The Woman In Black
Author: Suzanne Hill
Let’s face it, in a global saturation of vampires, were-creatures, demons, slashers, very rarely is intelligent horror given a look-in and rarely still is it so simple yet irrepressibly effective. Susan Hill’s gothique novella “The Woman in Black” is an exercise of a sparse genre (the ghost story in it’s purest form) that doesn’t fall back on sensationalism or ghostly howls and chains, but on the dynamism and quality of atmosphere.
Young solicitor Arthur Kipps is sent on an assignment from London in order to secure the financial and estate affairs of the recently departed Mrs. Alice Drablow in the sleepy town of Crythin Gifford on the north-east coast of the United Kingdom. He quickly discovers that Drablow was not well-liked as evidenced by the lack of mourners at her funeral, but that is not the most queer aspect- among the gravestones, Kipps notices a shrouded woman dressed all in black and transient as the fog that surrounds this quiet little hamlet. Odder still, nobody else seems to notice her presence and when Kipps inquires about the mysterious lady, the villagers are quick to change the subject. In spite of this and in the interest of work, Kipps takes up temporary residence at Drablow’s estate, the secluded Eel Marsh House, situated on the dangerous marshes and dominated by sea frets outside the town proper that is regularly subject to flooding from the Nine Lives Causeway at high tide. Undaunted, Kipps goes about his work, but it’s not long before he becomes subject to strange and oddly frightening events. Is it just his imagination running away with him in this decrepit manor or is it something far more than he deigns to imagine?
A few of you probably know that this book has since been adapted into a stage play and two major motion pictures, the first being a BBC production starring Adrian Rawlins as Kipps, the latest rendition being courtesy of the newly-restored Hammer pictures, starring Daniel Radcliffe in the same role which was actually better than I would have thought. Given ghost stories don’t nearly get as much dear and decorations as other horror staples do, I read Hill’s book blind yet optimistic given I had heard healthy accolades about it. When I finished reading, I was so happy that Hill was able to deliver a brisk yet prime example of how to write a ghost story WELL. Hill wisely elected to compose her story in the Gothic style which makes perfect sense to the context and setting of the story, sure it may seem token, but Hill ensures that she milks that cliché and gives it a compelling flavour.
Obviously, the most major element that aids the story’s favour is the imposing and enigmatic environs of Eel Marsh because it is completely integral to the events that unfold in the story. When I read it, I could actually feel the cold and salty fog around me, I could smell the pungent, earthy salinity of the sea air that washed in over the Causeway, the ground sink and slosh below my feet as I walked upon it- I was Kipps during his tenure living on that foreboding land. Hill doesn’t waste her time with lengthy set-up that is superfluous, she is clear, conscience and directly imaginative and her words do not spoon-fed the reader- the rest is up to your imagination. When describing the mystifying and abnormal events that occur in the house and on the marshes, Hill isn’t masturbatory in giving every scrap of detail, she has confidence in you as the reader to fill in the blanks she leaves. Even if you are not frightened, you will at least be ill at ease and that is precisely what a successful atmosphere does to your senses.
The only major negative element that comes to my mind that I feel I should address is the penultimate moment of realisation that Kipps has when he solves the mystery (or so he thinks). It felt a little rushed, as if Hill wanted to reach the end of the tale, which is surprising considering how much tension she has been able to wind around the reader up until that point- perhaps she was running out of time to get this published? I don’t know. Mayhap I am asking a little too much, but when you read it, decide for yourself.
All in all, Hill’s chillernatural story is not what the academics cite of they define ‘classic’ (pretentious gits) when it comes to the horror brand, but in my opinion, “The Woman in Black” is perhaps the contemporary answer to Henry James’ “The Turning of The Screw”- subtle yet full of suggestion, brisk though on the whole satisfying, intense yet intimate. I’m not saying “MOAR GHOST STORIES!1!” but what I am trying to say is “MOAR QUALITY STORIES!1!” because that is what “The Woman in Black” is- quality.
Review written by Bea Harper