Saturday, October 31, 2009

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!

1 comment:

Stefanie said...

I wish I had been able to read this in one sitting since everyone who has loved it. Ah well.