Thursday, October 29, 2009

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.


Stefanie said...

LOL, great Friends reference, I loved that episode! There are some lovely landscape contrasts and descriptions in this book, aren't there? I keep remembering the detail of the wet shush of the sand versus the hard crunch of the firm gravel. It's a nice touch.

Eileen said...

"It’s hard to describe why this particular simplicity of sound or image conjures such fear, . . . 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."

What a great analysis! I agree 100%.

That's awesome that you saw The Woman in Black on stage.

Rebecca H. said...

Great analysis of the writing here! Your ideas about the sound quality make a lot of sense. That passage about the children watching is particularly haunting. And the freshness of Arthur and his love of landscape and movement (loved his bicycling!) contrast particularly well with the creepiness and agedness of the house.

Danielle said...

So you must have seen the play before you read the book? Where the two very different? I have been wondering how it could be adapted--set as it is in the marshes, but a lot can be conveyed through sound, which you talk about here. I liked Arthur very much and Hill did a great job of rounding out his character. I have The Mist in the Mirror and am curious about it, but I am wondering if I will be disappointed by it in comparison with The Woman in White, which I enjoyed so much.

Jodie said...

On the play it has to be framed so that there's a slighlty more visual/drammatic reason for Athur to recount his experiences (imagine how dull all the present day scenes would be if he was just seen writing at his desk with a voice over) so it's set as a play within a play. Also there's a lot of 'use your imagination' what with the production on stage and the story actually taking place in the marshes (oh and the dog is invisible as litlove notes in her review). Apart from the framing (which allows for a second story of horror to play alongside the original story) it's pretty similar. I think the fact that the play makes such great use of sound (pony and trap recordings, a music box) is why I noticed the sounds so much when I was reading it.