[The following contains spoilers.]
Susan Hill’s Printer’s Devil Court was first published as a Kindle Single last year and as a book last month. It is slim even for a novella, with its a hundred or so pages padded out with gaps and illustrations. It is a bit too corpulent to be a short story, however, or else one could probably extract a nice, rounded short story from its layers (a framing letter, introductory chapter, and postscript). When I first handled it, Printer’s Devil Court felt small and mean. For its ten pounds, you get mass-produced luxuriance – an ornate quilted jacket and illustrations – and a fraction of a short story collection. This presentation complemented Hill’s Dolly (2012), a magnificent standalone horror story, but Printer’s Devil Court is not a diamond of the same carat weight. An early typo, forgivable due to the odd sentence structure (“When this story begins its late and dismal autumn.”) seems to tease anybody who is rueing the price tag.
But a dreary lane can still lead to unusual places and Printer’s Devil Court is worth the walk. The traditional English ghost story might be most pleasing when it has flair; as when, in the tales of E Nesbit or WF Harvey, it is spiky or pithy. If the reader judges a lot of Printer’s Devil Court to be superfluous or just imitation for the sake of it, they will be later taken aback. The story often looks like an over-strenuous Victorian pastiche: the narrative wrapping recalls the framing devices of MR James; the doctors conspiring in the wee hours and their “phial” of diabolical liquid is straightforward Stevenson; there is a tot of Shelley’s Frankenstein in there too; and then there are the generic Victorian illustrations. With no artist attributed, they might have been quietly pinched from random volumes in a Victorian library.
As Tychy has previously argued, Hill’s fondness for Victorian motifs is a literary perversity, since the “classic” English ghost story is a quintessentially modernist phenomenon. Although MR James persisted in calling himself a “Victorian,” his first collection of ghost stories was actually compiled in 1904. Printer’s Devil Court warns us that the “days of Dickens” are over and that “the days of Burke and Hare are long gone,” but it is otherwise dated with a bang when its protagonist, Hugh Meredith, mentions in passing that half of the story is set after the Blitz. This should not really be a revelation, and yet the incongruity is as unnerving as that of the gruff, male voice which issues out of the tale’s ghostly damsel in distress. When Grace barks that she is trapped within “the wrong life,” we might think: not just her. The living characters strut and fret like ghostly Victorians who are still playing out their melodrama in the twentieth century.
Dr Meredith walks into this story as the average witness of a Victorian haunting, with his tiresome reluctance to credit the existence of the supernatural even when it is, for him, impeccably empirical. The ghost he is partnered with, however, stands as an inadvertent achievement of science. Uncannily, Hill has unleashed a ghost, that emblem of all that is rotten and lingering, who is in fact totally new. Walter Power and Rafe McAllister have disrupted transactions in the spiritual world by using futuristic, even materialist means. Such is the uniqueness of what they have done that Grace is conceivably the only ghost to have ever been made. She has other intriguing attributes – for one thing, she is a spiritual transvestite – but her loneliness, the way in which she alone as a ghost has blundered into the material realm, is this story’s original feature.
“I don’t take them terribly seriously,” Hill told the Guardian last year on the topic of ghost stories. “It’s like a cake, with ingredients.” The critic might be dissuaded from taking Hill’s fiction “seriously” in the face of this dismissiveness. Hill is a firm literary conservative and, as a student of nineteenth century literature, I’m often left with the feeling that I’m programmed to read her books. Yet her acceptance of so much convention makes the surprises in her fiction seem doubly audacious, and the horror greatly more enjoyable.