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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Spooktober, Day 24: Heart-Shaped Box, by Joe Hill

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“He understood that the ghost existed first and foremost within his own head. That maybe ghosts always haunted minds, not places. If he wanted to take a shot at it, he’d have to turn the barrel against his own temple.”

Like father, like son.

Judas Coyne is a burned-out rock star with a macabre collection of strange and morbid artefacts, like a hangman’s noose and a genuine Mexican snuff tape. So it doesn’t take much to convince him to buy a dead man’s suit on an online auction, even if it is haunted. But once the suit arrives in a heart-shaped box, it isn’t long before Jude realises that the ghost inside has a very sinister and personal vendetta against him, and they won’t stop until Jude pays for what he’s done.

It’s hard to talk about Hill’s work without reference to his father, Stephen King. They have a lot in common. Hill has inherited King’s understanding of the darkness within people and uses it in a way that strangely makes them more sympathetic. Our nominal hero, Jude, is unquestionably a self-centred butthole who treats women as disposable and insulates himself from others through his privilege, he’s not unsympathetic, and it turns out he has good reasons for why he is the way he is. Like many great horror protagonists, Jude really has no one to blame but himself for the mess he’s in, and he at least has the decency to try and keep those close to him safe.

I find Joe Hill’s writing style easier than King’s: it’s lighter, leaner and with just enough humour to accent the darkness. It helps that Hill references pop-culture touchstones and musical trends that strike a chord with me as a nannied millennial raised on a diet of postmodern trash, I suppose.

Feel free to take a guess about which rock star Jude most resembles (I’ve got my own ideas).

Spooktober, Day 13: Kwaidan by Lafcadio Hearn

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“He was awakened by a showering of snow in his face. The door of the hut had been forced open; and, by the snow-light (yuki-akari), he saw a woman in the room,— a woman all in white.”

Horror is universal, but ghost stories don’t always have the same cultural context. In Britain, ghost stories are usually reserved for the winter months: for Halloween, as summer dies and gives way to winter; or at Christmas, when the night is darkest, and the whole world seems filled with a neverending chill. But in Japan, ghost stories are associated with summer: they are told at twilight on warm nights, to cool the blood. According to Shinto belief, humanity shares the world with a myriad of gods, spirits and mysterious creatures: and if we wander too far, or speak to the wrong person at sunset, we may not come back the same.

Lafcadio Hearn was one of the first writers to bring Japanese folklore to a broader Western audience. Hearn’s life is fascinating in itself: a Graeco-Irish journalist who immigrated to New Orleans (he wrote an obituary for Marie Laveau) and later settled in Japan and wrote many books about his adopted homeland. His work has been adapted several times for TV, film and anime, and Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things is perhaps his most enduring work.

Ostensibly, Kwaidan is a collection of ghost stories and folk tales that Hearn collected, translated or heard from others, though it’s possible that he created or at least embellished some of the stories himself. The tales serve as bite-sized tastes of Japan’s folkloric fringe: they include yuki-onna, the snow woman, who preys on travellers lost in a blizzard. Then there’s Hoichi the Earless, the minstrel doomed to play for a band of ghostly samurai. And it includes the tale of Akinosuke, who dreams a whole new life for himself, only to see it disappear when he awakens. There’s also an entire appendix devoted to Hearn’s fascination with entomology if you want to read about why ants are better than people.

Kwaidan is a strange book, written by a strange man, about strange things. It’s written in the direct, matter-of-fact tones of fairy tales the world over, with little of the concern for characterisation or mood one might see in “real” horror, but the simplicity of Hearn’s prose allows the reader to put together the pieces for themselves as they imagine the strange creatures within. The stories work best when they are read allowed as they were intended: as the sun goes down and the light begins to change, and you long for a chill to run down your spine…

Read Kwaidan here

Spooktober, Day 4: Dark Matter by Michelle Paver

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When you think about it, the Arctic is the perfect setting for a horror story: it’s pitch dark for half the year, it’s isolated, and just about everything out there will try and kill you.

Michelle Paver’s Dark Matter tells the story of an expedition to the Arctic island of Svalbard. The narrator, Jack Miller, jumps at the chance to prove himself by joining a pack of Oxford graduates on their adventure north, to Gruhuken Bay, despite his worries about the class divide. The expedition is struck by bad luck from the outset, and the misfortunes pile up until every member of the team is forced to leave, leaving Jack on his own to mind the camp and keep the mission going. As if the cold and the darkness wasn’t enough, Jack has to face the possibility that Gruhuken isn’t as abandoned as he thought.

Dark Matter is a superb psychological horror story, focusing consistently on Jack’s worsening mental state. As Jack’s situation deteriorates, there is a growing sense that there must be something out there, some malevolent presence that wishes him harm. It’s written in the best tradition of psychological horror, ratcheting up the tension that something might happen without ever deflating it by showing the monster in the flesh. Indeed, It’s left ambiguous exactly how much of the events that are going on is real and how much is going on in Jack’s imagination.

I read Dark Matter over the course of a single weekend last year, and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s a traditional ghost story, full of ignored warnings and the gradual reveal of buried secrets, but the Arctic setting makes it feel fresh and original. A word of advice, though: make sure you wrap up warm and keep a dog nearby if you have one…

I’d also recommend Paver’s follow-up novel, Thin Air, which has a similar premise and style but is based on a mountaineering expedition in the Himalayas that left me dizzy with vertigo.

Spooktober, Day 3: “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” by M R James

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Ever since I was little, I’ve suffered from night terrors.

I have no idea why, but now and then I’ll wake up screaming in the middle of the night, filled with fear that sends me sprinting for the light switch to banish the unseen monster that I could have sworn I saw just a moment ago. For the most part, it’s an embarrassing foible that I have to explain to anyone else sleeping in the same room, just in case. I’ve noticed that the problem has been ameliorated now I’ve placed my teddy bear on guard duty over my bed, to keep a vigilant eye out for the nightmares.

It’s easy to scoff at the things that go bump in the night in the middle of the day, but it’s much harder to shake when your brain is half asleep. And that’s why “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” by M R James hits so close to home

The ghost stories of M R James follow a pretty standard pattern: a curious scholar pokes their nose where they don’t belong, and has an uncomfortably close encounter with some gribbly and unexplained horror. There’s physicality to his stories, a sense that the supernatural has a real presence, and all you have to do is reach out a little too far to wake it up…

“Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” aside from having one of the most awkward titles imaginable, is a good example of James’ style. It tells the story of Parkins, a sceptical academic who visits the seaside and stumbles across a whistle covered in Latin inscriptions (always a good sign) and then dreams of a sinister presence following him. At the story’s climax, Parkins turns to see that his bedding has turned against him, animated by a malevolent force that all his scholarly reason cannot explain.

My experience with night terrors gives me some insight into Parkins’ situation. I can understand the conflict going on in Parkins’ mind, between his rational desire to explain away the visitation and the evidence of his eyes because I’ve felt the same way. I’ve felt the immense feeling of dread that wakes me up in the middle of the night and sends me darting to the door. And while still caught in the grip of REM sleep it’s easy for a half-dozing brain to pick out patterns in the darkness, shapes and faces. I’ve seen the faces of ghosts in shirts hanging from the cupboard, in the way a red electric light shimmers on the wall. The sleeping brain plays tricks on you, looks for patterns around you as it searches for threats around it.

Sleep well…

Read “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad,” by M R James here. You can watch the 2010 BBC adaptation starring the late John Hurt here.