Sunday, December 11, 2011

Susan Hill's Gothic Masterpiece: The Woman in Black

Every now and then you see a movie or read a book that so disturbs you that its ideas and images are burned into your brain for hours, if not days, afterwards. For me, this is often accompanied by a feeling of helplessness, not certain what to do next to exorcise the disturbance from my psyche. The film version of Daphne Du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now comes to mind.

Susan Hill’s 1983 novel The Woman in Black is just such a book. I finished reading it on a cold December afternoon while the light outside my window faded and a chill from the window fingered the back of my neck. And then I stood up, paced a bit, and put on every light in the house.

The Woman in Black is a straightforward ghost story whose power lies in its simplicity. A young solicitor travels to the most desolate corner of England imaginable, to Eel Marsh House to clear the estate of the recently deceased Mrs. Drablow. Spending several nights alone in the house, Arthur Kipps is subjected to any number of manifestations, most notably the appearance of the titular woman dressed in black. Like all good ghost stories, the mystery hangs on some tragic occurrence in the not so distant past, and fans of the genre can mostly piece together this particular puzzle, but it is what happens after the denouement which will raise the shackles on even the most jaded reader of Gothic thrillers.

The Woman in Black is a short 164 pages in a newly reprinted American trade paperback edition, something that can be devoured in one or two sittings. This is one you won’t want to put down. After an awkward opening chapter, The Woman in Black kicks into high gear, offering little respite from the all encompassing dread that follows. Hill has a fine command of the language which keeps the heavy Gothic atmosphere from spilling over into parody, for atmosphere it has, in spades:

Then from somewhere, out of that howling darkness, a cry came to my ears, catapulting me back into the present and banishing all tranquility.

I listened hard. Nothing. The tumult of the wind, like a banshee, and the banging and rattling of the window in its old, ill-fitting frame. Then yes, again, a cry, that familiar cry of desperation and anguish, a cry for help from a child somewhere out on the marsh.

Do yourself a favor. Put down that bloated Anne Rice novel and read possibly the finest novel of Gothic horror since Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. And don’t forget to leave some extra lights on.

1 comment:

  1. I'd never heard of this book till the movie trailer came out some time ago, and even then I thought it was some half-forgotten Gothic novel from the days of Walpole and Radcliffe. But it still sounds terrific! Must procure a vintage paperback edition...