Thursday, October 2, 2014

the first ghost story on my path to Halloween: The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill

David R. Godine, Publisher, 1986
original UK publication date, 1983, Hamish Hamilton
138 pp


There is absolutely no better way to start the month of October than by reading a good ghost story.  Actually, I wasn't planning to read The Woman in Black again since I have so many books sitting here unread, but I pulled it out late a couple of nights ago after watching the 2012 movie  with Daniel Radcliffe.  There's another movie version, one done in 1989 which I'd love to see, but I'm not willing to shell out three figures for the privilege. As I was watching the film, the phrase "that wasn't in the book" kept going through my head, so I had to go check it out for myself.

The Woman in Black begins, strangely enough, on Christmas Eve at a country home called Monk's Piece. The weather is "wretched," which normally makes owner Arthur Kipp susceptible to "gloom and lethargy, unable to enjoy the flavour of life" as he would have liked. Luckily, it's Christmas time, and Esmé, his wife of fourteen years, has put a lot of effort into the holiday.  Now on Christmas Eve, Esmé's older children are at Monk's Piece, along with three little grandchildren who are asleep upstairs.  Arthur has gone out for a bit o' the night air, contemplating the happiness of partaking in his "pipe and a glass of good malt whisky beside the crackling fire, in the happy company" of his family.  As he returns to the group, he has obviously interrupted a conversation, and after the eldest boy turns off all of the lights, leaving only the firelight, Esmé clues Arthur in as to what's going on. It seems that the three boys want to revive an "ancient tradition" of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve.  Each trying to outdo the other, the stories were a mix of
"dripping stone walls in uninhabited castles and of ivy-clad monastery ruins by moonlight, of locked inner rooms and secret dungeons, dank charnel houses and overgrown graveyards, of footsteps creaking upon staircases and fingers tapping at casements, of howlings and shrinkings..."
 and much more, each story getting more "lurid, wilder and sillier." At first Arthur is entertained, but as they went on, he "began to feel set apart from them all, an outsider to their circle."  Soon enough, the boys demand a story from Arthur, but he adamantly and most firmly tells them he has "no story to tell."  What they do not know, of course, is that he really does have a story -- but not one that makes for good entertainment at the holidays.   His story is one of an experience that, as he muses, has become "woven into my very fibres," one that he had always hoped he'd never have to live through again. Having managed to bury it within himself to the point where "of late, it had been like the outermost ripple on a pool, merely the faint memory of a memory," the evening's entertainment has brought it all come rushing back.  Arthur has now decided that he should set it down on paper in hopes of  being "free of it for whatever life remained for me to enjoy. "  But, as he notes,  it's not an easy task, even after all the years that have passed:
"I have sat here at my desk, day after day, night after night, a blank sheet of paper before me, unable to lift my pen, trembling and weeping too."
Obviously, whatever the story is still haunts him all these years later.

The remainder of the novel is Arthur's story of events that occurred shortly after he'd  turned twenty three, when he was a "youthful and priggish" young man sent to Chythin Gifford to represent the legal firm he works for at the funeral of a client, Mrs. Drablow,  and then to spend time at her home gathering her papers to return to the office. Two simple tasks, but of course, the reader knows that something is going to go terribly wrong, something that will bring rational, level-headed Arthur to the point of  "trembling and weeping" even after so much time has passed. 

from the

Not only is The Woman in Black a fine ghostly tale, but Arthur is an excellent story teller, although lately I've been considering the idea that he just might fall into the category of unreliable narrator.

 The first chapter contains a number of elements that prepare the reader for what's to come, and as the story progresses, we take this journey with Arthur step by step, unaware of what lies ahead, so that his discoveries become ours and his growing sense of uneasiness and dread are planted in our brains and under our skins.  I could talk about this book forever because there's so much here, but I can't so I'll just point out a couple of things.  There's an ongoing theme of isolation, not just in terms of landscape, but also in terms of experiences that cause someone to feel set apart from others.   It's also filled with revenge and loss. My thinking though is that  the story centers on Arthur's own search for a rational answers where there may be none  -- and not just concerning the woman in black --   tied to Arthur's own transformation, which for me  lies at the heart of this entire book.

It goes without saying that I really had a great time with this book. It was all things a good ghost story should be, with bonuses.   There was one point where I had to chuckle, though -- I turned to my edition's page 105, and the chapter heading was "Whistle and I'll Come to You," a shortened title of M.R. James' "Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad."  How perfect!  This is, however, not a fast-paced book, but one to be savored slowly.  Readers who are looking for thrill after thrill may be a bit disappointed, or readers who are solely driven by plot action might find this one a bit tame or even, as some have noted, flat out boring.  Another thing: if you're expecting a work along the lines of classic ghost-story writers, you're bound to be disappointed. My advice - have no expectations going in, sit back, relax and enjoy it for what it is.


  1. Much like you, I had no expectations going in and enjoyed it greatly. In fact, this is the first ghost story I've ever read, as I scare easily and have avoided horror/ghost/alien/etc stories and movies as much as possible for as long as I can remember. But it turned up on my Goodreads recommendations so, I gave it a shot, expecting nothing but regrets, and loved it. You've done it justice in this wonderful, thoughtful review.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words! I'm so happy you ended up liking the book. There are quite a few ghost stories I've enjoyed that are on the tamer side -- you just have to know where to look! Cheers.


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