Review: The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill

Title: The Woman in Black
Author: Susan Hill
Published by Vintage, 1998

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How I discovered this book: I bought this book at Oxfam. The Woman in Black has been on my wishlist for quite some time, though. I’ve been really interested in Gothic novels since I read Frankenstein, Dracula, Rebecca and Edgar Allan Poe short stories. Susan Hill’s book was one I wanted to read, specially because it’s a Gothic novel that was written “out of its time”. And also because I want to see the recent movie adaptation with Daniel Radcliffe (part of me just wants to be tremendously goofy and yell “Use your wand Harry!!”)

ReviewThis is a ghost story and an interesting one for that matter. It’s hard to review such a small book without giving any spoilers, and I really don’t want to do it since the suspense and mystery is key to enjoy a book like this one. Nonetheless, I will tell you that the book is the story of Mr. Kipps, written by himself in is old age as an attempt to expunge completely the past that has tormented him for so long.

See, when Arthur Kipps was young, he worked as a solicitor. His boss told him to take the train and go to some remote region of East Coast England and take care of the papers of one of their clients who recently died: Mrs. Drablow, a very weird, lonely old lady who lived in a big old house surrounded by marshes, estuaries and fogs, called Eel Marsh House. When he gets there, he realises people are very superstitious and for some reason they are terribly afraid of Eel Marsh House. Still, he’s young, näive and pride, dismisses whatever it is they all fear and goes to the house anyway. After some scares and shocks, he’s possessed by some morbid curiosity and returns to the house to finish his job sorting out the late Mrs. Drablow’s tons of papers (talk about job dedication…) and unfold the mystery about a certain woman in black.

As far as I’ve researched (yes, I like to read about literary genres and aesthetics sometimes, and then try a bit of everything), Gothic Horror is a genre that combines horror, romance and mystery. In a way, it can be considered as a sort of pleasing horror story and an extension of Romantic literary aesthetics. Settings as castles, monasteries with hidden passages, medieval buildings and ruins are a must have in Gothic novels (actually, part of the reason why they are so called gothic). This genre was quite common in the 18th and 19th century. 

So, considering this information, Gothic novels aren’t really supposed to scare you to death. Therefore, I was not expecting to be really scared and shocked while reading this book, as I wasn’t expecting to be scared and shocked when I read Mary Shelley, Bram Stoker and Edgar Allan Poe. Still, Mr. Kipps’ story did gave me the chills sometimes, more than Shelley and Stoker did, and I had to force myself to put the book down and do life related stuff. The story is really compelling! Like Kipps, I had to know what was the mystery and the fuss around that mysterious woman in black. Sadly, it wasn’t that great of a mystery, since I managed to be one step ahead of Arthur Kipps when it was time to discover the truth. Still, the ending was not less striking and bizarre because of it. And that rocking sound… I got my heart racing a little with that one. Also, I really liked him as a character. He worried about a woman that was nothing to him. He even felt compassion about her and wanted to help her, even when all she felt towards him was hatred. He was too näive and prideful, though, and paid dearly for that. He was very “real” to me, so I really enjoyed him as narrator and MC.

The Woman in Black was written in the 20th century, yet it reads like a Victorian Gothic novel. This is what attracted me to the book in the first place, the fact that it was not written in the time of the great Gothic novels, yet it is considered as one by many people. I think SH did a remarkable job writing the book. I’ve read a few classics from the time, which I really enjoyed, and I think she has done a good job writing a book that sounded Victorian (if this makes any sense to you). I guess that what I’m trying to say is that, in my opinion, she captured the stylistic and linguistic aspects of the time really well, to the point of almost making me forget that I was reading a book that was written in the 80’s. Of course, you may say that she did a poor job, but I think she did really well. Plus, I could almost smell the fog, feel the marshes around me and that creepy woman dressed in black staring at me from behind my back.

Now I have The Monk, The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Woman in White and The Turn of the Screw to look for! Gothic Horror is starting to grow on me. 🙂

Overall I’ve read some pretty bad reviews about this book, and some really good reviews as well. I guess it’s either a book you love or hate. It happens that I liked it! It was a really good “old time” entertaining ghost story. You won’t be terrified by it, or have trouble sleeping at night, but it will give you some chills and skin-crawling feelings. Now I’m over curious about the movie!! Although, I do get easily scared with horror movies. Anyway… If you enjoy old time “light” horror stories, do read this book! 😉

4-5-stars

Quotes worth mentioning: 

But, more than anything else, I needed an explanation. It is remarkable how powerful a force simple curiosity can be.

“For I see that then I was still all in a state of innocence, but that innocence, once lost, is lost forever.”

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