I’ll admit I’m a newbie when it comes to ghost stories. I’ve read some, I’m sure, but it was a long, long time ago, and I don’t remember any details. So I don’t have much of a basis of comparison to work with here. What this book taught me, though, is that the circumstances in which one reads a ghost story matter a lot. Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black is only 150 pages long and probably should be read in as close to one sitting as possible. When I had the chance to sit down with this book for more than a few minutes at a time, I got caught up in the atmosphere and enjoyed myself. When I read only small pieces of it before putting it down again to go on to something else, I became too distanced from the story to feel much of the spookiness and suspense.
I did enjoy the illustrations in my edition of the book (the one pictured above); the black and white sketches helped create a sense of what the almost other-worldly landscape must have looked like. I enjoyed the atmosphere the book created more than the story itself; the story is fairly simple and straightforward and not so difficult to figure out, even for someone like me who is generally very bad at figuring things out. But Hill does atmosphere very well, and I liked the descriptions of the town where the people obviously have deep, dark secrets; the house separated from the town by a causeway that is under water when the tide is in; the absolutely unforthcoming driver who carries the main character back and forth; and the terrifyingly shifty and treacherous quicksand reminiscent of the shivering sands in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone.
The story is told by an older man, Arthur Kipps, who is surrounded by his happy family but haunted by memories. He decides to write his story down to try to make his ghostly memories disappear once and for all. The story he has to tell takes place when he was much younger, an innocent and confident young man, eager to make his way in the world. He receives an assignment to sort through the papers of a woman who has recently died, a Mrs. Drablow who lives on the coast and who, he discovers, no one in the town wants to discuss. While at Mrs. Drablow’s funeral, Arthur sees a woman who has seemingly come out of nowhere and who suffers from a some kind of a wasting disease. He asks about her later, but it turns out no one else has seen her, and no one will answer his questions about her. He brushes this aside and continues on with his work, but, of course, this is not the last he sees of the mysterious woman.
And then we are plunged into a familiar dynamic: Arthur knows he is getting himself into a very strange, very creepy situation, and the more time he spends at Mrs. Drablow’s house the more this feeling is confirmed, but he is determined to do his work well, no matter what the consequences. Why should he let a ghostly woman dressed in black keep him from completing his task? Why should he be afraid of spending the night in Mrs. Drablow’s house, even when he knows it is haunted?
Well, he learns why. I liked the fact that — and now I will get to some spoilers — the plot revolves around a mother who is forced to give up her child born out of wedlock. To separate a mother and child is to violate the natural order to such a horrific extent that a terrible revenge is sure to follow. Hill makes clear that the fate of women who have made “mistakes” in love may vary, but it is never good:
A girl from the servant class, living in a closely-bound community, might perhaps have fared better, sixty or so years before, than this daughter of genteel parentage, who had been so coldly rejected and whose feelings were so totally left out of the count. Yet servant girls in Victorian England had, I knew, often been driven to murder or abandon their misconceived children. At least Jennet had known that her son was alive and had been given a good home.
The community has a whole has had to pay a high price for this cruelty. Individual families might perpetrate the wrong on an immediate level, but it is a cultural sin and the culture pays.
On a lighter level, I also liked the role the dog Spider played. Spider was probably the character I cared about most, in fact. The scene where she almost gets lost in the quicksand is the most harrowing one in the book. One of the most frightening things I can think of is a dog who is thoroughly freaked out and frightened for reasons we can’t understand. Surely that dog knows something we don’t?
I didn’t think this was a great book, but I thought it was a competent one, and it makes me a little more curious than I was before about other ghost stories and about what else Susan Hill has written.