Arthur Kipps, a junior solicitor, is summoned to attend the funeral of Mrs Alice Drablow, the sole inhabitant of Eel Marsh House [… ] It is not until he glimpses a wasted young woman, dressed all in black, at the funeral, that a creeping sense of unease begins to take hold, a feeling deepened by the reluctance of the locals to talk of the woman in black - and her terrible purpose.
- from the cover blurb
Arthur Kipps is by now in middle age, with grown-up stepchildren who indulge themselves in some Christmas Eve ghost story-telling, but Arthur protests that living in a ghost story is very different from reading one. This story is different, is the message he - and Hill - send out. "Prove it," said I, because, after all, here I was reading this story to be entertained.
The Woman in Black is a very short novel, at just 160 pages, but it is also a rather slow read. Susan Hill excels in creating a spooky atmosphere, beginning in a London that I almost believed to be written by Charles Dickens, full of smog and fog and a sniffly solicitor’s clerk “with an air of suffering and melancholy that put them in mind of Last Wills and Testaments - whatever the business they had actually come to the lawyer about.” We then move to an unspecified, isolated part of the country. Eel Marsh House is, as you might expect, surrounded by marshland and smothering sea-mists - a lonely place, especially when you take into account that the causeway leading to the mainland is only traversable at certain times. Even when in the village, Arthur is isolated from the locals, who know far more about the old house than they are letting on. Arthur recognises all the signs of being in a gothic novel - yet somehow manages to miss the fact that he really is living in a gothic novel. Despite his best efforts, he is unprepared for what awaits him at Eel Marsh House.
The story is rather a slight one - Arthur Kipps sees a ghostly figure dressed in black, and weird, creepy and impossible things happen when he’s alone in the house. The book’s strength is in the eerie atmosphere, but although I could admire Hill’s writing from the point of view of one who has studied gothic literature, it was as an outsider. Kipps’ narration is dry and detached, the matter-of-fact relating of experiences that he’s trying not to even think about, and here I felt that the storytelling fell down. Despite his earlier insistence that this was not like reading a horror story - for me it was exactly like reading a horror story. I didn’t connect to what was going on, or feel any sense of real danger. So what if a formerly locked door was open or if a rocking chair was rocking by itself? Kipps might tell me that the Woman in Black had a hostile air about her, but I didn’t feel threatened. Only in the last few pages, when we discovered the Woman’s identity and story, did I get a vague sense that something terrible could happen, and when it did, it was all so abrupt that it felt like a tacked-on ending.
As well as the recent Hammer film starring Daniel Radcliffe, The Woman in Black has been adapted for the stage, and every account of this play is of a terrifying experience. I’m not good with scary films or plays, but I do like the occasional creepy book. I was disappointed that The Woman in Black was not that book. Probably this was a fault with the way I read it rather than with the writing: objectively I admired the prose, but it did not affect me at all. I would be curious to see if this story is more effective in the visual media - I felt more frightened just watching the film’s trailer.