Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Book Review - Susan Hill's The Woman in Black

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
Published by: Vintage
Publication Date: 1983
Format: Paperback, 164 Pages
Rating: ★★
To Buy

Arthur Kipps could easily contribute to his family's tradition of ghost stories on Christmas Eve... only his ghost story is so dark and so disturbing he dare not utter it. After the holidays he decides he will commit it to paper so that it is recorded, exorcised from his life. A life that was destroyed by him going to Crythin Gifford to deal with the estate of Mrs. Alice Drablow. As a young solicitor he was excited at the opportunity this job gave him to prove his worth. He planned to spend a few days sorting out the elderly widow's papers and return to London and his fiance. Though the townspeople seemed reluctant to endorse his staying out at Eel Marsh House by himself. Arthur thought it was because of the Nine Lives Causeway which would cut him off from the mainland during high tide... but the seclusion wasn't the only reason. The main reason is a woman in black Arthur saw at Mrs. Drablow's funeral. A woman whose appearance presages something which the villagers dare not discuss. Despite vocal opposition Arthur ensconces himself at Eel Marsh House and is subjected to many supernatural apparitions, terrifying noises coming from the causeway, as well as many revelations. He learns who the woman in black is and what she wants, and what she will take from him... though, even in death, it looks like she will forever be unsatisfied.

I remember when the Daniel Radcliffe adaptation of this book arrived in cinemas, everyone who saw it kept insisting that it didn't capture the book. How The Woman in Black was a classic of Gothic storytelling and the stage adaptation was brilliant, but how I should avoid the movie and just go to the source. Of course I did both. I picked up the book at Barnes and Noble and then I eventually got around to watching the movie. Oddly for me I actually decided to watch the movie first and was unimpressed and confused. The sequel, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, which had almost nothing to do with the book or the adaptation, might actually be my favorite among the three. As for the book, I don't know if it's because people were building it up to me or if it's just that horror films and other Gothic stories have gone so far beyond what Hill did here in the early eighties that it fell flat. The worst person though in building up this story is Hill herself. She set herself up for a fall with all the allusions to this story being too terrifying for Christmas Eve, and that it really shouldn't be uttered. I'm sorry, but if your narrator is telling a story about his past right there almost all jeopardy is gone. He's alive at the end. He survives into old age. He's never in real danger, so why is this story so scary if he makes it out alive?

But Hill keeps insisting on the danger... and with each insistence, with each demurral from daring to tell the tale she comes across as smug and overly pleased with herself. Oh Arthur was so damaged he never recovered... yet here he is with his new family surrounded by love and light at Christmas! So Hill thinks she's SO clever trying to break all the tropes? Others have broken the tropes and FAR better. She thinks the beauty of nature and the surrounding country makes it not your typical ghost story? I think that Mary Shelley kind of blasted apart the setting trope with her Gothic classic. Breaking with genre locals and connecting with nature... sorry to say but a pretty place doesn't a book make. The question of who is really the baby's mother? Um, yeah, it's not like this is anything original. Especially in Gothic literature! As for the townsfolk who don't trust outsiders and close ranks? Seriously, you think this was groundbreaking? In fact, this is also to everyone who recommended this book to me. Seriously? And no, you're not allowed to use the excuse that she did it first, because 1983 isn't that long ago and many many people did it better first. I just couldn't shake this feeling of Hill thinking she was superior throughout the book and this continually alienated me.

The narrative just didn't sit right with me. But then again this could all be Arthur's fault. Arthur isn't a good lead. Skipping over his dramatics about even wanting to tell his story, let's just go with him being a whiny little pretentious bitch. He views this job as a real feather in his cap. Oh, he'll just do this job so well that he'll get a huge promotion enabling him to marry his fiance sooner and well, his boss will just love him and never want to let him go, just throwing money at him for simply doing his job. I could say that this was Hill showing the naivety of youth that will be jaded by experience... but the fact is I wanted to smack him so bad that I couldn't relate to him on any level. Plus he's like manic depressive or something, split personality perhaps? Because during the days at Eel Marsh House nothing bothers him, he's all rainbows and puppies and oh, that noise was nothing, look at the beautiful view out these glorious windows, and the night falls and he's running around like a chicken with his head cut off screaming about the noises on the causeway. Maybe Jekyll and Hyde is a more apt way of describing Arthur. Yes, things can get scary at night, in the dark, but having him so blithely swan through the day talking about how lovely everything is? He's in serious denial and needs help. But it's not coming from me.

What does "help" Arthur is that lovely trope of the fever that puts him abed. Suffered by any overactive man who just collapses from strain. I kind of wonder if this is a trope that women writers use to just poke fun at men who have been claiming that women are weaker and prone to fainting... because whenever I've seen this trope used so heavy-handedly it's always been from the pen of a female author. Like they're saying, "we'll show you a wilted flower!" Which amuses me to no end. But then again Conan Doyle even used this trope in a Sherlock Holmes story... so maybe it was really a thing. And I have to say, if this is a real thing, how can I get in on this action? Because I'd seriously like a month off to just lay in bed and read. Because I don't want to take it to the extreme of delirium, but just a slight wasting problem that needed bed rest. Can you seriously, in this day and age, imagine someone saying that they are convalescing for the foreseeable future do to nerves? Everything is so diagnosable now this isn't something that can be believable in novels written in present times about the past. We know better now and so this trope too must pass.

The Woman in Black was actually in a perilous position. Until the last few pages it was about to receive the dreaded one star rating and then it surprisingly redeemed itself, just a little. If you don't know the motives of the woman in black, Mrs. Drablow's sister, now is the time to get a fever and take to your bed. OK, so I assume now if you're still reading you either already know or don't care to be spoiled that the woman in blacks appearance heralds the death of a child, which is why the villagers never wanted to talk about it, because it might be their child next. So Arthur figures this all out we and think he's getting his happily ever after, he gets married, has a child, but turns out, things aren't so resolved. Because the woman in black, she is a ghost that is unrepentantly evil. She is not able to be "put to rest" or "exorcised" and THIS is the selling point of the book. There is no happy resolution. Arthur loses his wife and child to the woman in black because she is pure evil. This is rare in ghost stories, I can only think of a few, usually Japanese in base, where there is no tidy resolution, evil wins. Yes, you could say that Henry James did this with The Turn of the Screw, but he didn't do it effectively. Here there is no doubt that evil wins. And I like that. It's spelled out cleanly and clearly, like the vengeful ghost in The Ring. So if you stick with it, there's this lovely light at the end of the tunnel. Sure it's actually a train, but it brings you some satisfaction.


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