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The sublime ghost stories of Susan Hill

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.

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