The Man in the Picture: A Ghost Story is a horror novel by Susan Hill. A young man named Oliver is visiting his old professor Theo Parmitter, an elderly bachelor who lives on campus at Cambridge University. One cold winter’s night during Oliver’s visit Theo tells him the strange story of a painting he has hanging in the room, depicting masked revelers at a carnival in Venice. Seemingly burdened by not having shared this tale, he tells of how he came to acquire it and the disturbing history of people becoming entrapped by its macabre beauty.
There’s a distinctly old-fashioned quality to the writing style of this novel that I really enjoyed. The simple yet evocative characters and subdued atmosphere that teases out the eeriness had the book reading to me like it was published decades before it actually was. I went into my reading with as little knowledge as possible, other than a cursory glance at its summary at the library. It wasn’t until near the end of the novel, when a singular reference to a mobile phone was made, that I realized that it must have come out much sooner than I thought. It is in fact only 12 years old. This may only be specific to me, but I liked that it read more to me like a book from the mid-20th century, rather than the early 21st. It was quaint.
The story itself is fairly straightforward, insofar as characterization takes a significant back seat to the slowly unfolding events that Theo relates to Oliver. As a self-styled ghost story, it was actually surprisingly unique in its premise. Haunted objects are not an uncommon trope, but the direction this went in was different from what I expected while still hitting some familiar beats. I particularly liked how subtle any possible happenings around the painting itself were depicted. Many instances do seem to be more than just coincidence, but the painting’s effects on its owner and those around it are left appreciably nebulous.
There isn’t anything blatantly horrific depicted on the painting, as it’s described, but the sinister quality it begins to take on for the characters felt very relatable to me. I’ve had paintings have this effect on me before, and while certain details do become more overtly discomforting here, it no less tapped into something real for me. Finishing this book, I wanted nothing more than to have a look at this display of Venetian revelers for myself, out of some morbid curiosity. Perhaps an insidious takeaway, all things considered.
I’ll be as vague as I can, but the nature of this haunting did become a bit muddy for me as the story progressed. While I appreciate that certain details were left out or obscured, we are given some explanation of the source of the painting’s malevolence, which I found fairly pedestrian. It concerns a jealous bride-to-be and the burning vengeance that comes with love lost. Had things been a little more fleshed out I might have been more interested, but being possessed by malignant jealousy is provided as the primary catalyst for where things have gone and this isn’t really elaborated on.
Other occurrences edged toward the baffling rather than the frightening for me too. Part of the haunting, or curse, or whatever you wish to call it, seems to necessitate going to a rather specific physical location to have its horrid effect. Considering the painting’s influence seemed largely separate from this location, it honestly struck me as more silly than sinister. Reality is already being twisted in disturbing ways, so it’s questionable that one needs to go to a specific place and get carried away by a pair of goons before meeting their fate worse than death.
I may sound a little hard on The Man in the Picture, but despite my disappointments I still enjoyed the reading experience. I really did enjoy the atmosphere and pacing, and the writing style felt oddly nostalgic. I may not have been as happy with developments as I could have been, but my interest was firmly held from beginning to end. It’s a rather quick read too—I finished it in a night—so it far from overstays its welcome. Worth checking out if you’d just like a nice, quick, old-fashioned ghost story, but don’t expect to be challenged much.
My Rating: 3 out of 5