Monday, 20 October 2014

Printer's Devil Court by Susan Hill Review

In 1983, Susan Hill wrote a decent ghost story called The Woman in Black that was turned into a brilliant West End production. Since then she’s been coasting on her reputation as a horror writer, churning out extremely dull ghost novellas every now and then that nonetheless sell quite well due to the Woman in Black’s success. So it goes with Printer’s Devil Court, which is the worst thing by Hill that I’ve read to date.

Set in some time that could be the Victorian or Edwardian era, Hugh Meredith is a med student living in crappy digs in Printer’s Devil Court with a couple others. His flatmates are a bit mad and, after talking about Lazarus one night after dinner, they reveal to Meredith that they can bring the dead back to life – sort of. 

That sounds like a passably interesting plot, no? Susan Hill doing the Frankenstein thing? So why is it subtitled “A Ghost Story”? Because Susan Hill is best known for ghost stories, which sell. The reveal of the supernatural thing in this story is total garbage. Is it a ghost? Is it some kind of resurrected body/semi-conscious zombie? What was the point of resurrecting the dead again? Horror doesn’t work if you don’t know basic things about what we’re supposed to be scared about and why. 

Instead of working on the feeble “story”, Hill instead does her usual trick of writing extensively about the atmosphere. If there’s one thing I hate reading, it’s descriptions of weather and the background, but Hill positively revels in this kind of extraneous crud so the pages are padded out with images of dark, foggy London, fireside chats, and oh god I’m falling asleep just recounting it. 

Hill doesn’t have a clue when it comes to originality. She adopts the clich├ęd “story within a story” approach that the Victorians favoured: a framing device of the “present day”, with the main story taking place years in the past, usually via a just-discovered manuscript. The drawings included here are unremarkable and add nothing to the story, clearly serving to add to the page count only. The whole thing looks like a weak facsimile of a bad Victorian ghost story. 

It’s not much of a book anyway – it’s essentially a short story that’s been stretched out to 100 pages long through large font size, corny pencil drawings, lots of blank space between chapter endings and blank dividing pages. Shockingly, there are a ton of typos in this short story (“Printer’s Devil’s Court”) which makes it clear this was rushed out to make the publishers a quick buck. Was there even an editor on this thing, either to pick up obvious typos or perhaps focus the story? Doesn’t look like it. 

Printer’s Devil Court is a piss-awful “horror” story that doesn’t know whether it’s a ghost story or a weird Frankenstein/zombie thing, and it has the least satisfying ending ever. Susan Hill is a vastly overrated horror writer – she’s in fact an utterly appalling one. Put simply this book is 95% nothing, 5% might-as-well-be nothing. It’s certainly not scary and might be the most pathetic excuse for a ghost story I’ve ever read. For great horror short stories, I highly recommend reading Shirley Jackson instead.

Printer's Devil Court

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