Tuesday, October 18, 2011

the woman in black

Article first published as Book Review: The Woman in Black by Susan Hill on Blogcritics.

The Woman in Black is a good old-fashioned ghost story by Susan Hill, first published in 1983. It's a "vintage" ghost story, written in the period and style of classic ghost stories by Wilkie Collins and M.R. James. This new paperback is a tie-in to the upcoming film adaptation (February 2012) starring Daniel Radcliffe as the protagonist and narrator, Arthur Kipps. The book had been adapted before into a made-for television movie, radio versions, as well as a stage play.

Arthur Kipps is a young solicitor with prospects — a promising career and a young fiancee. His boss, Mr. Bentley, tasks him with representing the firm in the estate of an old woman, Alice Drablow, who lived as a recluse in a remote part of England. Kipps is eager to please his boss and also to see a bit of the world and get away from London. He travels to the small village of Crythin Gifford to attend Mrs Drablow's funeral.

Almost as soon as he begins his journey everyone he encounters clams up the moment he mentions his reasons for visiting their corner of the world. Mrs. Drablow was well-known in the area, but no one wants to speak of her. But Kipps is an unsuspicious sort of fellow, and at 23, naive enough to believe that his own strength and force of will can carry any day.

While at the funeral, which is bereft of mourners, Kipps sees a figure in the rear of the church, a woman "with a pale and wasted face," dressed in black. He is curious who she might be, as no one else in Crythin Gifford wanted to pay their respects, but she disappears before he can speak to her. He needs to focus on his business and prepare for the next day, when he will visit the client's house and start to go through her papers to see what might be of use to his firm.

Mrs. Drablow lived in Eel Marsh House, which is situated far beyond the town. Similar to Normandy's Mont Saint-Michel, the house can only be reached at low tide, by crossing a long causeway. Kipps is taken there by a local in his pony trap, Keckwick, who promises to return for him when the tide recedes. He is later joined by a delightful dog named Spider, who truly proves to be man's best friend.

Eel Marsh House and its creepy, marshy environs are portrayed with great detail and care in The Woman in Black. Hill creates a truly eerie atmosphere — there is a feeling of dread that surrounds Kipps from the very start of the novel. Strange sounds in the house, and a terrifying cry of a child in peril out in the marsh, are just the beginning of unsettling occurrences that Kipps encounters.

It's an absorbing and entertaining read. The only criticism I might have is that The Woman in Black is a straight ghost story. There is nothing wrong in that, but if Kipps's mental state had been in question, along the lines of the governess in Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, that would have added another layer of subtlety to the story. But we never for a moment can doubt that what Kipps is dealing with is ghostly in nature.

Kipps and the reader are in for some genuinely scary moments, and like all good ghost stories, The Woman in Black leaves one with a feeling of unease, with questions unanswered. Could some of the happenings been avoided? It will be interesting to see how the film diverges from Hill's story. It's a perfect read for this spooky Halloween season.

Wood engravings by Andy English from Susan Hill's website
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