Title: The Woman in Black
Author: Susan Hill; narrator Ralph Cosham
Publisher: Blackstone Audiobooks
Read: March 05 - 07, 2013
What true readers do not yearn, somewhere in the recesses of their hearts, for a 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? Susan Hill's remarkable Woman in Black comes as close as our era can provide. Set on the obligatory English moor, the story's hero is Arthur Kipps, an up-and-coming young solicitor who has come 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.
Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor from London, is sent to Crythin Gifford, a small remote market town on the east coast of England, to present his law firm at the funeral of their client, the elderly recluse Mrs Alice Drablow. For the last few decades, Mrs Drablow has lived on her own in the secluded building of Eel Marsh House, an old mansion surrounded by marshes and cut off from the mainland at high tide. As soon as Arthur arrives in the village, he becomes aware of the villagers’ fear of the old house and their reluctance to discuss anything to do with the deceased Mrs Drablow.
In an effort to sort out the late widow’s paperwork, Arthur travels to Eel Marsh House and spends a few terrifying nights in the old mansion, haunted by the spectre of a woman in black and noises of a young child perishing in the marshes at night. Then there is the locked room in the house, which no key can open, but from which strange noises permeate at night. Young Arthur is about to experience the most terrifying days and nights of his life ….
The Woman in Black, penned in the 1980’s, is written in the style of a traditional gothic novel, using old-fashioned prose and featuring characters who could be straight out of a Jane Austen novel. I found the style to be quaint, but also slightly priggish in places, not endearing me much to the story’s central character Arthur Kipps, who I had trouble visualising as the young carefree man he is initially portrayed as. This image was not aided by the voice of the audiobook narrator, who did little to liven up Arthur’s character.
Though descriptive and atmospheric, which does set an eerie background, nothing much actually happens in the book, and it is very slow to start. And as soon as things got interesting, the novel was almost in its last pages and was resolved very quickly, before I had time to get really spooked. Which is a shame, because Susan Hill really knows how to set the scene, and the haunted Eel Marsh House is a truly terrifying locality in which to set a ghost story. I loved the premise of the story, and its ultimate conclusion, but was a bit disappointed in the execution of the novel, which wasted a lot of time (in my opinion) on meaningless details (such as Arthur’s constant introspections and predictions for something more to come, of which I am not a fan). I was also puzzled as to the era the novel was meant to take place in – on one hand the language is reminiscent of Victorian England and there is talk of a pony and trap, yet Arthur mentions electricity and motorcars, and there is no historical context to place the story in time.
All in all, as far as spooking me and giving me goosebumps, the book did not quite do it for me, despite listening to it whilst driving along a lonely dark country road in the middle of the night on my own under a new moon. I tried to be scared, but instead got annoyed with Arthur’s constant analysing of his own feelings – the ghostly apparitions themselves featured only very briefly. However, there were moments where I could visualise the old mansion and experience a slight shiver of apprehension, though more intrigue then actual fear. The story did have potential to be truly terrifying, but needed a bit more sparkle in its main character and a few more appearances of the ghostly presences – and less detail of Arthur’s rather mundane activities. Which made it an ok read, but not a memorable one for me.
I read this book as part of my 2013 Audiobook Challenge.