Saturday, October 31, 2009


On Halloween, it’s interesting to wonder what exactly it is that makes things scary. The Slaves of Golconda have read The Woman in Black this month and it is a classic ghost story that combines all the usual elements – a lonely, isolated house linked to the mainland by a causeway over marshes that flood, local villagers who refuse to speak of the place, tragedies of the past recounted in a bundle of letters, and a ghostly figure in black with a ravaged, wasted face who is out to seek evil revenge. It’s well known territory but sometimes even the most reliable of literary codes and conventions can fail. My son saw the West End production of The Woman in Black on a school trip and I asked him how it was. ‘It was good, and quite scary in parts,’ he said. ‘But there was one moment when the characters were supposed to be saving a dog from quicksand, and there were only these two actors on stage, and no real dog, so watching them trying to pull an invisible dog to safety was quite funny really.’ It’s a terrible bit in the book, one that has real dramatic tension, but I could quite see how it would take some acting skills to express the peril of a drowning dog on a London stage with no dog in sight. Fear, like pain, relies enormously on the power of the imagination to anticipate consequences. But unlike pain, which is best evoked by the instrument that will inflict it, fear needs a dose of the unknown to be effective. We have to not know what will happen next, to be radically uncertain, before fear can really take hold.

Having read so many other wonderful reviews of the book (and just click over to the site if you want to see them), I felt I should do something different and think about what it is that lies beneath the figure of the ghost in literature. The word ‘ghost’ itself originates in the German Geist, which is defined as a spirit, an inspiring principle. To be human is to have a spirit or a soul, and the difficulty of confronting our mortality often leads to the belief that what must remain after death is this very spirit. But ghosts in stories show themselves to be more than just any old human spirit, hanging around still once the party is over. Ghosts are always in limbo, and they induce anxiety or they set tasks for those still living. Literary criticism borrows the mathematical term ‘the indivisible remainder’ to talk about them – it means the bit that gets left over, the small, niggling element that remains when every other part of the equation is finished, after all the other numbers have neatly folded in on themselves and disappeared. Ghosts represent the indivisible remainder of life; problems unresolved, and emotions of fear, rage, horror, distress, that are too big for the grave to swallow them up. The neat and tidy borderline between life and death becomes blurred by the appearance of the ghost, as does the boundary between what is real and what is fantastic. They are there to trouble what ought to be most certain to human life by suggesting that something will always elude cooption into the clear-cut or the fenced-in. It’s one reason why ghost stories so often begin with a scene of exquisite comfort – roaring fires, a happy, assembled company, houses locked up tight against the winter chill. Even, maybe especially, in the most secure environment, fear and horror and grief can find its way in, seeping through the cracks and chinks in the best domestic armour.

But the appearance of the ghost is not always understood as an intrusive threat to mental and emotional serenity. The experience of being haunted is usually described as being indistinguishable from the experience of mental anguish, and associated with melancholia, alienation and anxiety. (Arthur Kipps in The Woman in Black has to be on his own, in the dark and cold, cut off from the possibility of rescue and invaded by a sense of despair for the black fear to really descend on him). But this is often only as an imperative to action. Many ghosts come to awaken an ethical imperative in the haunted, to ensure justice for the future as well as appeasement for the past. Whatever has been left undone, whatever cannot be subsumed into family or social history, becomes the burden of the next generation. The Gothic genre is particularly keen on this ambivalence between horror and justice. The vindictive, chain-rattling ghosts of its tales haunt family homes in order to indicate the presence of a terrible secret, usually one that threatens the legitimate transfer of an inheritance. If there’s one thing the Victorians were really afraid of, it’s that the family bloodline would be corrupted, the money diverted and the house passed on to the undeserving.

So most ghost stories, of whatever kind, press for resolution and closure. For uncovering secrets, healing old wounds and tidying up the essential human boundaries. And they derive their fear factor from the great nebulous unknown that surrounds human anguish and the unexplained pull of the past. What we don’t know DOES hurt us, often in surprising ways.

the woman in black by susan hill

Malevolence. Something grand about the word, and the way it flows off the tongue. I think of Maleficent in Disney's Sleeping Beauty, the evil fairy who seeks to take the life of Princess Aurora on her sixteenth birthday in vengeance for not being invited to a party. Yes, a little over the top but that is the appeal. A villain who is powerful beyond the constraints of mere mortal existence, who has an appeal outside of the conventionally acceptable. Someone who indulges our desire for the fun of a good fright at a removed and safe distance from actual peril. The word malevolence is on my mind today not just because of Halloween, but because I just finished Susan Hill's classic ghost story, The Woman in Black, a book where the word malevolence serves as a literal refrain in the prose.

The Woman in Black is a quick and compelling ghost story that should be read in one sitting if at all possible. The book begins in the safety and happiness of a family at Christmas sharing ghost stories beneath the lit Christmas tree. However, the father in this family refuses to offer a story, not seeing the fun in such an exchange. It is soon revealed that he has real ghosts to exorcise from his past. He vows to do just this by writing the entire story down rather than burdening his family with these disturbing truths from his youth.

As a young solicitor, Arthur Kipps is given the task of visiting the remote Eel Marsh House to attend the funeral of a longtime firm client and settle her estate. At the funeral, he glimpses a woman he assumes to be a fellow mourner, but is set ill at ease by her sickly appearance and the dated clothes she wears. He feels compassion for her but does not yet suspect the reality of her presence. He feels a mild sense of foreboding as the town's people refuse to discuss the house or the circumstances that bring him to Crythin Gifford. The next day, after he is left at the remotely located house of the deceased client, he begins to realize the eeriness of his present circumstances when he spies the woman in black again, this time on the estate's old burial grounds.

"In the greyness of the fading light, it had the sheen and pallor not of flesh so much as of bone itself. Earlier, when I had looked at her, although admittedly it had been scarcely more than a swift glance each time, I had not noticed any particular expression on her ravaged face, but then I had, after all, been entirely taken with the look of extreme illness. Now, however, as I stared at her, stared until my eyes ached in the sockets, stared in surprise and bewilderment at her presence, now I saw that her face did wear an expression. It was one of what I can only describe - and the words seem hopelessly inadequate to express what I saw - as a desperate, yearning malevolence; it was as though she were searching for something she wanted, needed -must have, more than life itself, and which had been taken from her. And, towards whoever had taken it she directed the purest evil and hatred and loathing, with all the force that was available to her."

I will stop there as who really wants spoilers with a story like this? The Woman in Black is not the best book I have ever read, but it is really good fun. The story is well-delivered in a manner that lightly mirrors both the language and the ghost-telling conventions of the time in which it was set. Hill does a wonderful job with the atmospherics (you will feel the threat of the very specifically described personified and menacing fog), and, if read at one sitting, you will feel the dread than terror of the protagonist yourself. Yes, you may see the ending coming 40 pages before it actually arrives. Yes, you may be frustrated at the young solicitor's stubborn determination to return and sleep over at the house he senses contains some undetermined evil. But that is all part of the fun isn't it? Happy Halloween!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Woman in Black

33044525 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.

If you would like to read more posts on the book, check out the Slaves of Golconda blog and the discussion forums. I hope to see you there!


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

The Woman in Black - Susan Hill

The stage adaptation of ‘The Woman in Black’ is probably one of the scariest things I’ve ever been to see. Screams came from the stalls whenever the woman in black appeared on stage. During the final scene in the haunted house, there was an inward hiss of breath, as the people sitting close to the stage tried to brace themselves for the appearance of the woman in black, who would surely violently attack Arthur Kipps as he surveyed the devastated nursery. But she never appeared, Arthur creeps around the room in silence, then flees the house and somehow that was more terrifying than anything else that has happened during the performance. Our tension was denied a release and we all kept our guard up until the end of the performance, which just meant that our nerves were more easily tweaked by the shocking finale.

This restraint and simplicity is exactly what makes the original novel so terrifying. Simple, everyday sounds and sights are perverted by the malevolent ghost who haunts the house Arthur is sent to, after his solicitor’s firm is told that a client of theirs has died. A row of small children, the sound of a pony and trap, a noise from Arthur’s childhood, all these things take on sinister associations as the mysterious lady in black uses them to show Arthur her power. These are tiny things, by themselves, but as they are repeated throughout the novel the reader learns to equate them with fear and evil, filling them with a horrifying significance and potency.

The images and sounds that Hill chooses to repeat, in order to create this building effect of horror are sparse and simple, for example the clip clop of a pony’s hooves is a crisp, ringing sound. It’s hard to describe why this particular simplicity of sound or image conjures such fear, without unpicking the years of cultural baggage that each reader loads them with, but my best attempt would be that they are pared back to the absolute core of a sound, or image and that the pure, undecorated reality of them strikes the emotional nucleus of the reader. Arthur’s narrative, which is generally full of energetic delight in nature and the surrounding landscapes, is descriptive, but sharply so, conjuring exact images that are easy to visualize, for example ‘I saw a blackbird on a hollybush a few feet away and heard him open his mouth to pour out a sparkling fountain of song in the November sunlight’. He also describes his observation of the ghostly apparitions with similar clear, piercing detail that does not over or under explain what he sees. This creates sobering moments of sinister simplicity, almost anxious tranquillity if that’s even possible, for example:

‘Lined up along the iron railings that surrounded the small asphalt yard of the school were twenty or so children, one to a gap. They presented a row of solemn faces with great, rounded eyes, that had watched who knew how much of the mournful proceedings, and their little hands held the railings tight, and they were all of them quite silent, quite motionless.'

This style of description, measured and methodical, but also evocative and precise forces the reader to fully absorb the details of the scene and crystallises the pictures in the reader’s mind, transmitting the full horror of a particular scene.

Can there be more great stuff in such a short book? Well yes, there’s the narrator Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor sent to the sleepy market town of Crythin Gifford, to venture across the marshes and sort through the paper’s of Mrs Drablow, his firm’s recently deceased client. At heart Arthur is an energetic, sensible man keen on nature and bicycling, with no time for dark hints and superstitious tales. Yet, more and more he feels the hypnotic quality of the landscape around Mr Drablow’s house, the ‘glittering, beckoning, silver marshes’ and the sadness that lingers in the house.

What struck me most about Arthur is that while initially he believes himself too sophisticated to be influenced by tales and strange occurrences, he is sensible enough to trust the evidence of his own senses and to know that there’s no point in being courageous around spirits. That’s something that sets him apart from the narrator of ‘The Mist in the Mirror’ (which I read a month ago) who is so stubborn and prideful that he alienates the fearful reader, who would quite happily run away from ghosts. Arthur is a hero the reader can identify with and feel proud to spend time with, even as he flees the ghostly woman.

Last night, thoroughly freaked and happy that Spider the dog has made it out alive I shoved this book between the heaviest two volumes I could find. At the start of the RIP challenge I said I wanted to be gloriously scared and ‘The Woman in Black’ has accomplished that. If I was Joey I’d be keeping this book in the freezer.

The Woman In Black

It's been a rough October. Could someone please open the discussion, and I'll jump in in a day or two. Many thanks, Slaves!

Susan Hill's Woman in Black

They had chided me with being a spoil-sport, tried to encourage me to tell them the one ghost story I must surely, like any other man, have it in me to tell. And they were right. Yes, I had a story, a true story, a story of haunting and evil, fear and confusion. But it was not a story told for casual entertainment, around a fireside upon Christmas Eve.

Susan Hill's The Woman in Black opens on Christmas Eve, a holiday when death, darkness, and the grotesque are furthest from the mind. (I'm not familiar with British Christmas rituals but telling ghosts stories seemed very odd. Maybe I'm just being Americentric?) The time of year for that stuff is October and the celebration of Halloween, which I remember one of my English professors discussing in a lecture analyzing Euripedes's The Bacchae. Many cultures, he said, have a holiday set aside as a time for release and liberation, when people can behave in ways they usually don't. (Another example would be Mardi Gras.) Christmas, by contrast, is a season for giving and politeness, when the dark or unsavory side of things comes up only as a problem to be solved through kindness and generosity. Something evil or frightening that appears in December is an intrusion, like the encroachment of the dead into the world of the living.

The Woman in Black is the story of one such a disturbance, not only between ghosts and humans, past and present, but also between fiction and reality. Arthur Kipp, who narrates the tale retroactively in old age, is a brash, young attorney who has been sent by his firm to organize the estate of the late Alice Drablow, a widow who had lived alone in Eel Marsh House, isolated out on a swampy causeway. The place is rumored to be haunted by a "woman in black," whose appearance always foretells the death of one of the town children. Kipp believes none of this, naturally. I had "the Londoner's sense of superiority in those days," he admits, further confessing to viewing the townsfolk as simple bumpkins who had unfairly demonized Mrs. Drablow.
Doubtless, in a place such as this, with its eerie marshes, sudden fogs, moaning winds and lonely houses, any poor old woman might be looked at askance; once upon a time, after all, she might have been branded as a witch and local legends and tales were still abroad and some extravagant folklore still half-believed in.
It actually sounds too good to be true: ghosts in this place? Huh, who would've guessed?

At first glance, Susan Hill seems remarkably unoriginal, but that was probably the point. The Woman in Black is a self-conscious ghost story (beginning with the title), akin to how Scream was metafictional satire. Arthur Kipps, in his attempts to understand the mystery of "the woman with the wasted face" and Eel Marsh House, constantly refers back to the fictional genre of the ghost story and, to a lesser extent, Gothic/romantic suspense. He notices, for example, how the wraithlike "woman in black" does and does not exhibit features typically associated with ghosts (she wears old-fashioned clothing but appears solid). He recognizes the abandoned graveyard and monastic ruins next to Eel Marsh House as having a clichéd Romantic ambiance and being precisely the kind of place where some Edgar Allen Poe type would enjoy sitting and composing "cloying sad verse." There is even a nod to "the madwoman in the attic," a timeworn Gothic trope used most famously in Jane Eyre.

Like Carlos Ruiz Zafón's The Angel's Game, Susan Hill's The Woman in Black functions on two levels: as an entertaining story and as a play on genre. I wonder if years of ghost/Gothic/horror novels and films have severely dampened our ability to come out with a ghost/Gothic/horror story that takes itself seriously and doesn't seem too much like fiction come to life. But I think the familiar elements of the genre have true staying power, and The Woman in Black is a great example of a tale that's been told yet still has the potential to thrill and delight.

The weirdest thing happened while I was reading this book. I got it from the library and it looks like the last time it was checked out was May 19, 1992. Anyway, a perfectly preserved maple leaf just fell out from between the pages! It actually freaked me out! Wonder where it came from? Was it put there deliberately?

This Book and I Could Be Friends