Imagine, if you will, a book so spooky that the person responsible for transcribing it from the author’s notes and cassette tape wouldn’t do so, unless there was someone else with them in the house. Such behaviour is more than understandable, given the atmosphere of Susan Hill’s ghost novel The Woman in Black.
Its subsequent evolution into a highly successful West End play (running since 1989), and soon to be released film starring Daniel Radcliffe (aye, he of Harry Potter fame) should not therefore surprise anyone familiar with its source material. It’s got panache, and it’s genuinely chilling.
As someone who enjoys reading books of the supernatural and horror vein, I must say that the layout of the book is not atypical to what one might expect from a ghost story-cum-novel. Hill herself states that it is comprised of a list of ingredients of those things essential to the supernatural, ghostly tale.
So it is that we have the ancient, brooding house surrounded by marsh, a fog that clings to almost everything with chill determination, isolation of aforementioned homestead from mainland by causeway, and a death wreathed in enigmatic mystery; these really are classic hallmarks of the ghostly tale. But there are further elements that perfect this mixture.
The story is also personified in the gentle, respectable, loyal and loving family man, Arthur Kipps. It is via his narration this tale is set. It’s with a Jamesian twist (M.R, not Henry) the book opens at Christmas time. Enjoying this holiday with his loved ones, the narrator is asked, then subtly pushed, into telling a ghost story by his family on Christmas Eve. He refuses, quite strongly, and withdraws, leaving them to ponder this out-of-character behaviour.
Exeunt from these proceedings we find him to be quite shaken. Some event has occurred in his past, so disturbing in nature, that it still haunts him after many years. And he lets us in early on the fact that this thing is a tale of ‘haunting and evil, fear and confusion, horror and tragedy.’ That’s quite a challenge been laid down by the narrator, and author, as they’ve now got to deliver this payload to a hungry audience. Yet deliver it Susan Hill certainly does, and with aplomb.
The narrator then reflects upon the story, for our sakes. As a young man in his firm of solicitors, he is given the case of Mrs Drablow, an old woman who was ‘a rum’un’ as he’s informed by his boss, Mr Bentley. She’s died, and Arthur is to attend her funeral, and to visit her house, Eel Marsh House, to then sort through her papers, returning them to London once done.
So Kipps sets out from Kings Cross, to a specifically undisclosed northern location. His journey is comfortable, inside the warm carriage, he’s fed and satisfied. Hill does a fantastic job in setting the scene even in these small, less pointed areas of plot. The attention to detail, though brief at times, ensures the reader really is made to feel at home in the story, and juxtaposes so effectively when things start to get creepy.
And creepy they soon get. Kipps arrives in the village/town late at night, and soon attends the funeral of the old woman. His enquiries leading to this event are clouded in a sense of mystery, as are brief mentions of the deceased. Then at the funeral he sees a woman in the church, and again at the graveside. He presses the matter with the only other business associate present, and that man’s reaction is one of shock of horror. So begins the narrator’s run in with the woman in black.
It’s the matter of fact recollections of Arthur Kipps, his insistence several times in informing us as he recalls things he sees: ‘I did not believe in ghosts’. Is he telling us, or trying to reassure himself? All such utterances enhance layers of a delightful and carefully crafted sequence that build with constant and steady guidance toward more chilling, and drastic events.
So it is as Kipps stays in Eel Marsh house, and goes through the papers a story unfolds itself to him. But it is fragmentary, and disjointed. The house too, with its sullen and lingering ways, has an effect on him and he sees more things. He is urged by others to take caution, but he’s a young man, and determined to complete his job as best he can, so stays far longer than most might.
I want to write more of Kipps’ adventure, but even with spoiler alerts and leaving out the important stuff, I feel to do so would be to rob the reader of enjoying one of the finest ghost stories ever written. For this book isn’t some slipshod framework put together by Hill to get a few cheap thrills. It’s a thing of both beauty and terror, and its conclusion one of the most powerful I’ve read.
I’ve seen the stage adaptation of The Woman in Black twice now, and each time it succeeded in sending a shiver down my spine (and made me jump from my seat also). Likewise, each time I’ve read this book, it’s not failed to deliver that expected of a ghost tale told by a master.
And make no mistake, Susan Hill certainly is that, standing on firm and equal ground with M.R. James, and Henry James, among others, in the creation of such gorgeous, but shocking, literature.