book review, daphne du maurier, Ghost story, gothic fiction, Haunting of Hill House, Hollywood, jane austen, Shirley Jackson, susan hill
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
“I have sat here at my desk, day after day, night after night, a blank sheet of paper before me, unable to lift my pen, trembling and weeping too.”
This was one of those books that had come to my attention thanks to the Hollywood remake. The visuals in the trailer were fabulously dark and grotesque and held a sort of promise of the type of Gothic we just don’t get to see nowadays. But that was the movie, and I so desperately wanted to see it that I had to first hunt down the book. Which, as you know, is just the weird order in which I do things.
I finally managed to get a copy and settled down to be scared out of my wits by this ‘Jane Austen-esque ghost story‘, but to my disappointment found it very dry in description and wanting in the scare department. Maybe I had far too high an expectation of what is in reality, just a mediocre chilling tale about a vengeful spirit who haunts a remote backwater village.
The basic outline of the story goes like this: The story begins with Arthur Kipps, who begins to write about his terrible, real-life encounter with a ghost during his early days as an up and coming solicitor. He recounts how a business trip sent him to the remote and forbidden Eel Marsh House to attend the funeral of the late Alice Drablow and complete the menial task of putting her legal papers in order. However, when Kipps asks about the Drablow estate, no one wants to speak about it. A mysterious woman dressed in black with a decaying countenance also seems to haunt him wherever he goes.
When he asks to be taken across the Nine Lives Causeway to the estate, no one is willing to take him, except one man. There in all its wild beauty and agonising splendor he encounters Eel Marsh House, a solitary Gothic mansion, standing alone, proud and teeming with terrible secrets. As he spends his days and nights there, hears the awful bumping sounds from the locked nursery room and witnesses the ghostly screams of a drowned child on the gurgling causeway, he realises he must leave quickly, or risk going mad.
“Whatever was about, whoever I had seen, and heard rocking, and who had passed me by just now, whoever had opened the locked door was not ‘real’. No. But what was ‘real’? At that moment I began to doubt my own reality.”
This had the opportunity to become a great ghost story. It’s just I’m really upset that Susan Hill sinks into the comfort of Victorian descriptions which make it too stuffy and constricting. Language-wise some areas are far too overly done while other parts could have benefited from more visual description.
I loved the idea of an isolated house that stood almost like a lighthouse in the middle of the deadly causeway. The house itself is very scary and the descriptions of it will stay with me for a long time. I almost half wish it existed, like Manderley in ‘Rebecca’ or the mansion in Shirley Jackson‘s ‘The Haunting of Hill House‘. The sounds across the causeway, and the idea that the death of a child is resurrected and replayed there every night in the swirling mists is also very disconcerting.
What I really wanted was a spotlight on the woman in black herself. She takes a back seat when she really shouldn’t. Even the house eclipses her.
I had some discussions with other people and their experience of the book compared to the movie and theatre versions and all have said the same thing: the original story is quite bland. I am hoping to see the stage version of this with a class of mine and hope it’s as good as they say it is! But one thing is for sure, it will be vastly different from the book, because every stage and film production that has been made in the past has taken liberties with the story and changed it dramatically to make it better. More proof that Hill was being a bit economical with her story?
- Halloween: Top 12 spooky stories (telegraph.co.uk)
- Visual Library Catalogue: The Man in the Picture (beautifulrailwaybridgeofthesilverytay.me)
- Daniel Radcliffe: I don’t really sleep much (time4sleep.co.uk)
- The Woman in Black’s reign of terror (guardian.co.uk)
- Education secretary Michael Gove asks Britain’s top authors including Michael Morpurgo to pick the best books for children (dailymail.co.uk)
- Visual Library Catalogue: The Woman in Black (beautifulrailwaybridgeofthesilverytay.wordpress.com)