Long awaited and much anticipated (by me), Susan Hill’s ghost story ‘The Woman in Black’, though first published in 1983, is experiencing something of a revival with the film premiering this month and the ghost story genre currently ‘à la mode’.
Adapted to the stage in 1987, the play has been running continuously since then (it is the second longest-running play in the history of the West End of London), thus I have been eager to discover what lies between the slim covers of this intriguing book myself, since reading ‘A Kind Man’ and ‘The Beacon’ last year and becoming a fan of her books.
Knowing that Susan Hill is one of those writer’s whose work and combination of words I like to savour, I take my time and let the language wash over me, as I come to know Arthur Kipps, while he sits by the fire on Christmas Eve listening to his stepchildren narrate ghost stories. Though it is a festive occasion, a grain of discomfort winds itself between the lines on the page and there is a flicker of an unwelcome presence, a glimmer of something he does not wish to recall, despite being far removed from his past now.
The story unfolds as we are taken back to his early days as a young solicitor, journeying to the cold, misty, windswept marshes of Crythin Gifford where he must wind up the affairs of the recently deceased Mrs Alice Drablow. Ever prosaic, he takes the responsibility in his stride and tries to ignore the reluctance of locals to engage with him or have anything to do with the matters of the deceased widow and the eerie Eel Marsh House.
While I very much doubt that I will be seeing the film, though I am sure it is excellent and well-made, utilising known techniques to ensure viewers experience ever heightened tension, heartstopping anticipation and chilling unease to elicit that emotionally wrung out feeling – I say this if like me, you have an acute sensitivity to music which accentuates all those senses (I succeed in scaring those who weren’t scared by the movie), I do love how Susan Hill uses details of nature and the physical environment to keep the reader and her protagonist grounded in reality.
There is no music accompanying the reading of this book and so I too hang on to that ambiguous reality. When Arthur visits Eel Marsh House and for practical purposes stays the night (yes, he is rather stubborn), he reassures himself and us by opening all the windows, understanding the layout of the house, going for a walk, venturing out in the dark against his better instinct only to be confronted with something that may or may not be able to be explained. And it’s not just him, even Spider the companionable dog responds to the lure of noises that sound familiar but could indeed be sinister.
It’s the perfect ghost story, because so much is left up to the interpretation of the reader, you can be a believer or a non-believer and regardless come away from this story feeling intrigued, satisfied and wanting to talk to someone about how you understood it. I am already looking forward to the next Susan Hill book that comes my way.