This book is parked on the library shelf marked Horror. Having said that, there isn’t a vampire, zombie or sword-waving anything in sight. In fact, there isn’t much in the way of blood and gore or even a decent fight (sorry…). So why is it here? Because the book lodged in my brain like a burr since I read it years ago and having recently reread it, it’s every bit as good as I remember.
Charles Kingshaw and his mother find themselves living in a huge Victorian house, when Mrs Kingshaw is forced to find a job as a housekeeper. However, ten-year-old Edmund Hooper, whose father owns the house, bitterly resents the intrusion and determines to make Charles pay. Which he certainly does… As Edmund’s campaign against Charles escalates, Hill takes us on a dark path towards the shocking climax of the book. There might not be much in the way of supernatural mayhem, but a real sense of dread pervades as Hill carefully crafts a gothic, creepy feel in this tale of anger, longing, loneliness and brutality. The exquisite writing charts the struggles of the four major characters coming to terms with their loveless lives and the toll it takes on all of them. And if it sounds like it isn’t a barrel of laughs – you’d be right. But if you enjoy reading a gripping tale written by a highly accomplished author at the height of her unsettling powers, then this is a must-read book. The opening sequence in the third chapter, when Charles is attacked by a crow while out walking through a cornfield, is a great example of writing an action scene. Hill describes the landscape with cinematic clarity, while ensuring that the reader sees the whole incident through Charles’ point of view, complete with the thoughts, emotions and sensations of a ten-year-old boy. ‘Kingshaw began to run, not caring, now if he trampled the corn, wanting to get away, down into the next field. He thought that the corn might be some kind of crow’s food store, in which he was seen as an invader. Perhaps this was only the first of a whole battalion of crows, that would rise up and swoop at him. Get on to the grass, he thought, get on to the grass, that’ll be safe, it’ll go away. He wondered if it had mistaken him for some hostile animal, lurking down in the corn…Sweat was running down his forehead and into his eyes. He looked up. The crow kept coming. He ran.’ (Susan Hill, 1970, p.31) By the end of this scene, we completely identify with Charles – and also later in the story, come to realise that the crow is also a metaphor for the violence he encounters. For those interested in such things, Susan Hill is also the author of the classic ghost play The Woman in Black, which has been running in the West End since 1989. She also wrote Mrs DeWinter, sequel to the famous book Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. 10/10