I suspected there was some movie action by the occasional burst of clicks on my post about Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. I just clicked on the trailer for the film with Mr. Radcliffe (tentative February release) and was too rattled to watch even half of it. Hope that’s just tricky editing.
I am not a great fan of ghost stories. I am perfectly capable of scaring myself into a state without any help from the professionals. But once again, I am putty in the hands of those people at Amazon. I have bought and greatly enjoyed mysteries by the English writer Susan Hill. Amazon has been suggesting for ages that I try her ghost story, The Woman in Black. So naturally I finally buckled.
From what I can tell (really, dim memories of The Turn of the Screw are all I have to go on), Hill is emulating the ghost story canon. This neat edition from David Godine wisely dispenses with any marketing material that might provide a context for the tale — you must read it naively. The cover looks generally 19th-century and the narration is very staid. I spent much of the first chapter trying to fix a time frame and, when automobiles were mentioned, found myself about 50 years off. I think that ambiguity is a clever way to both situate the book in its tradition and to subtly disorient the reader.
The plot is relatively straightforward — don’t they have to be in this genre? The narrator, Arthur Kipps, encounters something uncanny in a remote and deserted country house, and is forever changed. The thing is, with a ghost story, you always know what’s going to happen. So a modern writer engaging with the form must be looking for something new in it, or must be using it for a new purpose. I got one signal when Arthur says, “It is remarkable how powerful a force simple curiosity is.” He has had his first taste of the weirdness and wants to figure it out.
So that put me on alert. Perhaps Hill is writing obliquely about loss of innocence. Figuring things out, getting the answers to the questions, is not always satisfying. Arthur later says “coming to this place had already changed me and there was no going back.” Another clue comes further on, as Arthur stubbornly continues to probe the eerie doings at Eel Marsh House. (Great name, no?) “I felt not fear, not horror, but an overwhelming grief and sadness,… a distress mingled with utter despair.”
So I take this little volume as a well-disguised fable of a man’s coming to grips with mortality. That said, it functions as compelling fiction. Hill manages the tone brilliantly, releasing just enough information to keep our curiosity piqued. The haunted house is situated at the end of a causeway that’s only passable at high tide, and Hill makes mesmerising use of this setting. There is a wonderful dog, whose courage and warmth provide a guidepost toward coping with things that go bump in the night. (Oh, gosh, literally…)
The Woman in Black is an interesting window into Susan Hill’s mind. Her murder mysteries are terrific, but they push against the genre’s limits. Sometimes there is no closure, sometimes a detective dies, sometimes the solution carries over two books. I enjoyed watching her take on an even more circumscribed form and turn it into something fascinating.
Why is this title sinister? Maybe it’s the combination of ideas: “stranger” always connotes something potentially menacing, and when you add the diminutive you tip over into the creepy. Then you fabricate a decaying English country house, a self-deceiving narrator, the social chaos of the years just after World War II, and you have The Little Stranger.
I don’t read a lot of this kind of thing, but I don’t suppose anyone writing it gets far from the shadow of The Turn of the Screw. In this instance Waters seems to be enjoying both discipleship and freedom from influence. Her overriding concern here is the dislocation and anxiety provoked by the downward mobility of the “county” family that owns Hundreds Hall and the upward mobility of characters like the local builder Babb, who buys land (“the grass-snake meadow,” in family parlance) from the Ayres family and builds council houses within view of the house. In a way it’s like reading post-war Angela Thirkell from the other side of the green baize door.
Our narrator has complete social mobility. He is Doctor Faraday (no first name that I can remember: hmmmmm), son of a maid at Hundreds, a “clever boy” who was sent to good schools, worked hard, and has established a foothold in the professional class. He’s like one of Thomas Hardy’s characters, though, in that no one, least of all he himself, can forget his plebeian origins. Faraday first comes to Hundreds Hall to see the teenage maid Betty, who is disturbed by what we’d now call paranormal phenomena in the house. He naturally becomes emotionally involved in the lives of all four of the residents, and falls under the spell of the house.
So… is Hundreds Hall really haunted? This has to be the engine of a ghost story, the need to know what’s actually going on. Waters spins out the tension, as the weird incidents pile up, family members succumb, and the house itself takes on an uncanny power. Quite early on, Faraday has the sense to grasp that the local people of Warwickshire, the former servants and farm laborers, had “begun to withdraw their labour, their belief in the house; and the house was collapsing, like a pyramid of cards.” So, of course, is the gentry. Waters brilliantly sketches the threat posed by a nouveau-riche family that takes over a nearby house and desecrates it by tearing out paneling and threatening to install a swimming pool. Also brilliant is a visit Faraday makes with Caroline Ayres (daughter of the house and eventually the object of his romantic intentions) to one of the unfinished council houses. “What is a fitted kitchen?” asks Caroline. “There are no nasty gaps,” Faraday answers, “and no odd corners.”
Hundreds, of course, is nothing but nasty gaps and odd corners. Waters is even-handed enough to show us its extraordinary beauty as well as its nastiness. The book ends — as, really, it had to — on an unsettling note. The house continues to crumble. Faraday, who still has keys, visits it and attempts to stave off the worst of the decay. He claims no understanding of the strange occurrences, saying only that the house has “thrown the family off, like springing turf throwing off a footprint.” In a way it makes the fate of the House of Usher look refreshingly clear-cut.