31st Oct 2011
The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
I came to read The Woman in Black already knowing both that I loved the story and that – despite knowing what would happen – I would still end up checking all the rooms in the house before I went to bed and flinching at any odd noises in the night. It’s simply that spooky.
First published in 1983, The Woman in Black is the consummate ghost story, so frightening that its original typist refused to listen to the dictation while alone. It is so well loved (and scares so successfully) that its stage play is the second longest running in the UK.
My first encounter with the story was as a teacher on a school trip to see it – and I watched in awe (when I could suppress the unbearable tension) as the atmosphere in a theatre full of raucous fifteen-year-olds switched irrevocably from mild derision to utter terror. (One boy’s mother later had to phone the theatre and ask the actors to speak to her child to convince him it was only a story, so real was his fear.)
It’s no coincidence that a new edition has been published now: a film starring Daniel Radcliffe is due to be released in UK cinemas in February next year. Radcliffe seems well cast as the earnest and sober young lawyer Arthur Kipps, who travels (with no great enthusiasm) from London to an isolated northern village to put the affairs of a recently deceased client in order.
His ironic observation that the set-up sounded ‘like something from a Victorian novel’ proves all too accurate, as he finds the taciturn villagers in silent and terrified thrall to the mysterious, eponymous woman in black, who attends his client’s funeral, and about whom no one will talk.
In spite of their discouragement, the stoic Kipps perseveres with his duty, making the lonely journey across a tidal causeway to Mrs Drablow’s forlorn, dilapidated house in increasingly menacing weather.
But as time goes on, his resolute scepticism is eroded in the face of awful night-time happenings. And only when he discovers the woman in black’s identity, does he realise the real and terrible threat he is up against.
Susan Hill‘s prose is sedate and slow-moving, matching the solemnity of the narrator as he recounts his grim tale. Yet it trickles tendrils of tension that gradually ensnare the reader in a gothic atmosphere thick with menace.
This edition is beautifully packaged, too, with specially commissioned wood engravings by Andy English and an embossed dust jacket of haunting design – the perfect complement to an exquisite, if terrible, tale. The latest edition was published last month by Profile and can be bought in hardback for £5.89.
What eerie stories have you been unable to put down, leaving you cowering under the covers with a torch?
Recommended for: Lovers of languorous prose and classic ghost stories will revere this book.
Other recommended reading: Two must-reads for ghost lovers are the M.R. James’ Collected Ghost Stories , a selection of deeply creepy tales (my personal favourite being the unutterably horrifying ‘Oh, whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad’) and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw , which features a pair of such spooky children that they may well have inspired the well-worn film archetype.
Similar mastery of atmosphere and suspense makes Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca an enduring favourite. For newer supernatural stories, try Michelle Paver’s Arctic chiller Dark Matter or Susan Hill’s latest, The Small Hand.
Finally, I simply can’t let a review of a Susan Hill go by without heartily recommending I’m the King of the Castle – as unsettling as her more ethereal offerings and far more horribly believable.
The line ‘I did that, it was because of me, and a spurt of triumph went through him’ haunted me when I first read it and haunts me now – but I won’t spoil it by telling you why!