After my family pouring over this chilling novel at Christmas (not prompted by the recent blockbuster, I might add), in characteristically Relish fashion I was desperate to save The Woman in Black as a little treat for myself once the hoo hah died down. After diving for the TV/Radio on several occasions to save the entire experience from being ruined by Daniel Radcliffe’s fizog, I have been beaten into submission and, as recommended by the marvellous Susan Hill herself, managed to devour all 216 pages all in one go one blustery Sunday afternoon in February.
To state the obvious for all of you who have no doubt heard the rumours if you haven’t already read it yourselves, this book is bloody terrifying. So scary that I actually had to take myself off to sit with the boyfriend just to have someone else in the room with me!
I have been drawn to Susan Hill ever since reading the disturbing I’m the King of the Castle a few years ago. The Small Hand, a chilling ghost story built around the same mould as The Woman in Black, appeared on my wishlist almost as soon as it was published and has been sat on my bookshelf unread (who knows why!) ever since…
This particular story begins with Arthur Kipps; a man in the autumn of his life who, despite his loving family and creature comforts, has clearly been marked by some harrowing experience lurking in his past, an experience that we are prompted to revisit after a night telling seemingly harmless ghost stories with his family. Travelling back in time to his life as a young solicitor, we follow Arthur as he is sent by his firm to handle the estate of the deceased Alice Drablow, former inhabitant of Eel Marsh House, a bleak building that stands across ‘Nine Lives Causeway’ on the edge of the remote village of Crythin Gifford.
Following the appearance of a gaunt looking woman at Alice’s funeral and his local guide’s baffling reaction to enquiries after the worrying figure, Kipps is very quickly dragged into a cycle of inescapable horror, pulled to and from Eel Marsh House and the vengeful, tormented spirits within….
I really am a bit of a wuss myself but everyone I know who has read this book, from English literature students to work colleagues to wise Mummy Relish herself have delighted at the terror lurking within this book. As Susan Hill herself very astutely points out in this interview with Professor John Mullen, the true enjoyment with scary stories of any kind lies in the ability to be afraid whilst being within a safe environment yourself. She quite rightly points out that, whilst there is little joy to be had for most people in truly dangerous and terrifying situations, there is nothing like the anxiety we regularly indulge in witnessing unspeakable terrors whilst safely ensconced in your armchair with a cup of tea and a biscuit.
Hill’s description of Jennet Humfrye’s (The ‘Woman in Black’) malevolent, wasted appearance is just phenomenally chilling and really starts the book off on the right note, mainly because you simply do not (and yet do at the same time – how teasing) want to stumble across her again. This is, I think, what you would call a classic ghost story. We are set up from the beginning to travel into Arthur’s past and encounter this spirit, who we just know can mean nothing but ill for the poor chap and, because of the framework and devices used (e.g. when it gets foggy/stormy, you just know something bad is going to happen) some readers I know, including Daddy Relish, although appreciating Susan Hill’s undeniable talent as a writer, found everything just a little too obvious…
I have to admit that none of this made any difference for me. In fact, the ‘obvious’ elements of this book are there for good reason; to build up the tension! Due to the causeway, Arthur is at times completely cut-off from civilisation and all lifelines should he need them. Thank God for little Spider; a dog lent to Arthur by one of the villagers, who after repeated, unheeded warnings about the house and its history, proves to be reassuring company both Arthur and the intrepid reader him/herself.
Do not be mistaken for thinking this to be your bog standard ghost tale – M R James style. This is no ghost story of the antiquary; this is harrowing tale with real flesh and bones, not some mere shadowy floating around your bedroom. As with many great stories; love, loss and revenge feature heavily in The Woman in Black and our fear is satisfyingly amplified by the well-thought out history of the characters, both living and dead.
All I can say is, like I did, be brave, read this wonderful book and acquaint yourself with Susan Hill before someone ruins it for you…