Right now my Instagram is pretty exclusively full of Autumnal reads, Halloween TBR’s and spooky book covers. Everytime I open up the app I am in heaven; Autumn is my favourite season and I love darker reads. That’s why it made complete sense for me to pick up a small but powerful book that I’ve had on my shelf since last Christmas. I’ve been holding off reading it as I waiting for the perfect reading opportunity, but now that Halloween is almost upon us the time is most definitely ripe.
I’m talking of course about the classic ghost story that is Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. Coming in at just under 200 pages this is more of a novella than a novel, but don’t let its small stature put you off as this book really does pack a powerful punch within its pages. Many of you may have seen the film or theater adaptation (both of which I really enjoyed), but for those of you that haven’t I highly recommend starting with the book first. The story is told by Arthur Kipps, recalling the time when he was a junior solicitor sent to attend the funeral of Mrs Alice Drablow, the only inhabitant of Eel Marsh House. The house is a solitary figure standing at the end of the causeway, wreathed in fog and uncertainty. When Mr Kipps first glimpses the figure of a young wasted woman, dressed head to toe in black, a sense of mystery and unease begins to creep upon him. This feeling is only heightened by his time spend alone in Eel Marsh House and the horrors he witnesses; horrors which the locals still refuse to talk about . . .
Firstly I have to call attention to the stunning cover of my edition of The Woman in Black. I own the Vintage edition and it has been beautifully designed with a large Gothic font and the eerie background images of Eel Marsh House and its ancestral graveyard. Small details such as a rocking chair really add an extra layer once you have read the story, and I think it’s generally a very effectively designed front cover for the story.
Right from the start of this book the feeling and tone of a classic ghost story have been immediately captured. The scene opens with a family gathered around a fire at Christmas, taking it in turns to each tell a frightening tale. The author is very much giving a nod here to the Victorian traditions of telling ghost stories at Christmas (think Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol), providing a suitably chilling atmosphere with the consuming darkness outside and the crackling fire within. It’s a brilliant start to the novella which manages to chill you somewhat before you’ve even got into the main tale.
Another successful Gothic trope the author makes use of is the way in which she frames this narrative as being completely real. Our narrator, as he listens to his family telling each of their ghost stories, begins to feel more and more uncomfortable. He can see their stories are works of fiction because he knows what it is like to have a real ghost story; he has lived through one. The way he can barely bring himself to think of the past establishes the sense that his story is a truly frightening one, and this is only shown further by his inability to speak his tale out loud. Instead he prefers to write his story down, never to be read until he is dead and buried. All in all, this short opening provided a brilliantly intriguing and chilling start to a promising ghost story.
I think one of the reasons this book works so brilliantly, and indeed why it has been adapted for both the stage and the screen, is that it is very clever in its use of classic terror. The author never really takes us from the realms of terror and into the land of explicit bloody horror. Instead we have this skillful haunting of the woman in black. Our narrator sees things and experiences things which are truly frightening and cannot be explained, but this terror is never cheapened for the sake of it. In fact a lot of what makes this take so frightening is the idea itself and the threat of the unknown. Our narrator, as well as the readers, feel threatened by the idea of this woman and what she stands for, never fully able to make sense of it.
This emphasis on the terror as opposed to gruesome horror is a key theme in the overall plot of the book. As the story unfolds we begin to feel increasingly as though something is not quite right. The atmosphere grows in its intensity, helped along not only by the twists of the plot, but also by the oppressive weather and the general location. Even the Eel Marsh House itself is seen as something evil, often cutting our narrator off from the rest of the world as the tide comes in, almost as if it is actively holding him prisoner. Crumbling towers, Gothic monasteries and ancient castles are all frequently used classic Gothic tropes, and Eel Marsh House follows very closely in this Gothic tradition.
On the whole this book does not have a large cast of characters, but the ones we do see are all very effective in bringing the story together as whole and heightening the sense of unease. It isn’t long before Mr Kipps can clearly see that the local villagers are hiding something from him; he can almost hear their unsaid words, caching the look of terror in their own eyes whenever he probes to closely to anything regarding the woman in black. At times it feels as if even the villagers are against him, with their unwillingness to speak out about what they know. This really adds to the atmosphere of the overall book as you find yourself trying to make sense of what could really be going on and what is so dreadful that it cannot be spoken about. By leaving so much unsaid the author has created a space for the readers themselves to speculate, letting our imaginations run wild as we conjure up images of the worst things we could ever imagine.
It sounds a bit odd to say when we’re talking about something that is meant to terrify us, but I really did love this ghost story. I found it to be incredibly well balanced, with the right levels of terror and atmosphere whilst also maintaining the characters themselves. There’s something incredibly unsettling about the past returning to haunt you and I think that Susan Hill has done an expert job at really using this to the best advantages. If you’re after something short and sweet to give yourself shivers on a dark night than I would highly recommend this!
‘The sheer amount of power the author has managed to fit in to a mere 200 pages is astounding. She unleashes the full strength of terror against us, providing us with enough details to terrify, whilst also allowing our minds to create our own horrors. Classic Gothic fiction at its finest.’