Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

Last week, The Boyfriend and I decided to run away together.  We shacked up in a cold but homely bungalow that used to belong to my grandparents in a tiny seaside village called Carnlough on the Antrim Coast of Northern Ireland.  When we tired of exploring the village, we visited a dinosaur exhibition at the Ulster Museum in Belfast and trekked around an early 20th Century village.  We returned "home" each day exhausted to a house full of cassette tapes with no toaster.  It was like stepping back in time. 

I always spend weeks deliberating which books to take with me on holiday - and I tend to arrive with a small library having grossly over-estimated the time I would have to spend reading in between adventures.  This time, The Woman in Black by Susan Hill found its way into my suitcase and it turned out to be the perfect reading material for the old-fashioned atmosphere of my trip.  And being quite short, it was a breeze to read within my six day time limit - I finished the final chapter on the boat home.

Arthur Kipps, a junior solicitor, is summoned to attend the funeral Mrs Alice Drablow, the house's sole inhabitant of Eel Marsh House, unaware of the tragic secrets which lie hidden behind the shuttered windows. The house stands at the end of a causeway, wreathed in fog and mystery, but it is not until he glimpses a wasted young woman, dressed all in black, at the funeral, that a creeping sense of unease begins to take hold, a feeling deepened by the reluctance of the locals to talk of the woman in black - and her terrible purpose.
- Synopsis from Waterstones

 As a child, I was absolutely intrigued by ghost stories.  My friends and I would sit for hours in my basement with the lights off, trying to outdo one another with tales of the supernatural until they became so outlandish that they descended into humour.  But in recent years, my interest has waned.  The conventional straight-forward ghost story form is not very visible on the modern adult market and as such I have come to regard the ghost story as a rather childish genre.

My mother, however, is a huge fan of anything creepy and sinister.  The Woman in Black has long been one of her favourite books and she has been recommending it to me for years, but the notion of reading an old fashioned ghost story from a modern writer has never really appealed to me.  However, with the success of the film my interest has been steadily increasing - I tend to make a point of reading books before watching the film adaptations.

The verdict?  I could not put it down.  I carried it around in my bag all week hoping to snatch a few moments to read whilst we journeyed to and from our destinations.  I came home exhausted from the day's adventures with another planned for the crack of dawn and yet refused to sleep until I had devoured a few more chapters of The Woman in Black.

Hill masterfully creates the eery atmosphere vital to all ghost stories through the secluded setting of Eel Marsh House, with the treacherous Nine Lives Causeway frequently rendering the house completely inaccessible - and therefore inescapable.  The sense of threat evoked by the haunting Arthur Kipps experiences during his visits to the house is greatly intensified by his complete isolation and stranded state.  The sinister atmosphere lingers after the book has been put down.  I frequently found myself dashing down the hall to the bathroom with my heart racing, half expecting the woman in black to emerge from the darkness around me.

Thomas Hardy believed that places are as important as people in fiction, because people are formed by the landscapes in which they are born and bred, though that is probably less true now than it was in his day, when, especially in rural areas, they tended to remain rooted in one place. But a harsh climate and a hard landscape toughen people. A low-lying, dank place tends to be lowering to the spirits, and we all know that constant wind drives people mad. I think the pathetic fallacy is less fallacious than is often supposed.
- Susan Hill quoted by The Guardian
The atmospheric setting becomes almost a 'character' in the book, whilst the protagonist Arthur Kipp takes a back seat.  We are given only the most basic factual details regarding Arthur's lifestyle, family and employment and receive very little insight into his feelings apart from the terror and trauma he experiences in direct relation to the haunting.  As the book begins by introducing us to Arthur's older 'present' self, there is very minimal character development throughout the novel aside from the revelation of the cause of Arthur's intense emotional distress when his stepchildren press him to tell a ghost story.  Minor characters such as Samuel Daily and even the dog Spider are far more endearing than Arthur, and consequently, any risk to the dog's well being causes more of an emotional impact upon the reader than the persistent sense of threat towards Arthur's.  I would have liked to have known Arthur better, so to speak.  If the reader felt a true connection to Arthur, it would allow us to experience the emotions he feels during the ghostly visitations, rather than merely receiving a second-hand account.

However, the reader's distance from Arthur enables Hill to present the menacing figure of the woman in black as the true protagonist of the novel.  While I found the explanation of the woman's motivation for haunting Eel Marsh House adequate, I was rather perplexed by the intensity of her hatred and cruelty to those who had done her no harm. However, she is a wonderfully frightening ghostly presence whose tale evokes sympathy in spite of her malicious intent.  Rather than wasting time on excessive characterisation and unnecessary details, the focus of the novel is entirely on the eery atmosphere and the haunting itself, making it a truly gripping read.  Hill is not afraid to shock her reader and does not shy away from continuing the fear and horror evoked by her novel to its conclusion.

The Boyfriend and I watched the film adaptation of The Woman in Black last night and whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the film, it has very little in common with the narrative that inspired it.  The book holds quite a few surprises even for those who have already seen the film and I would recommend it to anyone who is in the mood for an authentically spooky tale.  Hill's novel is adult and convincing, yet retains the feel of feel of a true ghost story recounted one's basement with the lights out, leaving the reader eager to learn what happens next with the turn of every page.

8 / 10

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