Set on the obligatory English moor, on an isolated causeway, the story has as its hero one Arthur Kipps, an up-and-coming young solicitor who has come north to attend the funeral and settle the estate of Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. The routine formalities he anticipates give way to a tumble of events and secrets more sinister and terrifying than any nightmare: the rocking chair in the nursery of the deserted Eel Marsh House, the eerie sound of pony and trap, a child's scream in the fog, and, most dreadfully, and for Kipps most tragically, the woman in black.
As I sat in the theatre late last year a trailer began that seemed to be a post-Victorian era ghost story starring Daniel Radcliffe of HARRY POTTER fame. It also looked like it was working off the notion of creepy & spooky in place of gore & gratuitousness. I didn’t get out to see it when it came out and part of that was because... I can be a bit of a wuss and can get freaked out easily. So the other day I was perusing the bookstore as I am wont to do and what do I spy? THE WOMAN IN BLACK, a slender book by author Susan Hill.
Huh. I thought. I didn’t know it was based on a book.
Now, I can’t argue when it is a good idea to read the book first and when it is not, but in this case I truly wanted to know the story and figured I might fare better with the spookiness of the book rather than with the visual frights of the film. So I happily picked it up.
Now, I’d never read (or even heard of) Susan Hill before, but what I immediately noticed was the ease and charm of her prose. She crafts stories like a master wordsmith and I quickly settled into this period piece. In fact, I fell so in love with her yarn spinning and story that I wished I’d been sitting in a big comfy chair in front of a roaring fire with a scotch and candlelight. It’s that kind of book, and she’s that kind of author. She weaves a fantastic ghost story and then walks alongside you as you read it... nudging you, whispering hushed words, and creating deep, moving shadows to be jumped at.
Sidenote: I am in the last stages of moving house and I got within about ten pages of the end of the book on my way home on the subway, and so I decided to quickly finish it in my old place (where I’d gone after work to get rid of some lingering junk and trash). So there I sat on the steps leading down to my old basement apartment, lit by the only remaining [bare] bulb over my head, nose tucked in the ending of the story. I don’t think it helped that there were no other lamps (as they have been moved), nor other furniture of any kind in my old apt. but I actually shivered a few times and the ending truly creeped me out sitting there in the cold on the edge of the dark.
The story is simple, but told in such a way that it sucks you right in and makes you experience it with the wonderfully developed characters. Like I said above, Hill’s prose is delicious and wonderful throughout. Arthur Kipps' family is telling ghost stories at Christmas in 1920 and they ask him for one, to which he is initially quite reticent, but eventually he writes a memoir recalling the most frightening experience of his life. We then jump back to when he was a young London Solicitor who is sent to take care of the estate and papers of an old woman who has died in a small northern village in the country. Upon his arrival, strange townsfolk and reactions about the old woman's house in question out on the marsh lead Kipps to believe that something isn’t quite right. Upon seeing a strange and sickly-looking woman in black at the old woman’s funeral events begin to unfold at the house in question (Eel Marsh House) which is located at the end of a long tidal causeway.
The book is a brilliant slow burn, as Arthur begins to experience stranger and stranger phenomenon but can never truly account for any of it. He spends his days convincing himself that he is quite alright and steels himself to returning to the spooky house and finishing his work, but by night the strange goings-on serve to unnerve, distract, and ultimately frighten him to his very core. This is a gothic story in every sense of the word. It’s a carefully constructed narrative that gently reveals aspects of the underlying backstory, while all the time affecting Arthur in deeper and more nerve-wracking ways. The addition of the dog Spider (whom Arthur is lent by a local land baron) is a plot point you assume to be a good thing since she will keep our intrepid solicitor company, yet it only serves to crank up the tension with a dog’s senses being so acute. For example, Arthur will wake to find Spider standing at attention, every hair on end, growling low at a closed door. I don’t need to tell you that as a dog owner this is something that always gives me gooseflesh when our dog does it. They have that sixth sense you see. Spider is a wonderful addition to the events, but I fear that the poor thing only joins Arthur in his fright.
If you can’t tell already I flat out adored THE WOMAN IN BLACK and it prompted me to go right out last night and buy all the Susan Hill books that I could find. It only took one book to make me a big, big fan of her writing, and I love that she has so many books under her belt (the book in review here came out in 1983 originally I believe).
If you are looking for subtle spooks and scares and a lot of “tell but don’t see” then you will have a hell of a time with THE WOMAN IN BLACK. Someone once said “The human mind can scare itself far more than anything that can be put on the screen” and I am a wholehearted supporter of that notion. The fact that this book leads you to many scares without fully revealing everything about them is what kept me on my toes and treated me to proper, bone-chilling scares. Hill basically allows your mind to conjure a lot of the fright's from her prose and that works very well. I am altogether more frightened by the thought of what is behind the billowing curtain than I am if you show me what is behind the billowing curtain.
Now, I have since heard tell of the differences between the book and the film and that they are large and staggering. It almost feels as if the producers of the film decided that they needed to “show” and not “tell” and for me that’s never a great thing. It feels like pandering to the audience, which is something that Hill doesn’t do in her book, and I applaud her for it. The movie folk seemingly decided that the subtle nuances of the book were too much to expect from their audience and so they have made a simple, yet elegant, and spooky ghost story…become merely a simple movie with a few “boo” moments thrown in. I will still see the film as I am quite curious, but I am endlessly glad that I not only read the book first, but that it led me to discover such a wonderfully entertaining author.
If you've not yet discovered Susan Hill's work then this would be a great starter book. The other books I picked up are fiction and she also writes a rather thick series of mystery books as well. She's won a number of awards and quite frankly I can see why now that I've read this one. Not to be missed folks!