Ghostly tales

Su­san Hill on why she be­lieves in God and ghouls – but not in grow­ing old.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ENVIRONMENT - By EL­IZ­A­BETH GRICE

Su­san Hill on why she be­lieves in God and ghouls – but not in grow­ing old.

NO one chills the heart like Su­san Hill. The stage ver­sion of her study in malev­o­lence, The Woman In Black, has been spook­ing West End au­di­ences for more than 20 years. Her sen­si­bil­i­ties are so well tuned to the sin­is­ter and enig­matic, to what lurks be­hind the ar­ras of our imag­i­na­tions, that even when she is not writ­ing ghost sto­ries, she has a way of turn­ing a tale into some­thing dis­turb­ing.

“Fic­tional ghosts have to have a mo­tive,” she says roundly. “The ones that drive coaches across de­serted moor­lands, drift up stair­cases and walk through walls ... There is a kind of point­less­ness about them. You think, why? I call them ‘ so what?’ ghosts.”

Point­less­ness, you feel, is some­thing Hill finds tire­some. The ghost in her new book, The Small Hand, is a mur­dered child that needs to as­suage its lone­li­ness by pulling the main char­ac­ter to­wards his death. I read it while stay­ing in an old con­vent in San­ti­ago, with the sun on my back, but the chill seeped through.

Hill likes the idea of dis­turbed souls who have un­fin­ished busi­ness with this world. She be­lieves that 99% of ghostly man­i­fes­ta­tions have a ma­te­rial ex­pla­na­tion but the re­main­ing 1% can­not be ac­counted for in any ra­tio­nal way.

In the book, she draws on the ex­pe­ri­ence of a friend, de­pressed af­ter a tragedy, who would not go near sta­tions be­cause he was con­sumed by a de­sire to throw him­self un­der a train. “He didn’t want to die, but he was be­ing drawn to do it.”

Dis­be­lief sus­pended, she tells me about a per­fectly level-headed man who planned to meet a friend one evening. The per­son turned up, but walked straight past him. Later, he dis­cov­ered that the man had been killed that morn­ing.

Hill’s sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to the spirit of place runs through all her nov­els. As in Thomas Hardy, places are char­ac­ters, good and evil. She finds even her lo­cal Na­tional Trust gar­den, Hid­cote Manor in Chip­ping Cam­p­den, Glouces­ter­shire, can be sin­is­ter when all the vis­i­tors have left and the sun casts long shad­ows. “It gets an ex­tremely haunted feel­ing. There is the sense that when the last per­son goes, ev­ery­one will come out to play.”

For some­one who can be so lyrical and such a sub­tle con­juror of at­mos­phere on the page, in per­son Hill is di­rect, beady and prac­ti­cal.

She had her first novel ac­cepted be­fore she went to uni­ver­sity and has con­tin­ued writ­ing, in dif­fer­ent voices and gen­res, for 50 years, re­fus­ing to be pi­geon-holed.

Her lat­est ven­ture – into crime, with a tril­ogy fea­tur­ing the invit­ingly un­mar­ried Chief In­spec­tor Simon Ser­railler – has a big fol­low­ing, par­tic­u­larly in the United States. Un­til then, she’d writ­ten en­tirely from her imag­i­na­tion, leav­ing the con­tem­po­rary world to oth­ers.

“I was chal­leng­ing my­self. I had al­ways found the clas­sic de­tec­tive story un­sat­is­fy­ing, like solv­ing a puz­zle. You do a puz­zle and you don’t see the point of do­ing it again. I haven’t got that puz­zle-solv­ing brain. But I no­ticed that the old genre was chang­ing. There was more in­ter­est in the psy­chol­ogy of crime. Who­dun­nit is al­ways less in­ter­est­ing than why.”

Be­fore Ser­railler came to her res­cue, she was out of ideas. “It had noth­ing to do with writer’s block. I don’t be­lieve in it but I was stuck. You may laugh when I tell you this: I prayed. I sup­pose it was bar­gain­ing with God. I said: ‘If you’ll give me the ideas, I’ll write them down.’ From then on, I’ve never stopped. Be­hind the book I’m writ­ing, there are al­ways two wait­ing.”

The new spell of cre­ativ­ity was trig­gered by the dis­ap­pear­ance of Holly Wells and Jes­sica Chap­man in So­ham. The re­sult­ing book, The Var­i­ous Haunts Of Men, was not about child ab­duc­tion, but about a se­rial killer of women in a small com­mu­nity.

“Nev­er­the­less, there was some­thing so aw­ful and awe-in­spir­ing about what hap­pened that Au­gust. It took a grip not only on my emo­tions but on my imag­i­na­tion, too. I thought of lit­tle else.”

She made ab­duc­tion the theme of her sec­ond crime novel, The Pure In Heart, a pow­er­ful re­turn to her old pre­oc­cu­pa­tions, the per­se­cu­tion of the in­no­cent, abuse of the pow­er­less by the pow­er­ful.

Al­though she is acer­bic about the cur­rent com­pul­sion to tell all – “even when there is noth­ing to tell” – Su­san Hill has twice writ­ten in a cathar­tic way about tragedies in her own life.

Spring­time Of The Year dis­tilled her grief at the sud­den death, in 1972, of her lover of eight years. They were to have mar­ried. Peo­ple still write to thank her for the un­der­stand­ing she poured into Ruth, the young coun­try widow. “One’s very lucky to be able to trans­mute such things into fic­tion,” she says. “Peo­ple have said: You gave me per­mis­sion to feel what I was feel­ing. That’s a ter­rific thing when you are on your own.”

Hill mar­ried the Shake­speare scholar

Su­san Hill: ‘I don’t think of old age. I can still touch my toes.’

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