Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill

A finely-crafted traditional ghost story best read alone in a big dark house.

The Woman in Black

Vintage, 1983, 164 pages

The classic ghost story by Susan Hill: a chilling tale about a menacing spectre haunting a small English town.

Arthur Kipps is an up-and-coming London solicitor who is sent to Crythin Gifford — a faraway town in the windswept salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway — to attend the funeral and settle the affairs of a client, Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. Mrs. Drablow's house stands at the end of the causeway, wreathed in fog and mystery, but Kipps is unaware of the tragic secrets that lie hidden behind its sheltered windows. The routine business trip he anticipated quickly takes a horrifying turn when he finds himself haunted by a series of mysterious sounds and images — a rocking chair in a deserted nursery, the eerie sound of a pony and trap, a child's scream in the fog, and, most terrifying of all, a ghostly woman dressed all in black. Psychologically terrifying and deliciously eerie, The Woman in Black is a remarkable thriller of the first rate.

Ghost stories are not effective without atmosphere. That's why we tell them around campfires or late at night in dark rooms. And for a generation raised on slasher flicks and daily news about terrorist attacks and school shootings, it's a lost cause to try to "scare" people with words in a book.

Ah, yes, yes, indeed. All the time I had been listening to their ghoulish, lurid inventions, and their howling and groans, the one thought that had been on my mind, and the only thing I could have said was, "No, no, you have none of you any idea. This is all nonsense, fantasy, it is not like this. Nothing so blood-curdling and becreepered and crude—not so... so laughable. The truth is quite other, and altogether more terrible."

So, The Woman in Black is a traditional ghost story, told in the style of a Victorian ghost story, though the setting is approximately Edwardian. (It's never made precisely clear when it takes place, but there are electric lights and automobiles, so certainly early 20th century.) It starts with Arthur Kipp listening to his children and stepchildren telling ghost stories, and soon he drifts into reminiscing about his own personal ghost story. Which is, indeed, a terrible one.

Susan Hill doesn't try to do anything particularly new with the story. The ghosts are not clever or different or original. There's no deep hidden meaning, or if there is, I didn't feel inclined to dig for it. But what she does very well is convey atmosphere.

I ran quickly and lightly over the short stretch of rough grass between the graves toward the gap in the wall, and came out almost on the edge of the estuary. At my feet, the grass gave way within a yard or two to sand, then shallow water. All around me the marshes and the flat salt dunes stretched away until they merged with the rising tide. I could see for miles. There was no sign at all of the woman in black, nor any place in which she could have concealed herself.

Who she was — or what — and how she had vanished, such questions I did not ask myself. I tried not to think about the matter at all but, with the very last of the energy that I could already feel draining out of me rapidly, I turned and began to run, to flee from the graveyard and the ruins and to put the woman at as great a distance behind as I possibly could. I concentrated everything upon my running, hearing only the thud of my own body on the grass, the escape of my own breath. And I did not look back.

Kipps, as a young London solicitor, is sent to an old mansion on the English moors called, appropriately enough, Eel Marsh House. The sole occupant, the elderly widow Mrs. Drablow, has just passed away, and his firm sends him to attend her funeral, sort through all her papers, and wrap up her affairs.

Eel Marsh House is situated at the end of Nine Lives Causeway, which cuts through the marshes and is completely submerged at high tide, cutting the house off from the nearby village of Crythin Gifford. Kipps is not surprised on arrival to find the villagers generally unwilling to talk about Eel Marsh House or Mrs. Drablow. She was a secluded old bat living alone in an isolated creepy mansion, so he is expecting ghost stories and local superstition. He takes on the job as a modern, rational fellow who does not believe in ghosts.

Naturally, he learns that ghosts believe in him. Even so, he continues to behave in a sensible fashion. He doesn't keep playing stupid when there's no other explanation, but he also doesn't immediately say "Fuck this, I'm going back to London." After all, it's just a ghost — what can it do to him?

He finds out.

There are, of course, some secrets to uncover, and a tragic climax, but the twists and turns of the tale (which are really fairly predictable) aren't what makes this a good story, but the descriptions of Eel Marsh House, especially when Kipps (as all fools do in ghost stories) spends the night alone there. The trips across Nine Lives Causeway and the dreadful secret of the woman in black will give you a few shivers if you read this in the right mood in the right environment.

The Woman in Black (2012)

The Woman in Black (2012)

Okay, ignore Daniel Radcliffe trying to deliver sexy Leading Man five-o'clock shadow. Also ignore the opening soundtrack, whose plinky piano notes are, uh, suspiciously reminiscent of another movie theme.

The movie follows Hollywood formula much the way the book follows ghost story formula. We start with creepy little girls:

The creepy girls in the Woman in Black

Hmm, does this remind you of anything?

The Shining twins

As supernatural thrillers go, The Woman in Black was only okay. It changes a lot of details from the book, and they gave it a completely different ending. The movie is a lot more Amityville Horror and The Shining than the book was, with more gruesome effects and a lot less subtlety. The movie tries to generate thrills from sudden noises and abrupt ghostly appearances in windows, mirrors, etc. The book does it with atmospheric dread.

Poll #1911917 The Woman in Black

Have you read The Woman in Black?

Yes, and I liked it.
Yes, and I didn't like it.
No, but now I want to.
No - and I'm not interested.

Did you see the movie?

Yes, and I liked it.
Yes, and I didn't like it.

Do you find ghost stories scary?

Yes, I believe in ghosts and they freak me out!
Yes, but only if I'm in the right mood.
No, but I can still appreciate a good shiver.
No, it's all nonsense and it doesn't affect me.

Verdict: Save this one for Halloween. Highly recommended for late night reading alone in a dark house!

My complete list of book reviews.
Tags: books, horror, movies, netflix, reviews, susan hill

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