Welcome to Sp’booktober! The first spooky book I’ve decided to read this Autumn, is Susan Hill’s ‘The Travelling Bag and other ghostly stories’. This is a small collection of haunting short stories which immediately reel you in with intrigue and then completely throw you off guard with the ridiculous, yet terrifying conclusions.
First of all, @My university lecturers- how have you not got this collection of stories on your reading lists? I literally studied a unit called ‘Crime and Terror’ and why Susan Hill wasn’t even mentioned during this module, completely baffles me now that I’ve read her work. Her writing is almost hypnotic and it’s so easy to picture what she’s describing without putting in much effort in, and she dredges up some truly horrific images. If you’re looking for some spooky stories this October, I definitely recommend Hill’s writing, especially because you can get through these short stories so quickly if you’re on the go a lot. Whilst reading this collection, I forgot how much I liked short stories- especially the ones that stick with you and haunt your dreams for ages afterwards.
** SPOILER’S AHEAD**
The Travelling Bag
My personal social circumstances under reading The Travelling Bag, unfortunately seriously undermined the terror I should have been feeling. Why? Well, two words: moth memes. Yes. Moth memes. The general gist of TTB is about a scientist man called Walter Craig who is very close to completing some super important research and is taken ill. When he finally returns back to work, he finds gaps in his research and that his apprentice, Silas Webb is suddenly famous because of his original research! SCANDAL! The story is told by a psychic private investigator that eventually uses the apprentice’s travelling bag to get a vision of how he died. It was death by moths in his lodging room. Death. By. Moths. Well, rather the shock of many moths suddenly sprouting out of his travelling bag. Either way, the idea of it is slightly ridiculous, but I actually love it. I’m not particularly terrified of moths, but the idea of MANY OF THEM SPROUTING OUT OF A BAG WHEN I LEAST EXPECT IT….oooh boy would that probably kill me off too. The best part of the story is the man who put the moths in the bag, is then haunted by moths for the rest of his life and is terrified of the night because that’s when the moths come and nuzzle their little fuzzy faces against his skin and stare at him with their menacing little eyes. Obviously, if you’re not one to find moth meme humour funny, then this is something that I assume you’ll probably find more terrifying than amusing. Hill’s style of writing is simple and easy to understand and her stories are easy to follow. It’s the content of said stories themselves which are low-key terrifying, yet verge just enough into reality to make you think to yourself ‘yeah, I guess that could happen, I suppose?’ Keeping her stories relatively grounded, yet having little sparks of crazy infiltrating the plot, is what makes such great ghost stories. I only have one question regarding the logistics of the fiction – how on earth did Walter Craig get the moths into the travelling bag in the first place without them flying in and out everywhere???
The Travelling Bag gets a 3/5 from me! Great story, just couldn’t take it seriously because I kept trying to imagining Craig trying to wrangle a load of moths into a bag and it was too funny of a mental image to be freaked out by the story.
Boy Number Twenty-One
This is the second short story in the collection.
The story begins with a newspaper article of Cloten Hall burning down and being totally destroyed and our main man, Toby reads about it and then dreams of a boy offering his hand whilst surrounded by flames. This was definitely the weakest short story of the lot as I found it kind of confusing and slightly boring. I was waiting for a major plot twist at the end, but it just turned out that Toby’s friend, Andreas from school was a ghost who had died? I think? I was quite confused about this whole thing. The ending was trying to make the whole thing seem deep and dramatic, when really it felt like a slight cop out because Hill couldn’t think of anything actually interesting to say about this story. It’s almost as if she had the vague idea of some boys going on a school trip and an extra one coming back with them, hence boy twenty one, but it just wasn’t followed through properly and she didn’t know what to do with it. It wasn’t as gripping as The Travelling Bag and I personally think she could’ve worked on this story a bit more, so that it didn’t feel like it was half heartedly written. 1/5 it wasn’t a good ghost story – it was boring and didn’t really make sense. Poorly thought out.
This is the third story in the collection.
I really enjoyed this one! It was well thought out and well written. I couldn’t stop reading Alice Baker; I was so intrigued as to why things were happening and what the conclusion was going to be. As I was nearing the end, I did guess what the outcome would be – that Alice Baker’s body was buried in the construction site by the offices she was ‘haunting’. I think the thing that gave it away was when the construction crew were getting closer to finding her, she was looking more and more like a corpse, which I thought was a really nice touch of symbolism, on Hill’s part. The plot itself also touches lightly on the trauma that comes from mental illness and breakdown, which felt completely relatable and realistic. 3/5 A very well written short story! It was thought through properly, and though slightly predictable, the writing itself was haunting and begs the reader to genuinely care about Alice’s character and who she could quite possibly be!
The Front Room
This is the final story in the collection.
I was wrong about ‘Boy number twenty one’ this is the worst story of the lot. It’s almost as if Hill has alternated between good and bad stories in this collection? This was so boring and all over the place. The story just doesn’t seem to draw you in like the others and I felt myself forcing myself to finish it because I HAD to, rather than WANTING to. The story is about a couple who, upon hearing a sermon on generosity from their priest, decide to invite the husband’s elderly stepmother to live with them in… yep, you guessed it, their front room. The old woman apparently stinks of evil and torments their children, which the wife absolutely despises – which is fair enough, to be honest. And then one day the step mother dies in the room and her ghost ends up haunting the family. The older two children get skinny and don’t sleep well, but the ghost of the stepmother ends up taking the youngest child with her when she leaves. This is one of the parts of the story where I was kind of just left thinking ‘what the actual fudge?’ Like where is the ghost going? If she’s not a tangible form, how is she carting around a 2 year old?? I know, far be it from me to think about the logistics of the supernatural, but the over pacing of the story itself just begs you to want to think about other things because it’s so slow and dull. Then all of a sudden it ends and there’s a vague paragraph of explanation of what happens to the rest of the characters in the story: the priest has some sort of mental break and the family move to a different house which is newly built and doesn’t have a history. I personally would have been happy with it ending with us not really knowing about anyone’s life after Solange the ghost had left, mainly because I just didn’t care about the characters enough to be invested in their lives.
I reckon Hill’s mistake here was trying to have too many characters in this short story, as I often found myself having to flit backwards and forwards to keep track of who’s who and who’s said what etc. which was tedious in itself, but also didn’t allow me to immerse myself into the story because the experience with this one felt so jarring. 1/5- not a good ghost story, just a story about a mean old lady who smelled.
Overall I’ll give this collection a 2/5 as the stories fluctuated between being well written, understandable and interesting to boring, confusing and poorly executed. Beautiful cover art though.