The beginning of The Mist in the Mirror is lovely, evocative of turn-of-the century London and the surrounding English countryside. I felt like Susan Hill had been there and merely transcribed her experiences:
It was early afternoon but already the light was fading and darkness drawing in. A chill wind sneaked down alleyways and passages off the river. The houses were grimy, shiny and black-roofed with rain, mean and poor and ugly, and regularly interspersed with more, looming, sheds. The air was filled with the hooting of tugs and a plaintive siren, and there was the constant thump of boxes onto the wharves.
If that doesn’t set the mood for you, then nothing surely will.
All of the required spooky set pieces are on full display in this tale: a pale, dirty boy of roughly thirteen years who appears when there is trouble and vanishes without a trace; a middle-aged man who has tired of life in the British Empire’s furthest reaches, and who has returned to England in an effort to find new purpose; constant warnings from strangers to “leave be,” “be wary,” and “go back;” the slow reveal of a horrible curse, paired with a once-revered hero’s nefarious secret; there’s even a parrot-bearing gypsy woman who may or may not warn of something more sinister.
The narrator of The Mist in the Mirror is Sir James Monmouth, whose tale begins as a simple attempt to write a biography of his boyhood hero, the famous adventurer Conrad Vane. Events rapidly become strange beyond all reason, and Monmouth is given several chances to abandon his quest for knowledge, but consistently refuses. He knows he could save himself — though he never thinks of it that way — but the compulsion to learn more goads him onward. It wouldn’t be a proper ghost story without free will leading someone merrily into Hell, would it?
It is evil of which I speak, Monmouth, wickedness, things best left concealed, undisturbed. Whoever is touched by Vane suffers.
Unfortunately, multi-generational curses that ensnare members of a family and drive them to doom are only interesting if we’re told what the purpose is of tormenting these people. If Hill doesn’t tell the reader why or how this has been going on for hundreds of years, then it’s difficult to care whether anyone escapes. The creepy “house upon the moors” touted in the blurb is not actually seen by Monmouth until page 162, and the story’s big reveal was more confusing than illuminating or satisfying. My edition of The Mist in the Mirror doesn’t seem to be missing any important paragraphs of information, so I can only guess that this is the ending that Hill intended.
Other than creating a nifty book title, I couldn’t discern any purpose for the mirror. Was it meant to show the future, or perhaps a certain man’s fate? Furthermore, the mirror’s eventual resting place is far too convenient for my liking. It seemed like more of an effort to create a deliberate twist than a logical, organic ending — one which already existed, just two pages prior.
Overall, I felt that this ghost story didn’t live up to the hype. Hill’s superb gift with atmosphere and description weren’t enough to salvage the vague ending of The Mist in the Mirror, though they did make for a satisfactory way to spend a few hours. I’m intrigued enough to consider reading more of her work, though I won’t consider them to be impulse-buy material.