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.