Rating 2.5 stars
My seventh book for the 20 Books of Summer reading challenge is Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. It’s the story of Arthur Kipps, a solicitor who recalls an encounter with a ghost in the early days of his career that brings tragedy to his life.
It was a mixed bag for me, at times reading like a French and Saunders or Fry and Laurie pastiche of what a ghost story is, at others gripping in its depiction of an eerie place and its strange occurrences. It borrows more than a little from Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and tries to echo the tone of M R James, borrowing the title of his most well-known story for one of the chapters.
My copy of The Woman in Black is the 2011 illustrated edition by Profile Books, bought secondhand from Withnail Books in Penrith, a bookshop we went to by mistake. (For those unfamiliar with the film and therefore the joke: https://youtu.be/bRTpwyNGT6w) Each chapter is illustrated with a wood engraving by Andy English that takes inspiration from the events of the chapter.
In this ghost story, we initially meet Arthur in later life, when he is an established solicitor with a happy family life in his dream home with his wife and two youngest step-sons. It is Christmas and Arthur’s married step-daughter is visiting with her husband and children. The elder step-son is home from university. On Christmas Eve, the three brothers instigate a ghost story session that reawakens a traumatic memory for Arthur.
In the opening pages, there are hints from Arthur that his hasn’t always been such a comfortable life.
There is an intensifying whirl of ghost stories from the children, each trying to outdo the sibling who went before them, and précised by Hill in a paragraph. It’s a game that disconcerts Arthur so much that he flees the house. While pacing about outdoors, Arthur decides he’s had enough of being in thrall to his own ghost story, and he will write it down in order to exorcise himself. He quotes lines from Hamlet to himself before returning to the house, where no comment is made about his abrupt departure.
I couldn’t quite settle to Hill’s writing style. Her frothiness jarred. It certainly didn’t compare to the richness of the Tolstoy novel I’d just finished. It took me a couple of days of re-reading the first dozen or so pages for the rhythm of the book to connect. I can’t say that I felt a perfect connection. Its slightness persisted.
I remembered that I had read Hill’s reading memoir four years ago, and not quite liked her as a person. I wondered whether her personality had seeped enough into her writing for me to not quite like that, either. I persevered, though.
Hill’s chosen style is, I think, supposed to evoke the 1920s. There is a lot of detail throughout. Too much detail, perhaps, that prevents the story catching the imagination in the way a ghost story needs to.
I found Hill inconsistent in her writing. Certain of her attempts at building atmosphere don’t quite come off. For example, at the start of Arthur’s memoir of his haunting, Hill describes fog in immense detail. It simultaneously hangs, creeps, swirls, seethes and gains sly entrance. It chokes, blinds, smears and stains. It is yellow, filthy and evil-smelling. But without the context of place, beyond it being London, the description falls flat. This flatness is another thing that persists.
Aged 23, engaged to be married to Stella, and still a junior solicitor, Arthur is sent by Mr Bentley to Northumberland to attend the funeral of a client, Mrs Alice Drablow, and to gather together her private papers and documents, bringing them back to London. Mr Bentley is verbose and yet vague about Mrs Drablow. I think Hill was aiming to create an air of mystery, but Mr Bentley is too bumbling for that to work. Hill’s depiction of him made me wonder how he came to continue as a successful solicitor with an office overlooking the Inns of Court.
Arthur travels by train from King’s Cross to Crythin Gifford, changing at Crewe. The journey to Crewe is comfortable, but that along the district line to the north east coast is a miserable one in a dirty, poorly fitted out carriage. Because ‘The North’, presumably. Arthur meets a man on the train, Samuel Daily, who has an unusual response to the name Mrs Drablow. It’s a response echoed by the landlord of the inn where Arthur spends his first night in Crythin Gifford. When Arthur meets Mr Jerome, the agent who had managed Mrs Drablow’s property and land holdings, Hill tells us that he is conversational, telling Arthur about the vicar officiating the funeral and the extent of Mrs Drablow’s properties, and yet telling Arthur “nothing at all, nothing personal, nothing revelatory, nothing very interesting.” Which is exactly how I felt about the majority of Hill’s writing in this novel.
Arthur has his first glimpse of the titular woman in black at Mrs Drablow’s funeral. He’s too dim to realise what he’s seeing, taking the apparition for an old fashioned woman with a wasting disease, wearing a bonnet to hide her ravaged face. He asks Mr Jerome who she is, and almost induces an apoplectic fit in the man. But, as with anyone in the town that Arthur tries to talk to about the Drablow estate, Mr Jerome refuses to say anything about the matter. Arthur sees the woman again, later, in an old burial ground near Eel Marsh House. This time her face is clearer. Arthur is shocked by its malevolence, but Hill’s depiction failed to shock me.
What did work for me was the description of Arthur crossing the causeway to Eel Marsh House, his first sighting of the grey stone building, and his immediate response to the remoteness of the place. I was there with him. Interestingly, this is the most restrained piece of writing in the book, in terms of the level of detail Hill provides. It is pared back and taut. I wonder why she didn’t employ this technique throughout the story. Perhaps she thought that all the froth of the first third of the book was necessary to throw the ghost story into relief.
Similarly, Arthur’s attempt to cross the causeway on foot was affecting, particularly the appearance of the sea mist and the horrifying sounds of a pony and trap falling into the quicksand, accompanied by the cries of a child. This incident marks the beginning of Arthur’s potential descent into madness, and Hill’s writing improves somewhat.
Arthur’s task of putting Mrs Drablow’s papers in order drew some sympathy from me. On his first visit to the house, he unlocks unnumbered desks to find that Mrs Drablow had never thrown anything away. The job ahead of Arthur reminded me of trips to survey and appraise archive collections in various states of disarray. There was one such job that was such a mountain of unsorted papers in multiple rooms that it took three of us a week to sort through and box up. It felt like it would never end. In an attempt to avoid a similar lengthy task, Arthur tries to engage help via Mr Jerome. His request elicits yet another extreme reaction from the land agent. Arthur concludes that there’s nothing for it but to go it alone out on the salt marsh.
While some might find the detail Hill provides about the Drablow paperwork tedious, I was a little more interested. Some of what Arthur discards as being of no practical use to a firm of solicitors, I as an archivist would have kept – the evidence of a life lived through commercial transactions, presenting a picture of the socioeconomic landscape in which that life ran its course. Arthur is more interested in letters, in particular a packet of letters that tell the story of a birth out of wedlock and a family adoption. It’s such a well worn trope that it’s not hard to make the link between the woman in black, the child’s cries out on the marsh, a weathered gravestone in the old burial ground, and this epistolary bundle.
The haunting plays itself out. Hill depicts Arthur as, by microscopic turns, terrified and pragmatic, in a way that means the tension can’t really build. The canine companion lent to Arthur by Mr Daily is something of a MacGuffin, her raised hackles and growling a signifier that supernatural goings on are underway. At one point, Hill forgets about the dog, who has been faithfully depicted at every turn, accompanying Arthur around the house, only to be left in limbo, neither shut in the mysterious first floor room nor with Arthur when he leaves the room, and only reappearing when another bit of haunting is happening.
Arthur’s trauma happens a couple of years later, after he has left Crythin Gifford behind, married his first wife and had a child. The woman in black returns to haunt him a final time. It’s a twist, but one that isn’t entirely unexpected, thanks to Hill’s scattering of clues throughout from the start.
The Woman in Black is a diverting enough read. In the end, after my struggle to settle into reading it, it only took a day and a half. If you’re looking for a ghost story and haven’t already read Henry or M R James, I’d go straight to those authors. Hill’s book is a shadow of their greatness.