“The Small Hand” and “Anna Dressed In Blood” and what I really want from ghost stories

I read a lot of fiction about ghosts and vampires and various supernatural creatures. These days, they’re virtually a mainstream choice so it’s been a while since I stopped and asked myself what I really want from stories like these.

The question only occurred to me because of the contrast between the two most recent ghost story novels that I read: “The Small Hand” would probably be seen as literary fiction given that it was written by Susan Hill who was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2012 Birthday Honours for services to literature; “Anna Dressed in Blood” would typically be found in the “Young Adult” section of the bookshop and was written by new(ish) author Kendare Blake who’s first novel “Sleepwalk Society” was shortlisted for the 2011 Indie Excellence Finalist in the Crossover Fiction category and won the Sponsor’s Choice Award and who is now writing a series of “Anna” books for Tor.

Although “The Small Hand” was published in 2010 and has a contemporary setting, it has the feel of something from another time. Perhaps because of this, the novel never quite made contact with my emotions of my imagination.

It is a slight tale of deep dread instilled by an encounter with a supernatural “small hand” that pulls the man it touches towards terror and panic.

The pace of the disclosure and the sensibility of Adam Snow, the main protagonist, are reminiscent of Wilie Collins’ “The Woman In White”, innovative and gripping in 1859 but received differently today.

“The Small Hand is filled with foreboding and the sense of some foul deed from the past rippling through present, demanding an accounting.If this appeals to you (as it seemed to appeal to most of the posh press reviewers) then you will find this book well written and plotted with the same sense of inevitability that you find in an M R James story like “Casting The Runes”

Yet, as the story unfolded, I found that I could not connect. Adam Snow seemed naive and weak and too out of touch with the century he inhabits to be interesting enough for me to care about. The terror described produced in me a “For God’s sake, pull yourself together and take charge.” response that I’m not sure the author was looking for.The ending of the novel is sad, believable and skillfully evokes grief but it still left me irritated at Adam Snow as passive victim.

I recognize that some of this may well be Susan Hill’s intent. The “small hand” of the title is perhaps a metaphor for the tug of conscience and guilt, the ghosts of our past that try to steer our future. It’s a good idea, but one that, for me, needed to rooted to the present day and affecting someone I could empathize with, neither of which “The Small Hand” delivered.

“Anna Dressed in Blood”, a “Young Adult” fiction best-seller that took me on a very different journey.

Our teen hero, Cas Lowood lays ghosts in a very physical way, with an athame (I lovc it when an author has the courage to use the right word for something, even when she knows that most of us will have to go and look it up) that he inherited from his father.

This book assumes that we all swim confidently in the currents of pop culture and that our reaction to the strange and the supernatural will be shaped by our knowledge of “Bufffy” and “Scooby Doo” and the every classic horror movie ever made. Yet the strength of the book comes from its refusal to let clichés define its reality. It is Cas Lowood’s gift to see what others do not and has the courage and the sense of duty to act on what he sees.

When he meets Anna for the first time, dressed in the blood that covered her in death, he knows that he has met something both powerful and deadly but he cannot accept it as monstrous. He insists on seeing both Anna and his High School companions as accurately as he can. It is only himself that he has difficulty gaining insight into

The story takes Cas and Anna on an emotional journey to understand the forces that have compelled each of them to become who and what they are but which shows them that they can still choose what happens next.

This is a slick, action-packed, graphically violent, novel with “Blockbuster Movie” written all over it, yet the most memorable aspect of the book is not the horror wrought and the blood spilt but the bonds forged between the weak and the frightened to push back the dark.

Together, these two books demonstrate different horror story paradigms: in “The Small Hand” fear is presented as disempowering and the past as inescapable whereas “Anna Dressed In Blood”sees fear as something to be fought and the future as something we have to win the right to.

The “Anna Dressed In Blood” paradigm embodies what I’m looking for from a horror story. “The Small Hand” paradigm feels like something from another, less grown-up era that fails to resonate with me.

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2 thoughts on ““The Small Hand” and “Anna Dressed In Blood” and what I really want from ghost stories

  1. Mike,
    A friend who is a university English professor told me that, in her opinion, the best fiction written today is in what’s categorized as “YA”. I’ve found that I agree with her; I think it’s been true for a long time.

    • I recently went to the Waterstones in Liverpool, a purpose built book store with knowledgeable staff. The whole place was attractive but the young adult section positively fizzed with excitement.

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