Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Woman in Black

The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill

Overall impression:  This is a ghost story in the classic style.  This means that it is somewhat predictable in spots, but it still manages to deliver the goosebumps and prickly scalp.  I'd recommend it for people who like good old-fashioned ghost stories and aren't afraid of something a little dark.

More specific tidbits:

•  Early in the book, some characters want to tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve, and so of course there's a reference to the fact that it's an "ancient tradition" to do so.  That's not the first time I've heard about this "ancient tradition", but I must confess, I don't think I know anyone who actually does tell ghost stories on Christmas Eve.  Is this a tradition that didn't make it to America, or is that just my family?  (Also, apart from the ghosts in A Christmas Carol-- Scrooge's old partner and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future-- I can't think of a single Christmas story with a ghostly appearance.  I realize the ghost stories needn't be about or set at Christmastime.  That just crossed my mind.)  

 Honestly, ghost stories feel somewhat inappropriate for Christmas Eve-- definitely not a tradition I'd want to start.  That's what Hallowe'en is for.  Christmas is a time to feel cozy-- warm-- thankful-- joyful-- peaceful or can't-sit-still excited, depending on your age and the circumstances.  First and foremost, it's a religious holiday-- and also a time to focus on loving your fellow man-- not my ideal time for eerie stories.  (But that's just me. (g))

  Some very evocative, creepy place names in this book!  Eel Marsh... the Nine Lives Causeway... Gapemouth Tunnel...  Even the town's name (Crythin Gifford) and the house named Monk's Piece seem a little odd (to my American ears, at least).  "I've come to the land of curious place-names, certainly."  Yes, Arthur, you have. 

  "Sea frets".  I'd never heard of a fret before.  Apparently it's a sea mist/fog.

  "It's a far-flung part of the world.  we don't get many visitors."
    "I suppose because there is nothing much to see."
    "It all depends what you mean by 'nothing'.  There's the drowned churches and the swallowed-up village," he chuckled.  "Those are particularly fine examples of 'nothing to see'."

I would've liked to have heard/seen more of those things.  Unless I missed them somehow, though, that was the only time they were mentioned.

•  This book was written in the 1980s, but I think Susan Hill did a good job of making it feel much older than that.  I could have believed it was written in the time it was set (the Edwardian era, I think, or between the wars).  

•  Susan Hill really likes to stick in foreboding "warnings" that bad things are coming up in the story. I'm not sure I'd say it's a good thing, really, but apparently it didn't completely ruin the novel.  ;o)

•  "...sky as blue as a blackbird's egg." 

•  Very atmospheric, which is of ultimate importance in ghost stories.  Without atmosphere, they are nothing.

  The salt marsh made me think of the Everglades... and more locally, the Mobile Bay delta and the Weeks Bay estuary.  

•  Quicksand has always fascinated me... It also frightens me, and I wouldn't want to get too close to it, but any book with quicksand gets bonus points on my personal book rating scale.  ;o)

•  Mr. Jerome likes to repeat himself for dramatic effect.

•  This book mentions that a woman is crocheting "something elaborate with very fine cotton".  Double bonus points!  (Even though the character is described as rather a mousy, shy, "powdery-looking little woman".  If the crocheter had been young and pretty, quadruple bonus points would have been awarded, with sugar on top.)

Spoilery observations:

•  There's a little of the usual "why is the character doing this stupid thing?" (Why not just pack up the papers, cart them back to town, and sort them there?  Sure there are a lot of them, but better that than go back to the haunted house.)  But in this type of story, you've just got to look past that-- and really, Hill did a decent job of explaining Arthur's rationale for what he does. 

•  I figured out pretty quickly what the bumping was.  Or, well, I had it narrowed down to two things, so I was not surprised.  But then again, maybe you were supposed to figure it out ahead of Arthur.  It just wasn't that hard to guess.  

•  After a certain point, it seems obvious who the ghosts are, why they're there, etc.-- long before Arthur finally spells it out.  That's probably intentional, though-- give the reader ample opportunity to figure it out on his/her own before you spill the beans.  

•  For most of the book, I felt that what happened to Arthur was pretty tame.  Admittedly, there were a few creepy moments, but looking back over them, it wasn't anything that different from your average ghostly ghost-story happenings.  I wasn't sure what more "should" have happened, though... 

•  The end was also somewhat predictable.  At least, I figured out, when Stella came for Arthur, that something would happen to their future child.  You can see it coming, but it is still horrifying-- especially the fact that Stella hangs on through another ten months.  I didn't predict that little detail, and it makes the last page so much worse.  

End spoilery observations.  

One more thing-- after I started reading this novel, I learned that it's being made into a movie that will come out sometime next year.  I'll be interested in seeing it, eventually.  There are certain scenes that should translate very well to the screen.  (In fact, many aspects of the story seem better suited for a movie than for a novel.)  I doubt it will be for fans of serious horror, because the novel is not, but for those of us who like a good ghost story, it's something to look forward to.