The Travelling Bag and other Ghostly Stories

Book Review by Rebekah Villon.

Susan Hill is famous for her Gothic ghost stories, inspired by authors like M.R. James and Daphne du Maurier. The short stories in The Travelling Bag are spooky and scary, but rely on moody, psychological horror rather than gore and violence.

I watched as he went to the mirror, undid his black tie and took the studs out of his collar. He then went to the travelling bag and put it down on the table. It was at this exact point that there crept over me a sense of claustrophobia, and an increasing fear, which made me sit back in my chair. My heart was beating too fast and sweat beads were forming on my forehead and across the back of my neck, and all of this increased as I watched the man open the travelling bag by the top clasp. As the two sides spread wide, I caught my breath in horror…
- Susan Hill

The titular story in the collection, The Travelling Bag, combines the classic elements of hatred and revenge, a locked room crime, and a supernatural twist reminiscent of the Carnacki stories by William Hope Hodgson. The narrative framework is that a psychic detective is telling the story of one of his most memorable cases. It then shifts back in time to tell the backstory of the two principle characters and describes their relationship. Then the story skips forward, as the detective is asked by a widow to explain the mysterious death of one of the characters. It reflects the theme of the rest of the stories in the book: a person who is driven by rage or passion or hatred to some extreme action in life, which continues to reverberate and affect people after their death.

The rest of the stories in the collection are more ambiguous. Characters have feelings and beliefs, driven by emotion and intuition, but the truth remains uncertain. Boy Number Twenty One is more sad than spooky, as the lead character spends their whole life mourning for their lost childhood best friend, who may or may not have been real, or may or may not have been a ghost. Alice Baker is the story of a more traditional haunting, where the ghost re-enacts the scene of their suffering.

I stopped, took several shuddering deep breaths and forced myself to the door of the room, key ready, though I had to try two or three times to turn it because I was shaking and my palm was clammy. Why I felt like this I had no idea but now I had a surge of annoyance with my own stupidity and in a moment of strong resolve I turned the key and opened the door. There was no switch, the light came on automatically, and in that light, I saw, and then I screamed and I heard my own screams echoing along the basement corridor…
- Susan Hill

For me, The Front Room is the most disturbing of the stories, because the characters seek to be kind and generous to a person who turns out to be evil, and who comes to torment the family in life and in death. The sense of increasing foreboding and fear is augmented by the sheer human misery of the family and their children, making the story especially dark.

I have the 2016 hardcover edition of this book, which only includes these four stories. The 2017 paperback edition also includes a fifth story, Printer’s Devil Court, which I have not read. The whole book is short enough to be snapped up in a weekend, and is a great read for lovers of traditional Gothic ghost stories. 


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