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