The Travelling Bag by Susan Hill and Thin Air by Michelle Paver review – uncanny ghost stories

A new collection by the author of The Woman in Black locates the horrific in the everyday. Plus, an elemental tale that takes terror to new heights

The Travelling Bag- And Other Ghost Stories by Susan Hill

In fiction, says Freud, the uncanny is achieved by the writer “promising us everyday reality and then going beyond it”. The Travelling Bag, Susan Hill’s latest addition to her oeuvre of supernatural fiction, offers four new stories that occupy that place where the humdrum meets the horrific.

Part wicked stepmother fairy story, part domestic drama, “The Front Room” sees an act of familial charity end in malicious retribution from beyond the grave. In “Alice Baker”, the arrival of a new office worker brings with it a series of strange events that are only explained when building work unearths a tragic incident from the past.

“Boy Number Twenty-One” is less assured. Toby Garrett, a solitary boy at boarding school, befriends a shy newcomer called Andreas. Entering a shared fantasy world, they become dependent on one another, and when Andreas is suddenly taken away, Toby is naturally bereft. So far so good, but the other narrative strand in the story seems underdeveloped. On a class trip to the 17th-century Cloten Hall, Toby sees a boy who might be Andreas, or the ghost of some previous occupant, or something else, or nothing. We’re never quite given enough to go on. Ambiguity is all well and good – and it is often the thing which makes a good ghost story so disquieting. But in this one, it feels more like indecision on the writer’s part, as though she is still playing with ideas, and the story reads disappointingly like a first draft, in which voice, plot and structure have yet to be fully realised.

Susan Hill
Susan Hill. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

In the title story, Hill is on more familiar ground as “psychic private investigator” Mr Gilbert sits by the fire in his London club to tell the tale of Dr Walter Craig. Emerging from a debilitating illness, this eminent physician finds his assistant, Silas Webb, has become successful and respected by plagiarising his own life’s work. Anger and jealousy drive Craig to an act of revenge that is reminiscent of the best moments of the macabre in MR James’s stories.

Thin Air by Michelle Paver (

There’s terror on a grander scale in Thin Air, Michelle Paver’s second foray into the ghost story genre. Set in 1935, the novel is narrated by Dr Stephen Pearce, one of five men chosen for an expedition to conquer Kanchenjunga in the Himalayas, the world’s third highest mountain. The party, led by Major Cotterell, “every boy’s ideal of a mountaineer”, comprises the dour, Presbyterian McLellan; Garrard, “a parlour Socialist”; and Kits, Stephen’s older brother, with whom he has a somewhat strained and rivalrous relationship.

Mountains that have claimed so many lives hold a grim fascination for those who follow, and Cotterell’s party cannot help but be aware that they will be walking in the bootprints of the ill-fated Lyell expedition, some 29 years previously, the account of which Kits and Garrard devour with an almost religious fervour. Stephen is less keen to know the gory details, but the mountain seems intent on giving up its stories regardless, and the higher the men ascend, the stranger the world becomes. Ravens appear like harbingers, Stephen becomes convinced that someone else is climbing with them, and when a rucksack belonging to one of the casualties of the Lyell expedition is discovered, fresh horrors start to drive the men apart.

In the ghost story, it’s often when intellectual arrogance begins to crumble that the characters – and the reader – are taken to the most unsettling places. In the foothills outside Darjeeling, the men are careful not to encourage the “mumbo-jumbo” of the “coolies” for fear of having the ascent disrupted by panic, but on the mountain itself, superstitions once scoffed at seem all too real. “Isn’t it strange,” says Stephen, “that we laugh at the Sherpas for putting their faith in amulets, when we’re really exactly the same, except that with us it’s a white rabbit’s foot or a crucifix.” He says this as he clings to the piece of prayer-ribbon given to him by his manservant, Nima, for protection.

It becomes hard for him not to give at least some credence to local folklore when Kanchenjunga is so elementally powerful. How could it not be possessed of the capacity for anger or punishment? Is it any wonder that the Sherpas find gods and devils there?

But there is something else beyond the genius loci. The real horror in Thin Air lies in the sheer scale of things: the height of the pinnacles, the depth of the crevasses, the cold and the silence, the distance from anything familiar, the huge otherness.

“Perhaps that’s what we find frightening,” Stephen suggests. “Being on a mountain forces us to confront the vast, unsentient reality that’s always present behind our own busy little human world.” When we go into the wild, we are in the presence of something which seems to be immortal. The earth itself is a kind of memento mori. It was there before us and will remain long after we’re gone. Our own insignificance is the most terrifying thing we can be shown.

•Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney is published by John Murray. To order a copy of The Travelling Bag by Susan Hill for £8.18 (Profile, RRP £9.99) , or Thin Air by Michelle Paver for £10.65 (Orion, RRP £12.99), go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Andrew Michael Hurley

The GuardianTramp

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