Farthing House and Other Stories
 by Susan Hill

Long Barn Books

Awards: The Albatross, a Story included in this collection, won John Llewellyn Rhys Prize 1972

"Duncan turned around and looked back, and terror broke through him, at the brightness of everything, the openness of the land and the river and the marsh, the endless clear sky, he felt himself standing upright, thin and dark in the midst of it. The sun glittered on the snow, and reflected up through his eyes and ears and nostrils, into his head, where it began to burn, and to make a strange noise, thin and high and clear as metal."

Reviewed by Ramola D

From the very first story in this book, Kielty’s, to the final accomplishment of the searing novella, The Albatross, through silvery threads of the most exquisite language and delicate tracings of emotion and sensibility, etched always in a Faulkneresque atmosphere thrilling with tension, we are drawn irresistibly to the inner lives of characters already singular, lonely, set apart - we hear their secret thoughts, the special, unspoken joys, the stacked, continuous desolations of the interior - even as admittedly terrible things happen to them - loss, death, abandonment, betrayal. Known for her grip on the gothic, and her special talent with ghost stories (The Woman in Black), as well as her extraordinary rendering of mystery and voice (in her fascinating sequel to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca: Mrs De Winter - which is also the book that introduced her to me) and her mastery of suspense (in her Simon Serrailer crime fiction series), Susan Hill scintillates in these nine spellbinding stories, each in its own way memorable.

Her stories begin inside the story, so to speak, characters fully-formed draw us in medias res into their worlds, so the reader, already hooked, settles into the rhythm of emotion and event almost without realizing it: "That day, Jed had done what was forbidden" (Kielty’s); "The night before, he had knelt beside his bed and prayed for a storm, an urgent hysterical prayer." (The Badness Within Him).

Kielty’s, a close imagining of a young boy’s vividly fluctuating emotions of joy, guilt, anxiety, terror after a chance encounter with a family forbidden by his own, bears overtones of Joyce’s Araby and takes us through a magical landscape at once external and internal - "The shadows cast by barns and hayricks were like violet bruises." At the centre of the story is a wild fox, brought into sharp relief through the slow events in the story, through the tantalizing overheard play at his mother’s ouija board that seems to point to Kielty’s, and finally, the story’s culmination, where he learns what has happened to them all, the Kieltys and the fox, his secret fear that he is to account for it finally all-consuming.

In the heartbreaking story The Custodian, riddled through with the fear of old age, death, and abandonment, a protagonist known only as "the old man" takes care of a young child in a rural cottage, before and through his father’s arrival, and the story’s shattering conclusion. Halloran’s Child too details the grave friendship between a young, sickly  child and a lone coffin-maker, a friendship destined to a bitter end as the child’s condition worsens and the family’s superstitious hatred of the coffin-maker rises to the fore.

Intimate questions of compliance and dominance in relationship are explored in several of the stories, as between the two single ladies in How Soon Can I Leave?, the boy and his family in The Badness Within Him, and the young man, Duncan, and his mother in the psychological and imagistic tour de force, The Albatross. More often than not, it seems like it is the story of the most marginal or most reticent characters that engages Susan Hill’s attention - here we encounter not merely the inner lives of the staid and formal, seemingly restrained Mr Proudham and Mr Sleight, through a few deft strokes, the tenderness of the handicapped child Marcel Piguet in Red and Green Beads, but also the far-forgotten story of the young, bereaved Eliza behind the ghostly haunting of Farthing House, the retirement home in the title story - a character possibly marginal in her own time, yet vividly present in the story’s frame.

In all her stories, Susan Hill gives time to her characters, time in which to grow, experience, explore, and understand their situations - nowhere is this more evident than in the developmentally-delayed Duncan’s long-drawn-out struggle with his mother, a struggle which ultimately leads to a calamitous conclusion, yet one intimately portended by the slow build-up of small yet significant events where Duncan’s being slighted, deprecated, and repressed by his mother builds ominously to a dramatic crescendo. For the Curé in Red and Green Beads too, and the old man in The Custodian, we are offered a generous, almost-meditative look at their lives.

Evident too, is a deep love of atmosphere and landscape; set among fields, villages, marshes, farms, and coastal towns of rural England, in all these stories we are magically propelled into the worlds of the characters - we walk the evening roads, the autumn fields, the icy northern beaches; we smell the salt wind, see the changing skies; on language alone, we are transported fully into the character’s known, experienced world. Susan Hill is a brilliant narrator, her skill with narrative and voice and rhythm such that as reader, you are pulled into each story almost immediately, impelled into its meanderings on the wings of descriptive image and metaphor that might normally act to stop narrative but here doesn’t, every atom of image moves the story forward, every glimpse of landscape acquires character, for instance, from The Albatross:
Now, that morning, turning to look back at the top of Church Hill, Duncan saw the sky. Over the sea, there was still a wash of light blue, the horizon glinted. But the sun had risen out of a red sky, and above the river, the clouds were massing together, liver-coloured, the marshes were dark as iron.
A common thread running through the stories is that of the unravellings of relationship, whether it is a parental or familial relationship or one of friendship in usual or unusual circumstances - through sustained focus, both themes of power and ascendance between her characters and thornier, subtler intricacies of relationship come into view. Almost as interesting as each interior unfolding is the way in which characters interact, and how the smallest of actions undertaken by a single character can change another’s whole life. Ultimately, this is a book of gems, each story in its own way illuminating a tender net of lives and carrying a haunted character at its core.

Ramola D is the author of Temporary Lives , awarded the 2008 AWP Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction and finalist in the 2010 Library of Virginia Fiction awards, and Invisible Season, which co-won the Washington Writers’ Publishing House Poetry award in 1998. Her awards include a NEA Fellowship in Poetry in 2005.

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Born in Yorkshire, Susan Hill is a prolific British author of fiction, non-fiction, and children’s books, known for her gothic ghost stories and recent Simon Serrailer crime series. Her first book, The Enclosure, was published during her first year at university in King’s College, London. Her  ghost-story novel The Woman in Black was turned into a play in 1987 and continues to run in the West End of London.  She has written 44 novels to date, not inclusive of her children’s books. Her awards include the Somerset Maugham Award (1971), The Whitbread Novel Award (1972), the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and the Nestle Smarties Book Prize.