There has been a lot of talk about the recent film that has been made of The Woman in Black. In fact I saw a short clip of it on TV recently and thought it looked great. I don’t go to the cinema very often these days (3 times last year, twice of those trips to see The Kings Speech was almost unprecedented in the last nine years or so) but I might like to see this one. Although I always like to read the book before I encounter the cinema version, the book is always superior. I downloaded the book to my kindle. When I mentioned to my sister that this would only be the second Susan Hill book that I have read, the first being ‘Howards End is on the Landing’, last year, she was shocked. It is true though, that however many books one reads, there are always popular authors that go over looked, or books that everyone else has read that remain unexplored.
Although I am not a great reader of ghostly spooky tales, I have read and enjoyed some good examples of gothic type stories, by such people as M R James, Wilkie Collins and Elizabeth Gaskell. When I tweeted that I was reading this book, I was warned it was terrifying and not to read it late at night. Well I am not too much of a wimp – and so I did read it at night – it’s a great atmospheric read for late at night.
The Woman in Black is a delightfully chilly tale – in the best tradition of such stories. We do have all the ingredients of the traditional ghost story, a remote location buffeted by the elements, the ghostly figure of a young woman, the sound of a child in distress. Susan Hill has been quite clever in being ambiguous about the date and the exact of location of the story although there are some clues – this adds wonderfully to the sense of mystery and other worldliness. I particularly liked the atmospheric setting of the novel; the descriptions of the landscape, weather and the creepy isolated house are extremely vivid.
The novel opens with Arthur Kipps’s family telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. For Arthur these tales – regarded as nothing more than jolly entertainment by his step children - recall to him events from his past, when as a young man he was required to go to Eel Marsh house to sort through the papers of a recently deceased elderly woman. As an eager 23 year old, delighted to be given some extra responsibility Arthur sets out for Eel Marsh house little expecting what he’ll encounter when he arrives. Arthur finds a village of local people who are quite obviously scared of whatever it is that lies across the salt marshes and the Nine Lives Causeway, that must be taken at low tide to reach the isolated house. The sight of a strange young woman at the funeral service of his firm’s client – leaves him with a growing sense of unease. This unease is only increased when he goes to the house itself to start the job of sorting through the papers of Mrs Drablow. Stormy nights, terrible cries out on the marshes, the sound of a ghostly pony and trap, a locked door, the figure of the woman in black prove a chilling distraction to the work Arthur has to do. Yet the papers that Arthur is searching through begin to tell him of a tragic story from fifty or sixty years earlier. Events slowly start to take an even more sinister turn, the tension building nicely as we reach the dreadful conclusion to Arthur’s story.
I have to say though I wasn’t terrified – thankfully – I really didn’t want to be. Maybe that is because I don’t really believe in ghosts – and there are too many real things to be afraid of out there. I really enjoyed the chilling nature of this book and it made for a lovely curl up with all the lamps on book – I enjoy being given the slight shudders rather than being actually frightened. Having said all that – would I stay overnight in a reportedly haunted house – no! So maybe my disbelief is not that secure.