First published: 1983 (Vintage paperback ed. 1998)
My copy: Borrowed from the Library where I work
Memorable quote: “I had fallen under some sort of spell of the kind that certain places exude and it drew me, my imaginings, my longings, my curiosity, my whole spirit towards itself.”
In the supernatural/horror genre particularly, some tales have become so well known – so often quoted, appropriated and re-imagined – that they have come to exist in the popular imagination in a way that is almost detached from their original source text. The works of H.P. Lovecraft are a prime example, having spawned so many imitators, artworks, role-playing games and internet memes. Yet when I read “The Call of Cthulhu” for the first time, I was really struck by its raw power, and only then appreciated fully the quality of imagination that came to inspire so many appropriations. Though very different in content, Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black would seem to be a similar cultural case: a staple of CGSE/A-level syllabi with multiple film and television adaptations, as well as a long running stage version its premise is so well known and so frequently referenced that it’s almost possible to feel you know it without having actually read the original. This false but pervasive feeling of pre-existing familiarity is probably why it’s taken me so long to pick up this slim volume. Tackling the text for the first time has given me a firm appreciation of its artistry – this really is the most classic of ghost stories with all the ingredients necessary to deliver a sublime intellectual chill – but despite its technical brilliance this wasn’t quite as satisfyingly unsettling a read as I’d hoped, perhaps because it’s almost too polished.
There is a timeless quality to Hill’s tale. Published in the early 1980s, it is written in the best tradition of classic Victorian ghost tales: a story recounted on Christmas Eve with the family all assembled. This in itself is interesting as Hill’s protagonist Arthur Kipps (my second literary encounter with an Arthur Kipps this month) is eager to emphasise his modernity and distance from the Victorian past. Exact dates are never mentioned and although there are details that ground the action in the early twentieth century, Kipps – despite his assertions to the contrary – feels like a thoroughly Victorian figure, almost as if he is a man out of his time. This effect is one of the most interesting aspects of the novel and is, I’m sure, deliberate in a tale that explores so compellingly the enduring and malignant impact of the past on the present and future.
A junior solicitor eager for greater responsibility, Kipps is sent to the marshy environs of Crythin Gifford to sort through the documents of Mrs Drablow, late of Eel Marsh House. This isolated dwelling is separated from the mainland by a causeway and is accessible only at low tide. Vividly described, the house is the primary source of the novel’s eerie power and the scenes in which Kipps explores and even spends the night there are gripping and atmospheric. The townsfolk of Crythin Gifford are reluctant to visit the place or even to discuss Mrs Drablow and it is not long before Kipps discovers he has become a part of story far more affecting than the legal bureaucracy he had anticipated.
If you like ghost stories this is definitely a work for which you should make time (if you haven’t done so already) and it can easily be read in one or two sittings. This neatly crafted tale impressed me with its controlled menace and particularly the way it draws on so many of the most effective tropes of the genre, such as the protagonist gaining a canine companion whose raised hackles and soft growls immediately heighten the sense of supernatural threat. Hill seems deliberately to draw attention to her use of these conventions in a way that I found intriguing: Kipps has the dog foisted upon him by a local concerned at the prospect of him staying at Eel Marsh House alone. I can see why this book is taught in school literature classes, it’s a masterclass in good supernatural fiction. But this polish also detracts from its power – for me at least. I was hugely impressed but in an academic way, not the heart-pounding reaction that the best supernatural tales can evoke. Perhaps it is hard to experience afresh so renowned a tale, or perhaps it is just a case that ghost stories that are slightly more ragged in their construction and imagery can just be more surprising. Writing the above has crystallised for me just how much I would now like to see the stage adaptation of The Woman in Black; it is such an engaging story and the buzz, immediacy and communality of live theatre could well add the spice that was lacking from this novel’s otherwise refined list of ingredients.