The Woman in Black

Long awaited and much anticipated (by me), Susan Hill’s ghost story ‘The Woman in Black’, though first published in 1983, is experiencing something of a revival with the film premiering this month and the ghost story genre currently ‘à la mode’.

Adapted to the stage in 1987, the play has been running continuously since then (it is the second longest-running play in the history of the West End of London), thus I have been eager to discover what lies between the slim covers of this intriguing book myself, since reading ‘A Kind Man’ and ‘The Beacon’ last year and becoming a fan of her books.

Knowing that Susan Hill is one of those writer’s whose work and combination of words I like to savour, I take my time and let the language wash over me, as I come to know Arthur Kipps, while he sits by the fire on Christmas Eve listening to his stepchildren narrate ghost stories. Though it is a festive occasion, a grain of discomfort winds itself between the lines on the page and there is a flicker of an unwelcome presence, a glimmer of something he does not wish to recall, despite being far removed from his past now.

The story unfolds as we are taken back to his early days as a young solicitor, journeying to the cold, misty, windswept marshes of Crythin Gifford where he must wind up the affairs of the recently deceased Mrs Alice Drablow. Ever prosaic, he takes the responsibility in his stride and tries to ignore the reluctance of locals to engage with him or have anything to do with the matters of the deceased widow and the eerie Eel Marsh House.

While I very much doubt that I will be seeing the film, though I am sure it is excellent and well-made, utilising known techniques to ensure viewers experience ever heightened tension, heartstopping anticipation and chilling unease to elicit that emotionally wrung out feeling – I say this if like me, you have an acute sensitivity to music which accentuates all those senses (I succeed in scaring those who weren’t scared by the movie), I do love how Susan Hill uses details of nature and the physical environment to keep the reader and her protagonist grounded in reality.

There is no music accompanying the reading of this book and so I too hang on to that ambiguous reality. When Arthur visits Eel Marsh House and for practical purposes stays the night (yes, he is rather stubborn), he reassures himself and us by opening all the windows, understanding the layout of the house, going for a walk, venturing out in the dark against his better instinct only to be confronted with something that may or may not be able to be explained. And it’s not just him, even Spider the companionable dog responds to the lure of noises that sound familiar but could indeed be sinister.

It’s the perfect ghost story, because so much is left up to the interpretation of the reader, you can be a believer or a non-believer and regardless come away from this story feeling intrigued, satisfied and wanting to talk to someone about how you understood it. I am already looking forward to the next Susan Hill book that comes my way.

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25 thoughts on “The Woman in Black

  1. I adored this book, as I have the majority of Suan HIll’s books. She builds tension so well, it’s natural. Howards End is on the Landing was the last boook of hers I read and I revisted many of my old books during the reading of it..
    I’ve seen the original movie adaptation of this. I am sure I will see the new one, though Daniel Radcliffe seems to be a very wooden actor to me.

    • Howards End on the Landing sounds like a real treat, I just know I’m going to love that, thus I couldn’t help but include the very long quote from it that I came across. That’s interesting there was a previous film adaptation, it’s unfortunate I just can’t sit through this kind of film, so I’ve stopped trying.

  2. Very beautiful review. I love the fantastic genre. The fact that the writer leaves as much to the imagination as for interpretation is very appealing to me. I agree, that’s the sign of a perfect ghost story. I can’t wait to read the book and I will certainly go and see the movie as well.

  3. There is an interesting discussion with reader’s on ‘The Woman in Black’ with the author Susan Hill today in the Guardian. She answers a few questions regarding ambiguity and says, this is no ‘Turn of the Screw’.

    Can the writer change a reader’s interpretation of their work? Is that valid, or does a book exist in the way a reader interprets it?

  4. I’ve read the book and seen the movie. Loved the book. I’m of the less-is-more school of thought when it comes to ghost stories: the more done by suggestion, the better. Fear & dread should be built gradually and suggested rather than shown. The movie, to me, felt hollywoodized, more graphically shocking than the book. And liberties were taken with the plot that I couldn’t see the point of.

    • Creating an atmosphere and slow building tension as the book does wasn’t what came across in the trailer, so I know its not for me on the big screen at least. I just hope it gets more people reading the book, and reading more of this wonderful writer.

  5. I often find myself on that fence re: seeing the movie version of a book. Music and soundtrack can, as you point out, bring a manipulative aspect to the ‘narration’. If I read a book, and loved it, I admit to a curiosity about how it translates to the screen. If I haven’t yet read a book, I usually feel compelled to read it before seeing the movie. I have not (yet) read this intriguing book, so if I do happen to see the movie first, I will certainly make sure to share my thoughts.

  6. I love The Woman in Black, Susan Hill is a fantastic writer isn’t she? I went to see the film yesterday, and whilst they changed the story a bit I did enjoy it. However, all the tension and interpretation of the book is replaced by hammer horror jumpiness in the film!

    • Yes, I am happy to have a little belatedly discovered Susan Hill, at least there’s a long backlist of books, I love her style, very readable no matter what the story. That horror and jumpiness they inject into films really puts me off, thoroughly unpleasant and exhausting, the film hasn’t come here yet.

  7. Finally got around to this book – I’ve also come late to the author, but had heard about the play and the movie and was interested to read this. Great review! I truly enjoyed this book and the whole atmosphere of the town and Eel Marsh House (and, of course, the whole personage of the cocky, young, city solicitor who dismisses the locals as ‘superstitious and foolish’). I could visualize it all perfectly. I told my nine-year-old about the story and he kept after me every day to tell him what I read the night before. “Have you read more? Read faster!” greeted me each morning. : ) An enjoyable ghost story. I’ll be sure to read more of Ms Hill’s novels.

    • Thats great you read it and I love that your son was so interested too, I’ve not been disappointed by any of her books, she’s become one of my favourite authors, she has a beautiful way of expressing characters thoughts and feelings and how they transform through time and events.

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