The Woman in Black (Susan Hill 1983)

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The Woman in Black is a novella of some repute, having spawned a number of adaptations, of which the latest is the 2012 film starring Daniel Radcliffe and its sequel Angel of Death (the less we speak of the latter, the better). The Woman in Black is a classic modern ghost story, following Arthur Kipps as he narrates his experiences in Eel Marsh House, where he stayed whilst sorting out the affairs of the late Mrs Drablow as a junior solicitor. There he starts to experience strange going ons at the house, attributed to a strange Woman in Black seen at Mrs Drablow’s funeral. The local townspeople seem to be aware of the woman’s existence but seem reluctant to talk about it. Arthur Kipps is subject to supernatural goings on in the house, including screams of a woman and child coming from the marshes amongst other things. He resolves to get to the bottom of the haunting mystery and determines to find out the truth about the Woman in Black and her connection to the late Mrs Drablow.

The first thing I noticed about the novel was the writing style, which is written in a wordy gothic style reminiscent of the traditional gothic novels. The style was so prominent that I hardly recognised it as a modern novel at all and without the benefit of research I could easily have mistaken it for a novel written in the nineteenth century or early twentieth. Hence I was taken aback by the fact that it was written in 1983, since the novel read so old. While the novel is in some ways nostalgic the writing style works against it in some ways. The novel feels like the thousand of ghost stories which have come before it, and since the Woman in Black is at her core just another vengeful ghost archetype, there isn’t enough to make the plot stand out. In a modern ghost story that follows the traditional conventions, I would expect the narrative to compensate for this somewhat by bringing something new to the table such as a more direct and dynamic narrative style. Also, the narrative of The Woman in Black was a little bit wordy and I felt myself yawning while reading through the long paragraphs. I’ve always been more of a fan of more direct prose, as opposed to flowery purple prose so that factors into my opinion as well.

The frame narrative was a nice addition but I did question whether or not it was necessary as it serves only to provide a platform through which Kipps can tell his story. The biggest problem with the frame narrative is that the story never fully returns to it aside from a few lines at the end. To me a frame narrative should serve as a bookend, with the end of the novel having a scene at the end which uses the frame narrative and connecting it to the rest of the novel in some way. The frame narrative in The Woman in Black takes place after all of the action has taken place and never really adds anything to the story aside from showing that Kipps eventually recovered from all the stuff that happened to him and to foreshadow the ending scene. To me the frame narrative sounded like a clever plot device but its execution seemed to fall flat to me somehow.

The Woman in Black herself is a bit of a polarising character. She is a ghost with a personality, which is good and by the end it is very easy to understand her motivations. The novel is ambiguous as to whether or not she acts out of malevolence or whether she simply acts out a purpose, though the end suggests that she acts out of anger and may seek to kill children in act of revenge since she seemed to cause the carriage accident involving Kipps’ son deliberately. I did like the twist though, that leaving the house and going to London wasn’t going to keep the Woman in Black at bay, even a year after the events at Eel Marsh House.

Overall I’d say that the story was decent, but fell short of my expectations. To me it was just another ghost novel that tried to be literary by padding itself with purple prose to extend what was already a fairly short piece of fiction. The prose actually made the whole situation less scary since I find that I didn’t take it as seriously as I would, for example, the direct kind you’d find in a Stephen King novel. It is a decent enough read but doesn’t do anything both with its prose, or its plot for that matter. It is a neat callback to the gothic fiction of old, so I will discount it but I certainly feel like there is room for improvement.

SCORE: 3.5/5

IN A WORD: OKAY

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