The Woman in Black: A Ghost Story by Susan Hill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Chilling and atmospheric ghost story, convincingly suffused with all the elements of the traditional Gothic tale, despite the fact it was written in the 80's. It's difficult to spot that this isn't a period story and this is part of its brilliance; it feels like an old tale (and is all the more spooky for it) but Hill can tap into what disturbs more modern readers.
The classic elements of the ghost story are used well, there's a framing story of the old Arthur Kipps listening to tales of the supernatural at Christmas, very Dickensian. At first I was unsure about starting so long after the interesting events, but by the end of the story it makes more sense and allows for a great twist. Kipps himself is a sceptical man of reason whose sensible outlook on the apparition of the woman in black and his emerging fear make her all the more worrying. Deserted Eel Marsh House, out on the edge of a tidal marsh, separated from land by a causeway, cloaked in swirling mist is a distinctive location and memorable.
I'm pretty easily scared but a far more resilient friend confirmed that he too found it creepy. It didn't stray into the genuinely unpleasant horror side either, with the unearthly elements being more psychologically upsetting than gory or anything like that. Hill makes good use of the idea that what you can't quite see is far more scary. I held up well, not having to check for anything in the wardrobe or under the bed (I was reading it outside in glorious sunshine which helped) until Spider the dog got into some trouble. No spoilers about what happens, but I did have to race through the pages to see how it ended up. Hill knows how to get to her readers, even when you think you know how a ghost story should go. Also, I just loved Spider and applaud anyone who can write a dog so well.
There aren't many characters or locations so Hill has plenty of space to carefully develop those she uses. In fact, the length of the book was one of my few complaints about it; I thought it needed more, certainly I wanted more. The jump from Christmas present to the story of the past at Crythin Gifford (such fantastic place names) is rather a leap and could have been better fleshed out. What there is, mind you, is very impressive as I read about two pages of this book for an A-level module on the Gothic several years and that tiny section was enough to convince me that I had to read the book. The writing is well turned, full of period quirks, and subtle. Definitely re-readable as the atmosphere is still as effective even if you know the plot, and maybe I shall try it again on a dark and stormy night for the full affect.
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