I have been very lucky to have just spent a week in Venice on holiday. I have always wanted to go and loved its charming canals, beautiful palazzos and incredible churches. Having an over-active imagination I did get the sense that the city showed to on face to tourists and one that is only for the Venetians. One day we walked through a square that was completely deserted, we were totally lost and seemed to be going round in a circle. Only a couple of minutes later the streets opened out in another square where people were sitting and eating and an accordionist playing, but it was exactly the same square we’d just passed through! Parts of Santa Croce made me feel like I’d gone back in time and the photographs make it look derelict and deserted. I’d decided to load my Kindle with books about Venice and the city does inspire spooky and supernatural stories.
My first read was Susan Hill’s The Man in the Picture. I have loved her other short stories – of course the most famous being The Woman in Black - and she is a master at creating atmosphere and spine tingling chills. The Man in the Picture is set in Cambridge, where Oliver visits his old tutor and becomes enthralled with a painting in his rooms. The painting is a complex view of Venice in Carnival depicting a group wearing the distinctive masks and costumes. Carnival always takes place in February, and this year I just missed the experience although there was evidence of it in the confetti lying everywhere. I find the masks creepy at the best of times, but after going into the workshops and seeing the makers at work I could really appreciate the beauty of them. I even bought a rabbit mask with gold fabric ears and crystal embellishments! I also appreciated how creepy they are though, especially the ones with the long beaked noses. I could imagine how Oliver would become enthralled by the painting’s detail. On a cold, wintry night Theo, his tutor, tells him about the painting and how it becomes vitally important to the person who owns it. Instead of art imitating life, this painting has the power to capture it. Staring into the painting leaves the viewer open to the demons within and turns them into a victim of its dark beauty. Oliver notices a man in the picture, watching the festivities with horror and despair as a seemingly unwilling participant. What Oliver doesn’t know is the painting’s power of transmogrification; the man in the picture can change and the viewer can, quite literally, be captured in oil paint. This story was great for a dark, windy night in Venice: although I don’t recommend getting lost in the Castello region at night, straight after reading it. Susan Hill creates an atmosphere of slow, creeping dread in the reader. Not everything is explained, but that doesn’t matter, it is the feeling she creates in the reader that lingers long after finishing the story. Telling the story in snippets is also effective; Theo, the college professor, is too tired to tell the story in one go so Oliver has to return to his own lodgings between instalments feeling scared and jumpy just like the reader. I would recommend this for an afternoon read in front of a warm fire, but definitely not before bed.
My second read was another short story, but this time a classic by Daphne Du Maurier. Don’t Look Now is probably more famous for the film starring Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie, but it started life in a short story collection. I had seen the film but never read the story and Du Maurier’s title reminded me of the very feeling I had picked up in Venice – that looking the same way twice, doesn’t mean you see the same thing. The title is meant to be a reference to the magician’s art of distracting the audience, while the magic happens. This theme of seeing and not seeing is carried through in some of the characters too. John and Laura travel to Venice after their little girl dies in an accident. There, they meet two sisters, one of whom is blind but has second sight and predicts danger for the couple if they remain in Venice. Du Maurier uses the magician’s sleight of hand to distract us from who is really in danger. The reader is distracted from the real danger because they are looking at something else. I thought Laura was the one in danger, because of her terrible grief for her daughter and also because of the little girl she keeps seeing. The atmospheric descriptions of back streets and small canals were even more vivid because I was there – and my mum did travel in a red coat! Du Maurier is a master at creating that eerie feeling of something being a little off-kilter and when we visited the Dorsoduro area where the Nicholas Roeg film was made we did experience that unsettled atmosphere, with deserted canals and dead ends everywhere. I won’t reveal the ending, but suffice to say it left me a little spooked. I would definitely recommend both of the stories as a quick read, especially when you don’t want to get into a long novel – maybe when travelling. Both capture the atmosphere of Venice completely; with that weight of history surrounding you as you imagine all the people who have walked there before you. There is always that eerie sense that if you walk round the right corner you might find the carnival or even step into another century.
© Hayley Baxter 2015