Wednesday 8 September 2010

Woman in Black

The other of Susan Hill's books that I have read this year, 'Howard's End is on the Landing', has been probably one of my favourites so far, and it's not even a novel. My daughter M read 'The Woman in Black' at school and really enjoyed it so it had been on the list for a while. This book is very much reading outside my comfort zone because it is a ghost story, and I do not like being scared, ask anyone, I am a complete wuss, hid behind the sofa for Dr Who when I was a child, but this book was worth being scared.

Our narrator begins his tale with a little background information about his life and then sets out for us a warm and comfortable scene of his family around the fire at Christmas and his teenage step-sons telling ghost stories. His own emotional outburst on being asked to contribute a story is definitely out of character as he relates to the reader, but not his family, the reasons why, and vows to finally put on paper the story of his experiences at Eel Marsh House. The whole book reads somewhat like a 'film noir', starting at some 'future' point and then flashing back to the past to tell the story. The narrators voice is very strong and his view and his thoughts are the only ones that you have. This adds to the mystery as none of the other characters give him any information, only their scared expressions, hints and warnings which add to the tension of the tale.

The date is not specified but it seems to be set in Victorian/Edwardian times, there are steam trains and people still travel by horse and cart. Mr Kipps is a solicitor and is sent north to attend the funeral and to deal with the papers of a Mrs Drablow, who had lived in a lonely isolated house. The locals are distinctly evasive on the subject of this woman and her house, and reluctant to discuss anything about her. Only Mr Daily, who he meets on the train, offers any help or advice. At the funeral he sees a woman dressed in black, who's appearance causes great distress to Mr Jerome, the local solicitor, but who refuses to talk further. Kipps then travels out to Eel Marsh House to begin the task of sorting out papers. While at the house he sees the woman again and after dark hears strange noises in the house and then hears what sounds like some travellers being drowned in the marshes that surround the house. He is frightened but then in the cold light of day rationalises his experiences and accompanied by a little dog (given as companionship by Mr Daily) returns to the house to continue his task. The following night he discovers the source of the mysterious noises and also some letters that begin to explain the background to what happened in the house, the story of a young woman, a baby adopted and her fight to regain him. But the worst is yet to come.

I don't want to spoil the story as I want people to read it. It's very short, 150 pages, you could read it in one sitting. The book is all about the story. In some ways the characters are a little cliched, the educated gentleman telling the story, the polite but uninformative pub landlord, the jovial local landowner, the gang of silent children and the surly retainer who drives the pony and trap. What was so good about the book was the way Susan Hill builds up the tension in the story. There are a series of small incidents, and after each one Kipps calms down and talks himself out of being scared. So you get tension and then relaxation, and then tension again, and along with him you rationalise the events. It is pure ghost story. There is no attempt to 'make it turn out ok in the end' or provide an explanation. I kept expecting something else to happen, like for this outsider, Mr Kipps, to solve the mystery, but he doesn't. He is an unwilling participant just like the local community. This is malevolent supernatural forces at work. You don't have to believe in ghosts to enjoy the story, you do have to just accept the events as they unfold and not try to impose rationality on them. I actually enjoyed the process of being frightened by it. An excellent story, read it.


  1. It is really great isn't it - I'm so glad to read that you enjoyed. So atmospheric and yes,worth the fright! There was a stage show in London years ago - I am not sure if it is still running but it is said to have been fabulous.

    Happy reading


  2. I like the sound of this Martine - I'm a fan of ghost stories! On a monochrome theme, I remember reading Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White' years ago -I recommend that as an atmospheric yarn

  3. Woman in White is on my list too, I have read about it in several places and after trying this one I thought I could manage something else scary.
    much love martine


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