Humdrum and lacklustre


Susan Hill Printer’s Devil Court
Profile Books 2014 (2013)

Hugh Meredith is a junior doctor in the first decade or so of the twentieth century, lodging near Fleet Street in London and training nearby at the fictitious medical school of St Luke’s. He is drawn into a mysterious enterprise set up by fellow students Walter Powell and Rafe McAllister, namely bringing a dead person back to life. The results of witnessing the experiment come literally to haunt him in this novella by Susan Hill. The question I asked myself is, does this short story (a little over 100 pages) live up to the reputation that the author’s ghost tales have established for her?

The answer, surprisingly and disappointingly, is no. This is a rather humdrum fiction, devoid of suspense or horror and confusingly told. The frame is the re-appearance of a notebook bound expertly by Dr Meredith but of “no commercial value”, returned by a bookseller to the beneficiaries of the late medic. This tells his stepson what had he had refused to believe from previous telling, but still finds incredible. Frankly, the process by which the life essence of a just-expired destitute is transferred to another just about-to-expire destitute is unconvincingly envisaged, and the physical complications arising from donating and receiving bodies being of different genders is clumsy and illogical. The descriptions of subsequent hauntings in St Luke’s churchyard and later in the West Country lack any power to chill, unfortunately.

Matters are further confused by the inclusion of several Victorian engravings which give the impression of a 19th-century setting when the text soon makes it clear that time period of the tale is the 20th, with the Blitz occurring sometime between Meredith’s training and his retirement from general practice. Perhaps the illustrations suggested a possible narrative which the author later transferred to a modern timeframe.

Originally published in 2013 by the author’s own company Long Barn Books in a Kindle Edition, this hardback edition by Profile Books a year later is bedevilled by printing errors in the first few pages, presumably transferred wholesale from the first edition. When Walter Powell becomes Walter Power, “its” and “it’s” are confused and quotation marks are omitted I wondered if these were deliberate nods to the name of the London court where some of the action (such as it is) takes place — a printer’s devil of course being an apprentice in a printing workshop — should one innocently assume the phrase refers to misprints and spelling mistakes that might inadvertently slip through the editing process. Luckily the rate of error swiftly decreases and the devil in the detail is largely absent thereafter.

The hospital and churchyard which feature in the novel are entirely fictional, but Hill seems to have amalgamated several London institutions to create Printer’s Devil Court and its environs. Fleet Street of course is still synonymous with newspaper publishing, though the huge printing presses have long since gone. St Luke-by-the-Gate and its nearby hospital for paupers might well be based on the real-life St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics, founded in 1751 and then rebuilt north of the City of London. The site was sold during the First World War to the Bank of England, becoming St Luke’s Printing Works and producing banknotes for several decades. Thus printing, church and hospital may have coalesced to form the miasmic background of Hill’s ghost story.

  • This story fits the category book badly reviewed when first published in my reading challenge — I wasn’t the first to find it lacklustre I’m afraid

12 thoughts on “Humdrum and lacklustre

  1. I’ve tried a couple of Hill’s books, having heard great things about The Woman in Black, but can’t say I am a fan. I find her stories almost good, but they don’t quite live up to the premise. That this let you down does not really surprise me. Hopefully your next pick will make up for it.

    1. One of her books I do rather want to read is The Magic Apple Tree, a non-fiction title about living in the countryside which my partner Emily really enjoyed. I’m hoping this will counteract the slightly bitter taste that lingers after reading this one, Sue!

  2. Nice review and thanks for the London insights – you are a fount of knowledge.
    I recently read The Woman in Black and it wasn’t at all frightening, but I do wonder if that was inevitable, having already seen the stage, TV and film productions and having had the pants scared off me by all three. The sections where the woman appears or manifests in some way have been more frighteningly adapted for the screen, more drawn out too.
    And in the book Arthur is the narrator, speaking years later, so there is no jeopardy – we know Arthur will be ok in the end.
    Seems as if Hill is heavily influenced by M.R.James, the way she uses academics and literature to propel the plot. James always had a fusty academic in his stories. Not that taking him as inspiration is a bad thing. He was the best at creeping menace.
    Great review, anyway. Will ghost stories be a theme on the run up to Halloween, or is it merely coincidence?

    1. Thanks, Lynn, but I’m no fount of knowledge, just a two-bit online researcher when I can’t find it in books! Yes, that M R James model is self-evidently there, isn’t it (just going on the handful of James I’ve read), including the obstinate denial of what is staring the reader in the face: it’s enough to make you want to shout not “Behind you!” but “In front of you!”

      I hadn’t planned any other ghost story reviews for the end of October, though I’m writing a post for The Emerald City Book Review blog on New Tales for Old …

      1. Yes, there is an element with James of the old duffer protagonists stubbornly refusing any evidence of supernatural activity, no matter how compelling-until the last page, of course. I’ll look out for you on The Emerald City Book Review-nice work :).

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