The Man in the Picture

By SUSAN HILL

In 1924, M. R. James wrote: ?Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, the atmosphere and the nicely-managed crescendo.? In her new novel, The Man in the Picture, Susan Hill mixes those ingredients with other elements of classic gothic fiction to deliver a story that will have readers nervously avoiding art galleries. This ghost story, easily read in one nerve-jangling sitting, begins as a man named Oliver visits his old Cambridge professor and learns the deadly secret behind an oil painting of a Venetian carnival scene. As literary tradition dictates, the tale is spun beside a fire ?one bitterly cold January night? as the wind ?howled round and occasionally a burst of hail rattled against the glass.? Like Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, Sheridan Le Fanu, and the two Jameses (M. R. and Henry), Hill knows how to carefully dole out the tension. The horror here creeps up slowly and reaches a ?nicely-managed crescendo? in its final pages. Hill never condescends to parody-her frights are in earnest. The smallest detail like ?the faintest smell of fresh oil paint? will prickle the hairs of the reader?s scalp. Poe would be proud.