Saturday, 23 May 2009

The Woman in Black

I was incorrectly under the impression that The Woman in Black by Susan Hill was a re-telling/re-interpretation/reincarnation of The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins but it's not; the title is merely misleading. I read the former last October and it's a classic crime story with supernatural elements, albeit not as compelling as Collins's The Moonstone, which is a personal favourite of mine. As for being influenced by The Woman in White, nobody could possibly do it better than Sarah Waters did in Fingersmith; she took the basic premise of the great Victorian novel by one of the masters and amazingly improved upon it (if you haven't read Fingersmith then please do; it is exceptional).

As for the confusingly entitled The Woman in Black it is an atmospheric ghost story that is spine-tingling. I can say in all honesty that I am relieved that I read this during the onset of summer because it is scary enough without reading it in the thick of a dark Winter, complete with elements that lend themselves to dark imaginings. Suspenseful and chilling the events of The Woman in Black surround junior lawyer, Arthur Kipps, who is young and carefree and sent to Eel Marsh House, which sits beyond the causeway and alone upon treacherous sea marshes and whose mistress, Alice Drablow, a client of the law firm for whom Kipps works, has recently died. The malevolence surrounding Eel Marsh House is something Kipps disregards as superstitious gossip on the behalf of the town occupants, even when he catches sight of the emaciated and anomalous woman all dressed in black, but gradually a creeping sense of unease takes hold. Kipps begins to witness, hear, and experience strange occurrences at Eel Marsh House and the tale becomes a meditation upon the effect of fear upon the body and mind. Kipps uncovers the tragic secret of the house from sixty years before and its consequent haunting but not without personal cost.

The unsettling nature of the plot is effectively realised; I found my heart palpitating and the hairs on the back of my neck raised as Kipps and his companion Spider the dog faced off the ghostly occurrences. There is one event in particular, where their lives are at risk, which had my heart thudding in my ears. This is a very well told ghost story, which is extremely discomfiting; I still feel a little shaken, which is a sign of a great read.

The repetition of the rocking chair in the nursery, normally a comforting motion, is as frightening as the tap tap tap of a tree branch against the window on an eerie, dark night when you are home alone.

The story is framed by a much older Arthur Kipps who has tried to forget the terrifying experience from his past but on Christmas Eve when his family are trying to outdo one another with ghoulish stories by the fire, events come back to the forefront of his mind and he resigns himself to documenting it all. I am a huge fan of this structure and it works seamlessly well; unlike The Turn of the Screw by Henry James though, which uses the same form, The Woman in White does not oppose supernatural and rational but emphasises throughout that this is a ghost story intended to scare the wits out of you. It succeeded with me.


Cornflower said...

Yes, very scary indeed.

Nymeth said...

I've been saving this for October, but hmm, maybe the summer would be a good time to read it.

Paperback Reader said...

You may be less of a scaredy cat than me but I am fairly convinced that this is one of the scariest books ever written! I think that what makes it so great is that it is understated and that the terror literally creeps up on you.

claire said...

Claire, I was just going over books with "black" on the title and remember you reviewed this. I thought it would be similar to The Woman in White, too, but then read so many reviews in AMazon that say this is scary. Do you think it's scary enough to give me nightmares? I stopped reading horror books years ago as I began having nightmares. I would love to read this only if it isn't really that scary.

Paperback Reader said...

Claire, how odd: I was reading your latest post earlier trying to remember titles with the word "black" in them and this slipped my mind! Even odder is that I was then commenting about the stage production in my latest post... Oh well, you remembered for us both!

I found it scary but not in a nighmarish way (say, like Stephen King's It). It certainly plays on the senses and you jump at every little noise so I wouldn't suggest reading it right before sleep. I doubt you would find it so terrifying that you have night terrors though. I hope I'm right!