Thursday, October 29, 2009

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


Jodie said...

Ooo spooky. Did you put it back, or put something even creepier in its place?

Stefanie said...

I didn't think of the book not taking itself seriously because I was taking it too seriously! Thanks for a perspective I didn't even think of!

Rebecca H. said...

I like your reading of genre. Hill does have an awful lot of self-referential elements in this book, including the title and the importance of the Moonstone-like quicksand. I guess what's cool about this book is that it operates on both levels so well -- the level about genre itself and the level of a good story.

Danielle said...

The leaf might have freaked me out. Maybe the last reader used it as a bookmark! I have always wondered about telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve, but this isn't the first time I've come across it--and maybe it is more a British tradition than American. Maybe it has something to do with Dickens A Christmas Carol and the ghosts who visit Scrooge (or maybe not!). I do like the idea of telling stories in a group around a fire, though. I hadn't thought of the book as a play on genre, but I can see what you mean. For such a slender book, I think this is one that can be read and reread and you can find more things to think about.

litlove said...

How interesting. I thought it was self-consciously orthodox, but didn't put that together with the possibility it could be playing with the genre. I wonder if that is why the ending is not in resolution and closure as you might expect, but in tragedy and horror? But then I just find that Susan Hill has a very dark imagination, and so it could just be her!