Spooktober, Day 31: The Woman In Black, by Susan Hill

thewomaninblack.jpg“She had a ghostly pallor and a dreadful expression, she wore clothes that were out of keeping with the styles of the present-day; she had kept her distance from me and she had not spoken. Something emanating from her still, silent presence, in each case by a grave, had communicated itself to me so strongly that I had felt indescribable repulsion and fear. And she had appeared and then vanished in a way that surely no real, living, fleshly human being could possibly manage to do.”

Spooktober is nearly over! But I’ve saved the best for last.

The first time I read The Woman in Black was standing in a line at the Edinburgh Fringe, in the middle of the Student’s Union. Surrounded by hundreds of people, with music and laughter and drunken revelry all around me, this book chilled me to the bone. I had difficulty sleeping that night. Sometimes, when it’s dark, and the lights are all out, I still picture a woman dressed all in black, just on the periphery of my vision, and it scares me so hard that I either have to turn on the light or just stay perfectly still until the feeling goes away. It doesn’t really help.

The Woman in Black is a neo-gothic ghost story that tells the tale of Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor who is tasked with sorting out the affairs of a deceased client who happens to live in an old, decaying house on a tidal island in the middle of nowhere that is regularly shrouded in sea frets. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, it soon becomes clear that the people of the local town don’t want him going there, and that the old house is haunted by a malevolent presence, an echo of a personal and painful family tragedy whose curse still lingers on anyone who sees the woman in black…

Unlike many of the stories I’ve covered for Spooktober, it’s hard to say that The Woman in Black would work without the supernatural element. Remove the ghost, and the story makes no sense: it’s just about a solicitor stumbling around an old house. In fact, part of the genius of The Woman in Black is that, on paper, nothing really much happens. For all her malice, the ghost of Jennet Humfrye never really seems to do anything until the final page besides stand around menacingly and knock about an old rocking chair.

The horror comes not from the presence of the ghost but from Kipps reaction to it— far more detailed and yet far more nuanced than just stating “I was scared”— and from the tight-lipped disquiet of the people of Crythin Gifford, who are apparently hiding something but insist on staying mum about the specifics.

The fact that Jennet never does more than stand beside tombstones and make eerie noises mean that the tension is never allowed to dissipate, only to build, until the final, terrible reveal that closes the book. Hill has the sense to realise that jump-scares are inherently self-defeating (and challenging to pull off in prose) because although they lead to a spike in fear, they also allow tension to deflate immediately after, so the stress melts away like letting go of a rubber band.

The Woman In Black is the exception that proves the rule for most horror stories. Kipps himself is a non-entity, a cypher for the audience who doesn’t really commit any stock horror “sin” deserving of punishment besides ignoring the warnings of the locals. In fact, Kipps has had nothing to do with Jennet Humfrye or her quest for revenge. 

This only reinforces the horrific realisation that Kipps’s fate could befall anyone, that ordeal isn’t a punishment for his past crimes or karmic justice executed with a meat cleaver. He’s merely in the ghost’s way. Jennet is, in essence, an occidental onryo: she’s Sadako in a bonnet, a psychic landmine that goes off whenever anyone treads on her territory and doesn’t care who she hurts. Her rage is so powerful that all of humanity is her enemy.

I really don’t think there’s much more I can say to sing the praises of The Woman in Black. Suffice to say it is one of my favourite books, even if it still scares the bejeezus out of me every time I read it. It’s a book that I routinely reread it when I want to remind myself how to write good horror, and I’ve even ripped it off wholesale more than once. It’s not much more than a novella, so it’s easy enough to read.

And if you get the chance, go see the stage play. Even the movie’s pretty good, with a lot of the book’s psychological buildup in place and a grounded central performance from Daniel Radcliffe. It’s littered with jump scares, but they’re generally inoffensive and in service to the greater terror, and I’ve still never managed to get past the third act without turning on the lights and doing something else while it’s on.

Happy Halloween, everyone. Sleep well…

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