Thursday, October 29, 2009


I had high expectations for The Woman in Black by Susan Hill because it seems so many blogging book people loved it. Well, I must say I was disappointed. There were three things that combined to make me not care for the book:

  1. There is so much foreshadowing and foreboding for the first half of the book without anything happening that I began to wonder how the actuality could meet the build up. I grew skeptical instead of anticipatory and the more hints of doom that were tossed out the more I doubted so that something really spectacular was going to have to happen in order for things to turn around for me. When the woman in black finally made an appearance my response was, that’s it? I tried to rescue it by thinking how I would feel if I saw something unexplainable like that, but I just couldn’t manage it.

  2. It also didn’t help that as soon as Arthur began reading Jennet’s letters I figured everything out except for one or two minor details. Thus any kind of surprise that could have been had in later revelations was nonexistent.

  3. I could not shake the feeling that I had read this book before even though I am 99% sure I have not. Nor have I seen the movie. This distracted me throughout the book because part of my brain was off trying to figure out why the book was so darn familiar.

So let’s leave my dislike of it behind and look instead on an essential feature of all scary stories: curiosity. There was plenty of curiosity on display in Arthur, our intrepid narrator. If he hadn’t been curious about why everyone was so tightlipped about the Drablow estate he had come to deal with there would not have been a story. And what about the noises coming from the locked room? If he wasn't curious we'd never know what was in there and the story would end. All horror stories need someone who is curious in order to move the plot ahead.

The curious, it seems to me, are generally the ones who are innocent, ignorant, or just plain stupid. In Arthur's case it was a combination of innocence and ignorance. The townspeople of Crythin Gifford were neither ignorant nor innocent because the town had been so affected by what happened at the Drablow house. It therefore took an outsider to tell the story.

You and I sitting and reading (or watching a movie) in a safe and cozy place have it easy. We can call the character who dares walk into the haunted room crazy because we have the luxury of the events not happening to us. But guaranteed, as much as we may protest and say "I'd never go in that room," if we ever found ourselves in a similar situation we very likely would find our curiosity overbalancing our fear. Because that's the thing about people, we may be utterly terrified but at the same time we want to know what is behind that door or out in the fog. Our curiosity gets the best of us. That and, perhaps, a bit of disbelief or skepticism regarding what is happening. It could not be real. Could it? Even Arthur questions if the things he saw and heard were "real" and that leads him to doubt reality altogether. Once we begin to doubt reality we are done for.

I may not have enjoyed the story of The Woman in Black but it did get me thinking a little on what makes scary work or not work. So in that sense, the book isn't a complete loss.

Cross posted at So Many Books


E. L. Fay said...

I think it was interesting that you felt like this book was something you had already read, or that you had already seen a similar movie. I think that definitely goes with my analysis of The Woman in Black as a ghost story that knows it's a ghost story.

I think you're right in that the climax is rather anti-climatic - at first. From all the foreboding, I had guessed that what Arthur experienced in Eel Marsh House would be horribly traumatic, and was disappointed in how lame it seemed. (He runs around in the swamp, sees the nursery all smashed, and that's about it.) But that's where I think Hill's originality comes into an otherwise self-consciously typical ghost story. The true horror is the Woman in Black's murder of Arthur's wife and child. It goes back to one of the book's themes: that of the bond between parent and child and how powerful it is.

Jodie said...

All the things you mentioned in your bullet points were things I found to dislike in 'The Mist in the Mirror', but no one else really found, so perhaps it is a case of each of us finding the Susan Hill ghost story for us.

Also on E L Fay's point about parents, in light of what happens to Arthur's child do you think he deliberately seeks a woman with children from another marriage so he doesn't have to risk losing another child?

Dorothy W. said...

I think you've outlined the basic elements of a ghost story very well -- without that innocent, ignorant outsider, this story wouldn't exist. And one of the horrible things about the story is how that innocent outsider becomes an insider and can't get back on the outside again.

I can see how this book might work for some and not for others -- you get caught up in the story and don't mind its shortcomings, or you stay painfully aware of them and find them unforgiveable. Or, in my case, you fit somewhere in between :)

Danielle said...

It's funny how as much as the reader/viewer is thinking don't open that door--because you know something terrible is behind it, you really do want them to open it (so you can see) but all along you're thinking how foolish they are! I wonder what it is about humans and the desire to have a good scare (but only a fictional one--not real!). This is a story that worked for me, but I can see where if you weren't into this one, all the build up might get on your nerves and ruin any climax. I have a feeling that the devices behind making a scary story must be similar and might likely have been the reason behind the feeling that you'd heard this one before.

Stefanie said...

E.L. Fay, you are right that the true horror are the deaths at the end. Unfortunately by that point I just wanted to finish the book and I couldn't muster any feeling for it. Maybe if I had been able to read it in one or two sittings instead of in dribbles over the course of two weeks.

Jodie, that's a good question regarding Arthur's choice of second wife. I hadn't thought about it but it totally makes sense.

Dorothy, thanks! I liked Hill's writing but I just couldn't slip into the atmosphere of the book.

Danielle, I think we like the feeling of being scared--heart racing, adrenaline pumping, on edge, fully alert--but we can only enjoy it if we know that we are ultimately safe. It seems like everyone who was able to read the book in one or two chunks liked it, so perhaps my method of reading it by grabbing a few minutes here and there was a real disservice to the story.