review: the woman in black

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (1983)

The Woman in Black is the story of Arthur Kipps, an English solicitor.  The narrative opens with Kipps as a man of about fifty years of age enjoying Christmas Eve with his wife and children.  As the evening unfolds, the children begin telling ghost stories, and eventually they ask Kipps to tell a story of his own.  Kipps, who has been listening to the stories with increasing tension, abruptly rises and says he has no story to tell and flees from the room.  Once outside and alone, Kipps reflects on his behavior, and reveals that he does in fact have a ghost story of his own to tell, but in his mind it is all too real and chilling to be told for the light amusement of an audience.  Kipps’ narration reveals that his experience with ghosts and the supernatural still affect him, and in order to finally free himself from the past, he decides to write down his story with the caveat that it will not be read until after his death.  Thus ends the opening frame of the narrative.

In the next frame, Kipps takes us back to when he was a young solicitor at the age of twenty-three.  His employer sends him to be the law firm’s representative at the funeral of one of their clients, Mrs. Alice Drablow.  Along with attending the funeral, it is Kipps’ task to go through Mrs. Drablow’s personal papers and return to London with anything necessary to close her estate.  Upon arriving in Crythin Gifford and visiting Mrs. Drablow’s home, Eel Marsh House, Kipps becomes aware of a secret that everyone else knows but refuses to reveal to him.  Determined to uncover the secrets surrounding Eel Marsh House, Kipps insists upon spending more and more time at the house in spite of his fears and the warnings of everyone in Crythin Gifford.  In the end, Kipps does find answers to the questions revolving around the supernatural events that take place in the area and the apparition of the woman in black, and yet the cost of this knowledge that Kipps must pay is a heavy and painful one.

I picked up The Woman in Black because, like A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick, I am considering teaching this novel in a class next Spring that takes as its theme “from page to screen”.  There are lot of things about this novel that a group of readers would find interesting to talk about.  First and foremost, there is Kipps himself.  The novel is written in first-person, and it is also written through the distance of time, so that Kipps has had plenty of time to reflect upon his experiences.  However, that also means that perhaps he has forgotten, mis-remembered, or reshaped his memories, and so the reliability of the narrator has to come into question.  Hill encourages the reader to believe Kipps’ story by drawing him as someone who is rational and relies upon reason and evidence.  Indeed, his occupation as a lawyer only further underscores the kind of mind Kipps brings to Crythin Gifford and Eel Marsh House.  Kipps says from the beginning that he does not believe in ghosts, and yet as the narrative progresses, he changes his mind, seeing no other reasonable explanation for what has been happening to him.

Another noteworthy aspect of the novel is its pacing and how Hill builds suspense and terror.  I read somewhere that this novel is written in the style of the classic English ghost story and I would agree with that statement.  It’s what cannot be seen, the noises and occurrences that cannot be explained, the overall atmosphere of Crythin Gifford and Eel Marsh House with its “frets” and fogs and sudden falling darkness that produce a sense of fear and unnerves Kipps, resulting in uncertainty over what will happen next.  Suspense is generated by the way Kipps is kept in the dark about the truth concerning the woman in black, why she haunts Eel Marsh House, and what her connection is to Alice Drablow.  Kipps’ efforts to solve the mystery take time, and as readers we are waiting for him to solve the puzzle and thus continue to turn the page.  This being said, I think that 21st century American readers who have grown up with graphic violence and gore in their horror movies will find this novel considerably tame and may question the description of the story as a “chilling ghost story”.  This novel is much more about psychological terror.

I have mixed feelings about this novel.  On the one hand, I figured out much of the mystery well before it was unveiled to the reader, and so I don’t feel like the story was all that suspenseful.  I kept waiting for Kipps to figure it all out.  Then again, I didn’t figure out the whole story, so there was a bit of a surprise for me at the end of the novel.  On the other hand, I can appreciate this novel as a classic English ghost story. I think the novel would have been called a “shilling shocker” in Victorian England, and I enjoyed all of the literary references.  I’ve read that this novel has been adapted for the theatre, and that it has run on the London stage for more than twenty years.  This makes me wonder if it has been changed to make the story more…suspenseful?  I appreciate that this novel isn’t like every other novel–yes, there’s a mystery at its core, but it’s still distinguishable from other ghost stories.  The problem, I think, is that my expectations, based upon the synopsis on the back cover, weren’t really met.  I don’t think this is the fault of the novel.  I just think that I didn’t get what I was expecting.  What I got was a good story, but not a great story.

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