Tuesday, 31 October 2017

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

The Woman in Black is a horror novella by the English Author Susan Hill, first published in 1983.

The novella is set in an unspecified time period, probably the Edwardian era. Trains and cars exist, but horse and carriage are still the dominant mode of transportation. Like Dracula, the story begins with an English solicitor who in performing his duty travels to a strange place haunted by a supernatural evil. The narrator Arthur Kipps travels to a remote village of Crythin Grifford on the North-Eastern coast of England. He is there to deal with the estate of a reclusive widow, Alice Drablow, an old client of his employer. While attending her funeral, he sees a mysterious woman, clad in black, who is no ordinary woman. Soon Arthur must struggle for survival against her.

The Woman in Black is a deliberately old-fashioned English ghost story, as exmeplfied by M.R. James. The ornate prose style, the period setting and the gothic atmosphere convincingly re-create the genre. The story doesn't betray it's origins in the 1980s at all.

While the story does not need interpreting to be enjoyed, I find the backstory of the ghost of the title interesting from a gender perspective. It is revealed that the ghost of the title was in life Jennet Humfrye, the mother of illegitimate child, who was taken from her and then died in a tragic accident. Her grief for the child and her anger at the injustices committed against her has led her to haunt the living as a vengeful spirit ever since. Kipps can't help but pity Jennet Humfrye in life, even as he is horrified by what she became in death. The evil is supernatural, but has it's origin in the evils of Victorian patriarchal society, which can certainly be interpreted as a subtle feminist statement.

The Woman in Black is an excellent gothic horror story. The act of reviving an old genre can turn out like the corpses re-animated by Herbert West, but here the results are truly alive. The tale is genuinely creepy, the horror coming from the carefully created atmosphere and suspense.  It is recommended reading for everyone who is interested in gothic horror and the traditional ghost story.

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