Series: The Woman in Black #1
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Released: October 10, 1983
What real reader does not yearn, somewhere in the recesses of his or her heart, for a really literate, first-class thriller--one that chills the body, but warms the soul with plot, perception, and language at once astute and vivid? In other words, a ghost story written by Jane Austen?
Alas, we cannot give you Austen, but Susan Hill's remarkable Woman In Black comes as close as our era can provide. Set on the obligatory English moor, on an isolated causeway, the story has as its hero Arthur Kipps, an up-and-coming young solicitor who has come north from London to attend the funeral and settle the affairs of Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. The routine formalities he anticipates give way to a tumble of events and secrets more sinister and terrifying than any nightmare: the rocking chair in the deserted nursery, the eerie sound of a pony and trap, a child's scream in the fog, and most dreadfully--and for Kipps most tragically--The Woman In Black.
The Woman In Black is both a brilliant exercise in atmosphere and controlled horror and a delicious spine-tingler--proof positive that this neglected genre, the ghost story, isn't dead after all.
I found The Woman in Black to be disappointing. It’s really a shame, as it was a personal recommendation, but for me it didn’t work on any level.
When starting the book, I was surprised at how short it appeared to be. I’d heard that this book was “really scary” and figured it had to be pretty amazing to deliver such a punch in so few pages. It never delivered.
I should disclaim, I have yet to find myself properly spooked by the supernatural, be it by books, films, or tv. However, I can appreciate the emotions of characters, and usually find myself empathising with them to the point where I am on the edge of my seat with my heart beating quickly along with theirs. The Woman in Black didn’t come close to making me feel anything at all.
The entire story seems to rely heavily on an atmosphere of suspense, horror, and mystery that never even gets close to materialising. The main character hardly shows any emotion at all, and when he does it is along the lines of “I was scared”. Done. No proper atmosphere, no build-up, nothing. The “scary” parts then last for all of a few sentences before the air fizzles out of a balloon that might as well have been in a vacuum the entire time for all the good it did.
The real pity is that the concept itself isn’t too bad. I haven’t seen the film based on this book, but I’ve heard good things about it, and I can see how it might have been turned into a good movie. A movie could add all the things this book sorely lacked. This book badly needed to be longer. It needed to have build-up, atmosphere, suspense… actually, anything it all. Just something more than what it is, which seems like a bare-bones concept on which the meat was intended to be added later.
I also feel a need to mention that I read the first bit of this book on an almost empty bus driving through the dark, then walked through said dark, into my dark flat, and read the rest while lying in a dark room with a mysterious sound on the other sound of the wall I still haven’t identified. It would be hard for me to come by an atmosphere that would seem more fitting to this book. I couldn’t get engaged with it at all.
I’m confused at the relatively high rating this book has received. Unless the reader is really scared at the story, I don’t see what else this book has to offer. And for someone to get properly scared at this book I imagine they not only have to believe in ghosts, but they have to believe that ghosts are, by their very nature, out to do acts of evil. If creaking-noises scare you, and you think that shadow on the wall is about to attack you, you might appreciate this book. Otherwise I don’t think you will.