I remember watching the film on fast forward because I was by myself and it was dark, I don’t like scary films very much, so I came to the book with some trepidation. My last foray with a ghost story, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, had scared the life out of me whilst the film left me quite bored and, frankly, not remotely frightened.
So The Woman in Black is palpably a ghost story. “Heartstoppingly Chilling” the cover declares. Oh, what is to become of me?
The story starts on Christmas Eve in the home of the protagonist, Arthur Kipps, as he prepares for a family Christmas. We learn that Arthur is married to Esme and that they have lived in this house for 20 years. Arthur is a lawyer and his boss, Mr Bentley, was with him when he first set eyes on the house. Several years later he was able to buy it and proposed to Esme there. Arthur was a widower when he proposed to Esme we learn and we are also told that there are certain events in Arthur’s past that Mr Bentley feels responsible for.
The atmosphere of suspense is already starting to be developed.
Arthur joins his wife and her children round the fire that Christmas Eve and finds them telling ghost stories. They plump him for one but he becomes so over-wrought that he leaves the group in a manner which is quite out of character for his calm temperament. Whilst walking in the grounds of the house he resolves to tell his ghost story but in his own time and to put it on paper, so as perhaps to be done with it, to put it to bed.
His story therefore begins in London with a classic Hardy description of the fog clinging to the city buildings and making travel very difficult. HILL is a contemporary writer and this book was written in 1983 but the setting, whilst not specified, is clearly at some point in the 1800’s. The description of London not only has a Hardy influence to it in terms of the weather but feels very Dickensian. Arthur works in offices in Temple and is summoned to Mr Bentley’s office where he is instructed to travel to Crythin Gifford, a small town somewhere in England, where he is to attend the funeral of their client Alice Drablow and then to go to her house, Eel Marsh House, in order to review her papers to assist with closing the account. He departs London very quickly with only time to leave a note of explanation for his fiancée, Stella, before he takes the first of his trains to his destination. He is to stay at a pub in the village and a passenger he meets on the final train of his journey, Samuel Daily, drops him there. He and the pub landlord both hint at issues around Alice and her house but give no detail at all. Again HILL continues to build the suspense of the tale by talking of the time with the view of hindsight, “…perhaps I recall those sensations the more vividly because of the contrast that presented with what was to come after”.
The next day Arthur attends the funeral of Alice at the local church where it is only he and the local solicitor, Mr Jerome, in attendance though Arthur becomes aware of the presence of a lady dressed in funeral attire sitting further back in the church during the service. He resolves to assist her to leave as she looks frail but finds that she has disappeared before he is able to. When gathered around the grave he notices her, stood well back. She looks quite ill and again he thinks to assist her but again sees that she is nowhere to be seen upon their departure. Arthur asks Mr Jerome, outside the church, about the woman in black describing that she looked quite ill and wondering if they could help her home.
“Mr Jerome stopped dead. He was staring at me…Mr Jerome looked frozen, pale, his throat moving as if he were unable to utter…”I did not see a young woman””.
The tale continues to cover the time Arthur spends at the house and his experiences there. His terrible experiences there. The saving grace of the fear is the calmness that HILL installs in the story by giving him a dog, Spider, who accompanies him on his quest. The dog adds to the tension at moments by sensing things on the other side of doors but also calms moments by giving Arthur companionship in moments of terrible fear. Sounds that can not be explained. Further sightings of the woman in black. All leading to a ghostly finale.
This is a short book masterfully executed. I think I held my breath reading it. It was full of tension built from the start and it did not fail to deliver. I had not read any of Susan HILL’s novels before though had seen them on shelves wherever I went. I thought she was one of those pulp fiction authors. I was never drawn to them. Recently I read “Howards End is on the Landing” which is a piece of her non-fiction work where she tells of having spent a year re-visting her own library. I liked her style of writing tremendously but an incident occurred that made me love her even more when I shared my delight on Twitter with the book and yet my shock at having put £200 worth of books into my Hive shopping basket as a result of her recommendations. The Susan Hill replied that she was delighted that I had liked the book and though she thought I may well like the follow up – Jacob’s Room is Full of Books – she couldn’t possibly ask me to also buy that so she would send it to me!! Delighted by her kindness I went and bought this book in Waterstones in the hope that she would get some money from me! I think as a result of this I have found a new favourite author!
Have you read any of her books? I know recently when I shared that I loved Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, I was advised to read Hill’s sequel, Mrs De Winter. I initially balked at it as I don’t think there can be a sequel to Rebecca but having fallen swiftly in love with Mrs Hill I have now bought it and am engaged with it happily. It is amazing that she has found that same voice of Mrs De Winter.
Anyway, back to business and the matter of this specific review, I would heartily recommend The Woman in Black, it is a good old fashioned ghost story with plenty of suspense and fearful moments, well written and masterfully executed. I think even if you are not a fan of Hardy and his descriptions of the weather you will enjoy the description of the fog here for it is another tool used to build the suspense.