Monday, 20 July 2015

Printer's Devil Court by Susan Hill - A Review

Firstly, this book isn’t a novel; I’m not really sure you could even call it a novella; it’s more like an extended short story, which is fine. I’m a pretty slow reader but I read this in a couple of hours. Printer’s Devil Court is home to four medical students. One night when they are gathered around the fire talking the conversation takes a sinister turn. The narrator, Hugh, soon finds himself being drawn into some dark goings on in dark corners of basements and disused mortuaries.


There are obvious overtones of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein in this book and it reminded me slightly of the 1970’s film ‘The Asphyx’ The book is also illustrated, which does give the feel of a Victorian/Edwardian book. Currently it’s only available in hardback or Kindle versions. I have the Kindle version but the book cover looks very nice and it probably looks beautiful as a hardback; but for a book with such iffy reviews I couldn’t justify the rather unappealing £7.49 price tag, essentially just for a pretty cover. I enjoy Susan Hill’s writing style; she has a knack for descriptive language which really helps you settle into the mood and atmosphere of a story. Where this story fell down for me was in the same place that  ‘The Mist in the Mirror’ did, the end.


I have been accused of being ambiguous in the endings of some of my own ghost stories; but ghost stories are supposed to be ambiguous. It isn’t necessary for us to understand the mechanics of how someone returned from the dead or how exactly they got their revenge in a locked room unseen by the reader, off screen as it were. However, there is a crucial, and perhaps subtle, difference between an ambiguous ending that leaves scope for the reader’s imagination and a frustratingly open and unnecessary ending.


I can see that Hill is most likely trying to maintain the tradition of the twist ending. But if there is a twist ending in all of your books, surely the element of surprise is lost? Now, instead of catching you by surprise you’re reading the book waiting for the twist. I wouldn’t object to this if the twist was satisfying, but I didn’t feel as though it was in this case. It read as though she reached the end of the book and realised she was a few hundred words short so tagged on a completely random scene that wasn’t well enough explained to allow you to speculate over it properly. Other people may find that the explanation was obvious, but to me, although I have a couple of vague ideas what she might have been trying to suggest, I didn’t really feel I had enough information to go on.


That’s what felt wrong in this book. It did a great job of creating the right atmosphere but it was light on plot details. I felt this especially when one character, who presumably is only there at all as a counterpoint to the other  in the early pages, was written out with no further mention, presumably because he had fulfilled his purpose. Then there were moments when the narrator kept asking what two other characters were doing when they had just told him what they intended to do; It occasionally made it feel a little contrived in places.


All in all not a bad book, some good classic gothic themes and imaginative take on the ghostly aspect of the story; but I personally would have enjoyed it more if it had ended before the epilogue, which didn’t really work for me. Either that or had a more substantial epilogue.

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