhaps most important, the two tales have genuinely horrifying conclusions.  Arguably, Isis is nastier — I was quite surprised and taken aback at the turn it took — but both will leave you unsettled.  As fiction, they are recommended.

My only issue with the two books is their cost!  Both are small hardcover books, roughly $15 each, but are 150 pages or less.  For the same price you could get a much larger novel or several paperback books.  Of course, a book’s value isn’t determined solely by the amount of pages it contains, but the price does seem a little steep for such short reads.

These would be great gift books, though, or excellent books to leave in a guest bedroom to provide your visitors with an unsettling bedtime!

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