Monday, September 17, 2007

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill [Review]

As part of the Readers Imbibing Peril Challenge (RIP II)

Title: The Woman in Black
Author: Susan Hill (author's official web site)
Copyright: 1983 (initial publication in the UK); first US edition 1986; David R. Godine, Publisher, Jaffrey, NH, ISBN 1-56792-189-2
Length: 138 pages
Genre: Fiction/Ghost Story

Summary: Arthur Kipps is a man touched by tragedy as we learn following his storming away in a temper from Victorian festivities, complete with ghost stories, on a snowy Christmas Eve. He is fully aware that stories of ghosts may be told in frivolous fashion, but that ghosts themselves -- real ghosts -- rarely manifest in such a mood. Ashamed of his bad behavior and wishing to explain himself and make it up to his wife, he begins to write the story of his own horrific experience following the death of Mrs. Drablow in the remote village of Crythin Gifford. A young attorney, he travels up North to represent his firm at her funeral and clear up outstanding legal affairs. The reader follows Kipps casually but is soon caught up in a fearful exploration of human despair and its consequence.

There are clear references to the works of her literary predecessors in this genre -- Montague Rhodes James classic short story, Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad is alluded to, as is Wilkie Collins' The Woman In White. What's particularly enjoyable is that these are only allusions; the story itself stands in its own right. Hill simply adds to the literary tradition of Wharton, James, and Collins.

The Woman in Black is a short and evocative tale, full of isolation and atmosphere. If not carefully controlled, one's reading experience may result in keeping wakeful company with Kipps in a dark silent house with many hours yet to go before dawn relieves the tension.

Extract: "I stopped as Mr. Jerome grabbed my wrist and held it in an agonisingly tight grip, and looking at his face, was certain that he was about to faint or collapse with some kind of seizure. I began looking wildly about me, in the deserted lane, wondering whatever I might do, where I could go, or call out, for help. The undertakers had left. Behind me were only a school of little children and a mortally sick young woman under great emotional and physical strain, beside me was a man in a state of near collapse. The only person I could conceivably reach was the clergyman somewhere in the recesses of his church, and if I were to go for him, I would have to leave Mr. Jerome alone."

Another sample from another paragraph just a page later: "It only took a few minutes at that pace to arrive back in the square, where the market was in full cry and we were at once plunged into the hubbub of vehicles, the shouting of voices, of auctioneers and stallholders and buyers, and all the bleating and braying, the honking and crowing and cackling and whinnying of dozens of farm animals. At the sight and sound of it all, I noticed that Mr. Jerome was looking better and when we reached the porch of the Gifford Arms, he seemed almost lively in a burst of relief."

Also Relevant: I am somewhat amazed that this Susan Hill's work has eluded my notice until now. I had never heard of her, until Elaine of Random Jottings posted about this book last year. Now, I see that I've been missing out on a wonderful writer. The real strength of The Woman in Black is Susan Hill's writing. After all, in this cynical age, what is it that can persuade us of the presence of a melancholy or malevolent ghost? We don't really believe in ghosts in any sensible, scientific way; but the words of Susan Hill are composed so as to draw up the fears of our primitive forebearers, the fears of childhood, that ultimate human fear of being alone and vulnerable to larger forces. Just as Elaine had warned me, the book is scary. It is artfully crafted and absolutely capable of raising the hair on the back of your neck.

For those of you with an interest in theatre and dramatic adaptations, the book was made into both a television production as well as adapted for the stage; it's been playing in the West End since 1989. (That is just shy of 20 years running, which is none too shabby.) I note however that there is a disclaimer on Hill's web site as to the legitimacy of used DVDs and video tapes of the television production that may be listed on ebay and Amazon.

The good news is that Susan Hill is relatively prolific. I believe that the first in the Simon Serrailler detective novels has become available here in the states. There are numerous works to be explored. The Woman in Black is quite as good as any of Edith Wharton's ghost stories.