Review: The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill

The Woman in Black
by Susan Hill
Vintage (reprint ed.)
First published in 1983, Susan Hill's The Woman in Black follows Arthur Kipps, a young London solicitor who, to improve his position within his firm, takes on the task of settling the affairs of the late Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House in Crythin Gifford. When he arrives, the locals seem kind but are wary of him, and they attempt to caution him away from completing his task; it seems Eel Marsh House could be, in a way, cursed. Haunted.

Those words don't exactly get tossed around lightly, and Kipps doesn't exactly catch on: determined to get his promotion, Kipps rallies and spends a handful of frightful days and nights at Eel Marsh House. The residence exists on its own kind of island in the marshlands; it is only accessible at low tide, via the Nine Lives Causeway (are you seeing a symbolism pattern here? Nine Lives Causeway, Eel Marsh House, Mrs. Drablow?) I'm certain that some of my own trepidation while reading was due in part to my familiarity with the story, but that speaks, nonetheless, of Hill's gift for thrilling her reader.

A short 176 pages, The Woman in Black is a page-turner that packs a quick hard punch in the gut of anyone who's ever feared that bump in the night, gasped at the rocking chair in the nursery that seems to move of its own volition, or needed to fast-forward past the swingset in the opening credits of "Are You Afraid of the Dark?" (i.e. me)

I have not yet had the opportunity to read or see Stephen Mallatratt's stage play adaptation of the novel, a production of which has been running in London's West End since 1989, but my understanding (from friends who have had that chance) is that it's a fairly faithful adaptation, utilizing a similar story-within-a-story device as the novel. I have, however, seen the most recent film adaptation. Twice. It's not really as faithful, as there are some major changes and additions. The thing about film in general is that you don't need to put in extra effort to creep out your viewer. Especially with this kind of source material, wherein Hill manages to send chills down one's spine with just words; she doesn't need a soundtrack in a minor key, or gore, or a muddy handprint on the front door (saw the movie and didn't catch that the first time? me too.)

It's too far away so you can't see it
in this picture, but go back and watch
the movie. When Kipps first arrives at
Eel Marsh House. Muddy handprint
on the door.
As my high school english teacher loved to point out: nothing is more terrifying than what might be imagined in the mind's eye. The film, starring Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame, definitely puts some extra effort into terrifying its audience, not really trusting them to scare themselves adequately with that which is unseen. The backstory for the woman is changed a bit. The effect her presence has on the neighborhood is changed quite a bit. The stakes are higher. By comparison, the novel could be called sedate.

If you didn't like the film (too gruesome? too much emphasis on creepy ghost children?) don't let that dissuade you from reading the book. The novel is milder, more straightforward, and will still give you that spine tingle you desire without the Hollywood excess.


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