The Small Hand by Susan Hill is a ghost story but not the kind you would tell around the campfire to spook your friends. It is a story of sorrow and guilt, while touching on aspects of mental illness. The ghosts in the fiction of the piece are definitely real, but they are also skeletons in the closet for at least one character, and an impetus for self-harm.
Adam Snow is a book dealer who deals with rare and expensive books for private clients, searching across the globe for whatever those clients might be willing to pay for. During one trip to a client’s home, Adam stumbles upon an old, decrepit house in the woods. He feels drawn to the place, and then even more so when he feels a child’s hand gripping his. However, when he looks down he discovers that there’s no child there… at least not a living one, anyway.
Adam flees the property but the presence doesn’t always go away. Even when he travels to a monastery in France in search of a rare book for the aforementioned client, he feels the hand again when wandering the grounds. The “child” leads him to a pool of water, pulling stronger as they get nearer. It seems that every time he goes towards water, he has to fight the urge to fall in.
He ends up seeking the advice of his brother Hugo, who had a breakdown himself and almost died in a similar fashion. Hugo dismisses the idea of a ghost, trying to pass off Adam’s problems as simply a breakdown of his own. However, Adam’s search for answers leads him back to the house to discover some unsettling secrets about their past, which leads to a confrontation with Hugo and ultimately uncovering guilty secrets.
While the supernatural does exist in this story, Hill may be using the hand to represent the urge to harm one’s self. Some people may be able to let go of the hand for good, while some are not, which may lead to dire consequences for them and their loved ones.
On the surface, The Small Hand works as a spooky ghost story. However, the stock spookiness inherent in such stories is replaced by melancholy here. Instead of frightening us sometimes ghosts can sadden us, especially if they reflect what we detest in ourselves