Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

My Rating: 3.5 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.00 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.67 / 5.00

Arthur Kipps is celebrating Christmas Eve at his country home with his family when the children begin to tell ghost stories. Arthur finds this amusing at first, but soon becomes uneasy and then panic-stricken as his past experiences return to him. He decides that he must write them down to exorcise the ghost that has plagued his life.

Young Arthur is a lawyer in London, dutifully working hard to improve his standing. He is given the task of travelling to the house of the recently deceased Mrs Drablow, where he will seek out all her papers and help to prepare her estate for the beneficiaries. He is told that Mrs Drablow was rather strange, and that her house is in the middle of Eel Marsh and can only be accessed via a causeway at low tide. Arthur travels to the nearby village of Crythin Gifford, where he takes a room in the local inn. Even before he attends the funeral, he finds that the locals become evasive and mysterious when he mentions his duties. Then, at the funeral itself, he sees a woman, dressed all in black, who seems emaciated and emits an unpleasant aura. When he mentions her to the local lawyer, the man panics and rushes away, claiming that he cannot see the woman. Nonetheless, Arthur travels out to the house on the following day to begin his work and sees the woman again and then hears a horse and cart foundering in the marsh. As he continues to stay at the house the apparitions and sounds become more terrifying, leading him to believe that a terrible tragedy has stained the house forever.

This gothic horror story proceeds at a leisurely place, taking loving care over the descriptions of the settings and giving us plenty of time to get to know Arthur. We begin by meeting the older Arthur: we see his wife and family and we learn a little of how his life has turned out. The choice to set the beginning of the novel in a future well beyond the main events of the ‘story’ fits well with the first person perspective. When we are reading someone’s recollections of a period of their life we automatically assume that they will survive whatever incidents we will be reading, so seeing Arthur in the future doesn’t act as a ‘spoiler’. However, the terror that overcomes him, so many years after the events, does make us uneasy about what exactly he is going to relate, and prepares us to be terrified by what he endures. There are also subtle clues in this section that we recall later on, so that we can foresee the final act of horror and we finally find ourselves in Arthur’s shoes in the terrible moment when we realize what is about to happen. Also, Christmas Eve used to be a traditional time for relating morality tales and horror stories in Britain, as we can see in Charles Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’.

Unlike many modern horror stories, this title is mercifully lacking in blood-splat-gore-horror. This is the more psychological horror of Edgar Allen Poe and Bram Stoker: it relies upon the terror produced by the unknown and the inexplicable, rather than simply exposing vast quantities of internal body organs. It made Scott at Iceberg Ink think of the idea that it is often scarier to have something hinted at, but not shown. We share Arthur’s increasing terror as the unusual events move gradually from the merely peculiar to the absolutely murderous. However, we do not share his reaction to these events at the beginning: whilst we KNOW that there is something very wrong with his first meetings with the Woman, he ignores all the signs and continues to deny an otherworld explanation for events. Even when he has had some really terrifying experiences, he recovers and then hides behind his blind faith in his own indestructability and tries to ignore what his instincts, and we, are shouting: “DON”T BE STUPID! RUN AWAY!” Unlike Ron at RonReads, I find this kind of horror far more disturbing than the simple ‘jump out of your seat’ shocks that are the usual fare in most modern horror films.

Other significant aspects of Gothic horror take minor roles in this book. As the story of the Woman is revealed, we find that her life was destroyed by society’s ideas of acceptable behavior. This was a great influence on Dickens, who is himself an influence upon this novel, as he is credited with introducing fog / smog into literature as a way of creating mood. Ms Hill uses the smog in London to create a feeling of foreboding at the beginning of the story, when Arthur is being given his task. Then the sea mist / fog is an important part of the setting out in the marsh, where the loss of vision adds to the claustrophobic, gloomy mood. This morbid fascination with death was also a common motif in Gothic novels, no doubt due to the increased prevalence of death in the increasingly crowded and poverty-stricken cities of the time. Thea at The Book Smugglers makes the great point that Eel Marsh House itself and the surrounding landscape is almost another character, oppressively spreading an air of malevolence and despair.

I enjoyed the writing in this book very much, but I do have a criticism with the pacing: once the haunting began, the pace picked up and began to feel a little rushed. There was such a great set up to the horror that when it actually arrived I would have liked a more prolonged and gradual increase in tension. Also, the way in which Arthur uncovered the story about the Woman seemed far too easy: there really needed to be more subtle and varied ways to drop hints and give us pieces of the picture, which he could then mold into a whole. I felt this was a real weakness, as it made me feel that I was being fobbed off with a hurried way to give him the answers he needed. I also have a nit-pick about the lights, which kept annoying me. The book seems to be set in the early 1900s, at which time there is absolutely no chance that such an isolated house would have had electricity, unless there was a generator, and yet Arthur blithely wanders in and switches on light bulbs. This is only a very minor point, but it really stood out as a sloppy mistake in an otherwise well written and enjoyable read, and so it broke me out of the book, which is never a good thing.

As an aside, it appears that the recent film has taken great liberties with the original story, which is unfortunately all too common.

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