August 1, 2008

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

The Woman in Black is written by the same Susan Hill who wrote The Various Haunts of Men and The Pure in Heart, though I never would have guessed it if I hadn't already known. Whereas Hill's style is CSI-modern in the Simon Serrailler series, she does an admirable job of sounding Dickensian in The Woman in Black.

The Woman in Black is, first and foremost, a ghost-story in the tradition of The Turn of the Screw. It is a short novel, almost a novella, and it moves along at a brisk pace without an ounce of fat. But for all that, Hill manages to build up a real sense of dread without seeming as if she were trying, so that by the end, we're primed for her punch to the gut.

Here's the inevitable synopsis:

The novel begins, as a good many Victorian era ghost-stories do: with a frame-tale. 

It is Christmas Eve at an English country manor, and though set roughly in the 1940's, an air of warm antiquity hangs over the house. The family takes turn telling ghost-stories as our narrator, the family patriarch, grows increasingly uncomfortable. Finally, when it is his turn to tell a tale, he abruptly leaves; the events of the past have come back to haunt him. He decides to exercise this ghost once and for all, and proceeds to write down the scarring experience that has been with him since he was a young man. This is the story of the woman in black.

As a young solicitor,  the narrator travels to the north of England to sort through the papers of a recently deceased client, a Mrs. Drablow, whom he's never met. At her funeral he sees a woman in black, wasted and dressed in mourning. While he is staying at Mrs. Drablow's home, Eel Marsh House (fantastically conceived as sitting in the center of a fen - inaccessible except for a causeway which is, by turns, exposed and submerged with the tides), the young solicitor falls prey to a series of disturbing visions, sounds and experiences, all of which climax with the realization of who the woman in black is.

Unfortunately, to say anymore would stomp directly all over Hill's awesomely constructed plot.

Now, I have to admit that for most of the book, while I was impressed by Hill's style and even-handed detail, I wasn't feeling the little gut twist of nervousness that I like to come with a ghost story. It all felt too laid out - so perfectly constructed as to be inevitable, and so, not very emotionally unsettling. Until the final chapter. The final chapter did it, and did it really well. 

Overall, The Woman in Black didn't get me the same way that James' Turn of the Screw or "Uncle Silas" by Sheridan le Fanu always do, but it got me all the same; enough so that I want to trade in my library copy for a copy of my own. It's the kind of story for a rainy November day - an awesome post-Victorian, Victorian ghost story.

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