Guest Post: Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black

Today’s post is a guest post from Debbie of The Wicked Queen’s Mirror.  She won the opportunity through a random drawing of comments on my post about famous quotes from books, which you can read here.  The answers are posted here.  Please check out Debbie’s blog by clicking on the link above.  Here is what she has to say about her favorite book:

I have never seen a ghost. However, reading The Woman in Black (1983) makes me feel as though I have.  It doesn’t matter if I’m in bed surrounded by shadows or sitting in full sunlight, when I open this book I’m transported to a world of creeping shadows and wide, stark skies.  Susan Hill’s Victorian style ghost story follows Arthur Kipps, a London lawyer, who is sent to organize the papers of a deceased client, Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. Shortly after Kipps arrives at the village of Crythin Gifford he sees a woman with a wasted face, who is dressed all in black. This is the beginning of events that will change Kipps’ life forever.

At first glance the story starts slowly. It opens with an older, reflective Arthur Kipps who gradually introduces us to his family and explains how he came to buy his house, Monk’s Piece. Don’t be deceived. Even the name of the house harkens back to a world of gothic novels where crosses and robed figures haunt the pages. There is mist in the air and a distinct feeling of unease. Kipps scatters hints of foreboding throughout this chapter and events climax when his stepsons begin to tell ghost stories around the fire. Kipps gets up and leaves the room as the outrageous images being conjured throw into sharp relief the experiences he had as a young man.  This lingering terror convinces Kipps to exorcise his past by writing it down.  Hill’s decision to begin the book this way doubles the horror of the tale as it is shown to us by the young Kipps as he travels to Eel Marsh House, and again when the book ends and we are jolted back to the world of the older Kipps who concludes bluntly, ‘They asked for my story. I have told it. Enough.’  The sharpness of the ending leaves a tingle in the back of my neck as it is now clear the terror will never truly leave Kipps in peace. Not even at Christmas.

The second chapter transports us back to a time when Kipps is a sensible, practical young man with his whole life in front of him.  He has a job to do and he sets out to do it to the best of his ability even though, as the junior member of the firm, he has been given a task that nobody else wishes to do.  The young Kipps does not believe in ghosts.  He is methodical in his description and has an attention to the detail of his everyday world that makes the supernatural elements of the book all the more plausible. He begins by finding reasonable explanations and honestly investigating the phenomena that he’s confronted with.  In order to maximize his productivity Kipps decides to spend a night alone at Eel Marsh House. That night he overhears a pony and trap on the Nine Lives Causeway that connects the house to the mainland.  A crash and the dying screams of a woman and child soon follow.  The next night, from somewhere in the house, a rocking chair begins to thump back and forth like a beating heart. Kipps reassures himself that he does not believe in ghosts, but as he scavenges more information from the reticent villagers it becomes clear exactly what a siting of the woman in black means.

What makes this book so enjoyable is the simplicity of the story. It does contain mystery as well as horror but there is no distracting clutter to detract from the constant building of tension.  Kipps’ investigations in to the history of the ghost works hand in hand with the increased fear he experiences at each stage of the haunting.

The intimacy of the first person narrative makes me feel as though Kipps is whispering his story directly to me. Hill has created a character with an eye for detail and the description in the story hypnotic.  Through Kipps’ eyes Eel Marsh House becomes as much a character as any of the locals. The weather too is a constant companion. Kipps himself tells us that his mood has become linked to the weather and the Christmas Eve mists shift to choking London Pea Soupers before culminating in sea-frets that appear suddenly and have ‘…millions of live fingers that crept over me.’  The same care is given to Kipps’ experiences of the ghost herself. He is struck cold by her ‘desperate, yearning malevolence.’ On the first meeting a whole page is dedicated to her physical description, the sallowness of her skin and her deep sunken eyes. Even before Kipps knows she is a ghost he finds her chilling.

Every ghost story needs its ghost. The woman in black, like many of her nineteenth century predecessors, reflects the fears and paranoia of society.  She never speaks and her story is revealed in fragments. When the whole picture is visible it is an understanding of her emotions and the reasons for her actions that make her truly terrifying. Kipps has done nothing to harm her and yet she is set on making him suffer in the same way that she suffered during her mortal life.  It almost feels as though she is playing with Kipps by leading him through the horror of her past to an inevitable conclusion that he cannot yet see. I’m always left feeling scared because the ghost’s anger is so irrational that it cannot respond to logic or sympathy.  It truly feels as though no one can escape. Even the dog, Spider, is not safe from her.

The question that always reoccurs at the end of the book is whether or not the ghost is real, or whether she is a product of Kipps’ imagination brought on by his isolation in an old, creaking house. Hill’s novella was inspired by the Turn of the Screw by Henry James where the sanity of the narrator is called into question. Despite this, Kipps does not seem like a man to overreact or to get unnecessarily jittery at a few unexplained bumps in the night. After his second encounter with the ghost he feels angry with her for causing him to experience such fear and he sets about hunting her down rationally.  I have never doubted Kipps’ reliability as a witness and the end of the book also appears to confirm the ghost’s reality by demonstrating the extent of her powers. She is not limited to the shadows of Eel Marsh House but can appear boldly in the middle of London on a sunny, crowded day.  At the Guardian Book Club in February 2012 Hill said ‘Oh, yes, there is something there…she’s real.’ If you doubt this though, and are feeling brave, have a read and tell me what you think.

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