Wednesday, 31 October 2012

"The Woman in Black," by Susan Hill

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

I finished reading "The Woman in Black" a couple of days ago, but I hadn't yet got around to writing a post about it.  I have a case of book burnout at the moment; I feel like I have lost my blogging mojo.  However, I just remembered that it is Hallowe'en tonight and so it would be fitting to put up this post now...

I was loaned this book by a friend, having - in a reversal of the normal way of things - seen the film first.  I knew that the ending of the novel is meant to be different from the play (which I haven't seen) and different again from the film, and the framing narrative made a significant factor in this difference obvious from the outset.  However, the set up for the story is the same: Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor, is sent to an isolated old house in a marsh to sort through the disordered paperwork of a deceased client.  Spooky stuff happens.

I find Susan Hill's prose style difficult, and I find it hard to explain why.  The experience of reading a page of her writing, for me, is rather like sliding at speed down a vertical glass wall, unable to find anything to grip on to and stall my descent.  I get to the end of a page and sometimes have to re-read it, finding that nothing has stuck.  It isn't that her style is particularly complex; more that her writing is quite descriptive.  It is a salutory exercise in what a lazy reader I have become, sliding over passages of description to get to dialogue or a development in the plot.  It is entirely a problem with me as a reader rather than her as a writer, which I think has been exacerbated by a reading diet of entertaining but not particularly challenging books.  I need to rectify this.

Once I'd got over this problem and managed to get a grip on her writing style, I enjoyed this book.  There is a peculiar skill in writing about things not happening: in prolonging the tension in the expectation of an event to an almost unbearable level, or in something happening in obscurity so that its significance isn't fully understood.  Susan Hill is particularly good at this, and also at another staple of the ghost story genre; making something familiar into something strange and threatening.

In addition, I realised that the ghost story in writing can cope with one of the problems of the ghost story/horror genre better than film can, by which I mean the occasionally stupidity of characters that, when I'm watching a horror film, leaves me shouting at the screen "No, you idiot, why would you want to go in there?" (or words to that effect)*.  I felt that "The Woman in Black" excels at taking you inside the thought processes of Arthur so that, instead of wondering why he does something, you can understand his initial denial, the rationale for his actions, and his attempts to master his mounting fear.  I think that the first person narrative works particularly well in ghost stories - the stories of M.R. James are the epitome of this - because they take you into the fear that the protagonist experiences and invite you to share in it.  When Arthur is scared, Susan Hill takes you into his physical and emotional reactions as the person experiencing them and not as a distanced third person observer.

This novel - along with "Howard's End is on the Landing" - has gone some way to get me over my SusanHillophobia (which I think had its roots in having to read "Strange Meeting" at school) to the extent that I looked for her other ghost story novellas when I was last in the library.  Sadly they didn't have any on the shelves.  Maybe I should pick "Florence and Giles" by John Harding as a further Hallowe'en read?  Or you can't go wrong with an M.R. James ghost story....

*The brilliant Eddie Izzard does a brilliant routine about this problem which I just rediscovered on Youtube, which you can watch here.


  1. I read this book about a week before I realised it was being made into a film (which I still haven't seen). Usually I'm not keen on huge passages of description, but I was sucked into the prose.

    1. I wish that I had read the book first, although I did enjoy the film. If you do get the chance to see it, it does have a few effective jumps.

  2. Very interesting review. I read The Woman In Black when I was quite young, maybe 13 or so, and I was terrified by it. When I re-read it as an adult recently I wasn't sure if it would have the same effect, but I still found it desperately creepy. I do know what you mean about Susan Hill's prose, though. I think her style apes the style of the literature of the era she's writing about in this one, so there are quite long passages of description as there often is in Victorian syntax, and the sentence structures also feel quite Victorian to me.

    Oh, and John Harding's Florence & Giles is a big favourite of mine. I heartily recommend it - especially if you've read The Turn Of The Screw, but it's still great if you haven't.

    1. Thanks, Joanne. I did find Oliver Twist hard to read earlier this year, so you might be right about the Victorian style and how she uses the same style of writing. Although I have also tried to read books of hers with a more modern setting and had problems with getting into her style of writing.

      I will read Florence and Giles - it has been languishing unread on my ereader for a little while (I loved another book of John Harding's, One Big Damn Puzzler, which I think you have read and written about on your blog). I am ashamed to admit that I haven't read The Turn of the Screw, although I have seen adaptations and know the premise.