My claim to expertise has been compromised!
(Readers be like: )
How dare I claim to be an expert on haunted house literature when I have only just recently read The Woman in Black by Susan Hill! I am sooo late to the game – very late! I apologize for my tardiness.
(Readers be like: )
This is a major faux pas, since what we have here is a modern “classic”, in every sense of the word. The Woman in Black is a novella of high quality. It serves as the definitive model for the various adaptions that premiered across various mediums including two films (Made for British TV movie of 1989 and Made for the Big Screen in 2012) and one play (In London 1987 ). It relays a standard and reminds us of the “shoulds” of a ghost story; it should be descriptive, mysterious, suspenseful, and of course scary. In addition – Susan writes with a nineteenth century style, giving the story a welcoming Gothic flavor . All of this is a testament to its greatness; a greatness that I should not have ignored for so long.
The story is simple. Who needs a lot of complexity when “simple” gets the job done, right? Anyway, retired lawyer Arthur Kipps refuses to join with his wife and stepchildren in the frivolity of telling ghost stories, for he takes the matter seriously. His real experience with ghosts rivals all of their silly yarns. His true tale is disturbing and deadly; his family wouldn’t understand.
As a young London lawyer, Arthur is sent to the remote coastal village of Crythin Gifford to attend to the affairs of the late Mrs. Alice Drablow. He must attend her funeral and then retrieve all of the significant legal documents that are scattered about at her former place of residence – Eel Marsh House (gotta love that name!) At her funeral, he sees a mysterious, sickly woman dressed in black. When Arthur mentions her to another funeral attendee, the other freaks out and won’t admit to seeing her. Likewise, no one in the village wants to discuss the late Mrs. Drablow. They want nothing to do with her house, which exists a few miles outside the village. It is surrounded my marshes. It is impossible to get there at high tide. Arthur heeds not the warnings of the people, for he has a job to do. He stays all alone at Eel Marsh House. In the end he will experience something so horrific that he will not be able to share the story with his stepchildren many years later.
As I read this novella and prepared for this review, I could not help but notice parallels between several aspects of this story and certain themes that I have written about here at this blog. First, it pays homage to the “Christmas Ghost Story”, a topic I have written about extensively (For starters, there’s this: Christmas Ghosts and Haunted Houses ). The ghost story sessions mentioned at the beginning of this novella occur on Christmas Eve. One of Arthur’s stepchildren correctly points out that such a pastime is part of the English Christmas tradition; at least it was in the days of yore. I am reminded a bit about the Christmas haunted house story by the name of Smee. (See Review of Smee – A Christmas Ghost Story by A.M. Burrage. To date, this post receives the most traffic). Like Arthur Kipps, the narrator of the ghost story in Smee is reluctant to take part in certain holiday festivities on account of a past terrifying experience. In Smee, the activity that frightens him is a hide-and-seek type game. In The Woman in Black, it is the telling of the ghost story that is unsettling. In both cases, readers learn of the backstory that causes these protagonists to fret on Christmas Eve. In both scenarios, its is this backstory that will turn into the main story.
Second, the haunted house of this novella is surrounded by terrain that is descriptively creepy. Ghostly grounds are a nice compliment to the haunted house that stands on its domain. I wrote about this here: Ghostly Grounds: Explorations Outside of the Haunted Houses of Film and Literature. While eerie events take place inside the house (inside the locked nursery!), most of the terror takes place outside the walls of Eel Marsh House. There is a nearby cemetery where Arthur once again sees the woman in black. Even more creepier are the marshes. Only by a Causeway can a traveler make safe passage to the house. However, the frequent sea frets often obscure the safe passages. It is here out on these foggy marshes that Arthur hears what I deem to be the most terrifying element of the story. In a good ghost story, things that are not seen are more frightening then then the stuff spoiled by sight. Had I read The Woman in Black before writing the “Ghostly Grounds…” article, I certainly would have made reference to Susan Hill’s story.
Finally, Susan Hill strives for the style of the traditional English ghost story. In my opinion she succeeds at this feat. I have written about the traditional English ghost story, in articles such as J.S. LeFanu and Haunted Houses and Everything I Know About Haunted Houses I Learned from British Literature . First of all, though published in 1983, the book is written in the Gothic style that permeates these ghostly tales of yore. For instance, The Woman in Black is told in the first person and is a story within a story, which was a common plot device back then. The sentences are long and they often give way to passive voice. Susan Hill will write “my spirits rose” instead of “I began to feel better” or “you look unwell” instead of “you look sick.” Furthermore, the story is saturated with descriptions, often about the sky, the grounds and the weather.
What does this style do for the story? A lot! In establishes tone and wraps readers in a certain kind of chilling mood; a mood that modern ghost stories just aren’t able to invoke. And yet, with all its mimicry of the old style, there is something “modern” hidden within that I cannot explain. Somehow this work stands apart from Hill’s literary predecessors. Perhaps it’s the absence of archaic terminology that I often stumble upon when reading the ghosts stories of yesteryears. Maybe she benefits by learning from the old stories in a way that the authors of the traditional stories could not since they were but fledglings of their time. I’m just guessing here. But this “something” that I’m so desperately trying to convey testifies to the overall mystery that surrounds this novel. Heck, even the time period of the story is somewhat enigmatic. Like most gothic tales, this is a period piece. But Hill never explicitly states the year. Cars appear in the book, but so do traps and horses. A man on the train “takes out his watch”, he doesn’t look at his wrist. Telephones are mentioned, but so is the telegraph. Often communication is left to old fashion letters and telegrams.
I have heard good things about the 2012 film version of the book starring Daniel Radcliffe – Good ol’ Harry Potter! I am looking forward to seeing and reviewing that film. But the book is a tough act to follow, so we’ll just have to see. But I’m optimistic. I’m sure I will enjoy it, but probably not as much as the novella.