The Woman in Black

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The Woman in Black by Susan Hill, book reviewThe Woman in Black is a classic of modern ghost stories. First published in 1983, the story has had a varied existence as first a novel, then a play, film, TV adaptation and object of study for GCSE and A level English students. It has become the second longest running play in the West End of London (beaten only by The Mousetrap), and has most lately risen to prominence again as the subject of a new big budget film starring Daniel Radcliffe. To mark the release of the film, Profile Books have brought out a handsome new hardback edition of the novel, with cover and chapter headings decorated in beautifully gothic woodcut images and printed on paper that feels luxuriously thick and creamy to anyone more used to reading cheap mass-market paperbacks. I did meet the author Susan Hill at a Cheltenham Literature Festival event discussing writing ghost stories a couple of years ago, and she struck me then as a woman who was a master of this type of story; I mentally added her name to my “must read” list right then. It has taken me until now to do so (with apologies, but the list has a tendency to get unmanageably long at festival times), but the wait was worth it.

The book tells the story of a young solicitor named Arthur Kipps, a junior employee at a London practice during an unnamed period which I took to be somewhere in the inter-war years. Ambitious and seeking promotion within his firm, Arthur leaps at the opportunity presented to him by his employer one morning: he is to take that afternoon’s train north from King’s Cross to visit the coastal village of Crythin Gifford. Whilst there, he is to first be the representative of his firm at the funeral of their former client Mrs Alice Drablow, and then, in the absence of family members to do so, to go through the paperwork in her house looking for items to help settle her estate. Arthur does as he is bid, but is surprised to find Mrs Drablow’s funeral to be a sorry affair, with just himself and the deceased’s former land agent arriving to mourn her passing. That is until Arthur spies a third figure slipping into the back of the church during the service – a thin, pale woman dressed in black, old-fashioned clothes, who leaves before he can offer to walk her back into the village afterwards.

With his first duty taken care of, Arthur makes plans to travel out to Mrs Drablow’s isolated property, Eel Marsh House. The house is unusual, given that it stands on a small island in the middle of an expanse of tidal marshes, accessible only for short periods each day via Nine Lives Causeway, a narrow road that lends itself better to visiting via pony and trap than it does by motor car. He is dropped off at the house by a local man on the afternoon of the funeral with nothing more than the house key and a promise to return for him in the early evening, when the tide will once again make the passage accessible. Excited by his sudden freedom and the stark beauty of the location, Arthur sets out to explore the house and island – but then notices a familiar figure standing and staring at him in the grounds beyond the house. It is the woman in black from the funeral, a woman who disappears when Arthur sets out to follow her. Unsettled now, and finding his freedom closer to isolation, he waits impatiently for the pony and trap to return, only for the sea fog known locally as the frets to roll in, making the causeway dangerous to pass, the outside world an obscured and disorientating place, and trapping Arthur at Eel Marsh House.

“It is the sort of reading matter that makes you quite glad that there is someone else in the house with you when you read it…”

The Woman in Black feels like a book much older than one written in the early 1980s. It is presented in a very formal style, and is reminiscent of the gothic novels of the 19th century, although is not truly gothic. This novel is neither a thriller nor a horror story, and it simply as it states on the cover, a ghost story. At the time it was written, true ghost stories had fallen out of fashion and ghosts only seemed to appear in literature with no great purpose other than to scare the reader. As Susan Hill noted in a recent interview in the Guardian, “There are dozens of little books of ‘true’ ghost stories, usually sorted by geographical location, but almost without exception the ghosts have no purpose and so the stories are ultimately unsatisfying. A headless horseman rides by, a phantom coach clatters down a dark road, a veiled lady drifts up a staircase and through a wall, a pale and misty child’s face is glimpsed at a window – and that is all. The ghosts are there and they apparently go through the same motions again and again. It is ultimately uninteresting.” She set out to do something quite different – create a ghost with a clear purpose that drives her story along.

The result is a memorable tale that I wouldn’t say is frightening, but does create a sense of quiet unease in the reader. It is the sort of reading matter that makes you quite glad that there is someone else in the house with you when you read it, especially in the case of one key scene towards the end that left me feeling unsettled in a manner I rarely experience from books. I was once told by an English teacher that a good story is one that makes you feel or experience something when you read it; The Woman in Black certainly achieved this for me. I especially liked that one chapter names was “whistle and I’ll come to you”, a reference to the classic MR James ghost story, “O whistle and I’ll come to you my lad”, another real spine-tingler if ever I read one.

This book was a short but thoroughly satisfying read, and one I would recommend to any reader wanting to try a really well-written ghost story. After reading this book, I’ll certainly be interested in reading more by Hill, and I would also quite like to see how the recent film adaption manages to bring the story to life.

Highly recommended.

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
Published by Profile Books, 2012
With thanks to Profile Books for providing this review copy.

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The Woman in Black
by Susan Hill

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Written by collingwood21

Collingwood21 is a 32 year old university administrator and ex-pat northerner living down south. Married. Over-educated. Loves books, history, archaeology and writing.

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