Monday, May 09, 2011

The Man In The Picture and other Venice Ghosts

Just got through finishing Susan Hill's The Man in the Picture, a capably executed novella of the M.R. James school. I generally agree with the criticism out there -- it's classic, restrained, elegant, a wee tad disappointing at the end -- but am intrigued enough by her style to go out and get a copy of The Woman in Black. It's not easy being a writer of classical ghost stories these days, and I'm happy to have found someone with a similarly old-fashioned sensibility. Look for a review of that soon.

There's not much more to discuss about The Man in the Picture, other than I very much liked its use of an inanimate haunted object (I love me a good inanimate haunted object!) but the book is a handy springboard for introducing my newest adventure, the first in what will hopefully be a recurring series: virtual tours through haunted cities. The first, of course, will be Venice (I've already alluded to it here) and draws heavily upon this book, since I've never actually visited the place. (The book is the magic lantern show to my 19th century country rube.)

Before we actually wander the haunted streets of our imaginations, a little background on Venice, specifically on Venice as a trope in the horror canon. According to, cities with canals instead of streets are a perennially popular setting for works of fantasy, though they're not sure why -- perhaps it's an aesthetic thing, or perhaps it's simply because watery bi-ways are so unusual. My theory hews somewhat closely to the latter; the unreal, shape-shifting quality of water opposes all that is solid -- earth, asphalt -- and thus lends itself to fevered imaginings, to the dreaming of dreams. And in dreams, of course, we all know the symbolic qualities of water include birth, death, sex, the deepest parts of the psyche: the perfect setting for our darkest tales.

Perhaps the most famous suspense story set in Venice is Daphne du Maurier's "Don't Look Now," though a significant portion of "The Talented Mr. Ripley" is set in Venice as well. (The is also a ghost story called "The Haunted Hotel" by Wilkie Collins, which I shall clearly have to read.) "The Man in the Picture" joins this illustrious crowd as its narrative moves between the Most Serene Republic and sedate Cambridge. Hill's descriptions of the city are marred with dread: "It seemed to me to be a city of corruption and excess, an artificial place, full of darkness and foul odors... [of] dark and sinister water." In the course of the book, two young couples visit Venice on their honeymoon; the first couple visits quite innocently, the second seem drawn to it even though they know it brought death and tragedy in the past. In Hill's world, the city and the eponymous painting depicting it exert a dark power over anyone who beholds them.

Though I'm sure it's a perfectly delightful city, thanks to speculative fiction I can now only think of Venice in terms of gloom and darkness. Why not profit from my fear and misery, gentle reader? Come with me on a journey that starts dark and will only get darker. Headless monks, drowning witches, the sighing ghosts of dead children... all these things await you as you shiver through the summer months in various dank and moldy catacombs, taking the Deathly Grand Tour with your beloved Spinster Aunt...

Venetian Cemetery Photo courtesy of Lisa Manetti

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