The sublime ghost stories of Susan Hill

Spooky new audiobooks by the author of "The Woman in Black" to while away an autumn night

Published October 31, 2013 7:00PM (EDT)

The ghost stories of the British writer Susan Hill are not terribly original, but they are very effective. You get the impression that every morning Hill drinks a distilled tincture of pages from such past masters as Shirley Jackson, Henry James and, above all, M.R. James, and the elixir does her a world of good. Her best-known work, "The Woman in Black," was made into a much-appreciated movie starring Daniel Radcliffe, but of two newly release novellas, "The Small Hand" is just as good, if far more unfilmable. (The hauntings in "The Woman in Black" were visual and auditory. In "The Small Hand," the narrator feels an invisible child's hand slip into his at key moments. Eee!)

Hill's stories also strongly resemble each other; this is one artist who's always happy to give you more of what you already like. Most feature a male narrator with some sort of antiquarian profession, a restorer of old buildings or a dealer in rare books. The setting is often modern-day, yet feels out-of-time. There always seems to be a deserted old house in the countryside, inhabited, until recently, by a strange old lady. The flat, melancholy fen country of England's eastern coast appears often, although sometimes Hill ventures as far afield as a monastery in the South of France and the cobbled streets of Prague. Hill is a wizard at two types of description that in other writers' hands often bogs down the story: landscape and weather. She conveys just enough to evoke a persuasive, creepy atmosphere.

Hill's ghost stories are also just the right length -- longer than a short story but shorter than a novel. They operate by suggestion and nuance rather than shock. This makes them ideal listening for an evening in: You climb into the eerie mood she spins and stay there, uninterrupted (or nearly so) until the last word. This is especially tempting with the audio versions of her two new books, "The Small Hand" and "Dolly," narrated by Cameron Stewart.

Paul Ansdell, who narrated "The Woman in Black," gave that book a more overtly emotional reading, allowing the character's fear and grief to sound in his voice. Stewart is cooler, a purveyor of ominous pauses and implied ellipses. A case can be made for either approach (I enjoyed all three audiobooks enormously), but Cameron's self-consciousness might be the best fit for Halloween night, which has acquired a permanent patina of camp. This is not to say that "Dolly" and "The Small Hand" aren't chilling -- they are -- but they have less of the aura of tragedy that lowers over "The Woman in Black." Their scariness is more recreational, and far more fitting for the holiday than a sexy cat costume. Set yourself up with candles, a quiet room, a soft blanket and a hand (big or small) to hold: You can't go wrong.

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By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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Audiobooks Fiction Ghost Stories Listener Susan Hill The Listener The Woman In Black