06 April 2009

Book Review: The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

Victorian Challenge #3

The Woman in Black When his stepchildren start telling ghost stories, Arthur Kipps declares that he has no tale to tell. In fact he does, and a true one at that; but one too terrible for use as fireside entertainment. Unable to escape his newly resurgent memories, he decides to write his story down, in the hope that the act of putting pen to paper will be an exorcism of sorts.

Years before, Arthur worked for a solicitor who sent him out into the country to wind up the affairs of a recently deceased client. Whenever he mentions the name of Mrs Alice Drablow, the residents of Crythin Gifford respond with strange looks and silences; but, he reasons, an eccentric old woman is bound to generate gossip in a backwater like that. Harder to explain is the local lawyer’s panic on hearing that Arthur had seen a woman in black with a wasted face at the funeral. Refusing to be rattled, Arthur sets out for Eel Marsh House, a place surrounded by quicksand and mist and accessible only at low tide across the Nine Lives Causeway. As he progresses through the task of sorting through Mrs Drablow’s vast accumulation of papers he discovers a family tragedy; and worse, he begins to encounter it in supernatural form.

But what is terrifying in mist-shrouded darkness can be brushed away in clear daylight; and Arthur’s got a job to do. So he goes back to Eel Marsh House with the resolve of staying until the work is done. He takes supplies, he takes a dog, and he takes an underappreciation of the malevolence of the woman in black.

I first heard of Susan Hill when the stage production of The Woman in Black came to Brisbane several years ago. The words “classic ghost story” were all it took to get me to the theatre, and I loved every creepy moment of it. Reading the book, I was curious to see what had been altered and impressed by the way it had been done. The book was adapted for the stage using the device of having Arthur consult an actor to get his story adapted for the stage - thereby allowing the whole thing to be done with the minimum of people and props. It also allowed one more brilliant twist perfectly in keeping with the nature of the ghost. It’s just a shame that meant making Arthur a poor writer in need of help, when in fact his account of his experiences showed a fine ability with a pen. Those long, winding sentences beloved of the Victorians are an effective way of creating and atmosphere of eerieness and creeping suspicion.

I had a few moments of physical chills while reading, and I knew what was coming. Had I been left to speculate I’m sure it would have been quite unnerving at times. Arthur’s reaction to the Christmas Eve storytelling and his decision that no one should read his story until after his death make it clear that what he is writing is the perfect truth - exaggerations and lies don’t rattle one so severely after so long, and refusing to give them an audience makes them pointless. Since the events at Eel Marsh House had such an effect upon someone so rational you know they must be the stuff of nightmares.

The early hints of something sinister that Arthur encountered in the town were fairly conventional, but the story took off after the relocation to Eel Marsh. Almost anything would seem scary there, and the setting is as much a character in the book as Arthur or the woman in black. Locked doors, ruins and a graveyard in the grounds, dense fogs that arrive from nowhere, and only a periodic connection to the outside world via a path whose name is evocative of peril make it an ideal location for such a tale. To be vicariously trapped in a haunted house, surrounded by water and quicksand and fog, hearing and seeing things you know aren’t real but can’t escape, is a wonderfully eerie experience (and doubtless would have been even better had this summer produced a blackout and a corresponding opportunity to read by lamplight). The woman in black is spookier than anything more overtly evil would be; her power to terrify comes from the certainty of her ill intent coupled with a total lack of information about the form and direction her malevolence might take. When the truth emerges, it’s possible to see how she ended up the way she did - and why the townspeople won’t talk about her. More of a mystery is Mrs Drablow, who remains little more than a name, although there must have been quite a story in her decades living alone and voluntarily in a house with such a guest.

Rating: B+


Jenny said...

I've been wanting to read this for the longest time! My library never ever ever gets it in, and when they say they have it they don't really have it! Your review makes me want it soooo much.

Anonymous said...

This is a delightfully creepy book. I also read it for the first time recently. Nice post.

Newer Posts Older Posts Home
Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776