My first read in this autumn's RIP challenge was a tour-de-force of atmosphere - there are misty marshes, tidal causeways, ruined grave yards and empty, echoing houses a plenty in Susan Hill's The Woman in Black. Add in a ghostly skeletal figure and the screams of a drowning child and you have the makings of something very creepy indeed. So creepy in fact that I had to read it in the mornings because I didn't want to turn off my light and sleep with it still playing out in my mind's eye.
Arthur Kipps, a junior solicitor in London, is sent to the fens to attend the funeral and sort the papers of an old, deceased client, Mrs. Alice Drablow, by his venerable employer Mr. Bentley. He undertakes the task with a certain lightness of heart, eager to get out of a London besieged by a yellow, choking fog and confident in his own abilities and talents. However, from the moment he arrives in Crythin Gifford he senses something sinister surrounding the memory of Mrs. Drablow - an unwillingness to talk about her, or about her property, Eel Marsh House, which can only be reached across the salt marshes, along the Nine Lives Causeway. An eery damp sort of place the House now stands empty except for a lifetimes worth of paper detritus which, Arthur, as her representative and solicitor is obliged to sort through. At first he imagines that this will best be achieved by his staying for a few days in the House itself, taking supplies to keep himself fed and watered. But his certainty and confidence begins to falter when he glimpses a wasted young women, dressed all in black, first at Mrs. Drablow's funeral and then again in the ruins behind Eel Marsh House. Seeing a look in her skeletal face that is at once malevolent and yearning he becomes convinced that she is a ghost, haunting the locality with some dreadful purpose...
*shivers* It makes me nervous just typing out a simple synopsis, and since I'm here in the house alone I'll make my comments briefish. First, the book is certainly scary. Very disconcerting. The woman in black, with her fusty clothing, her wasted body and sunken eyes, is everything a ghost should be and Arthur's encounters with her are just the right kind of scary. She doesn't _do_ anything to him, she simply appears: walking toward the marshes, standing at one of house windows looking down... Often it is Arthur who imagines her into the more threatening scenarios:
"The woman in black seemed to haunt me, even here, to sit on the end of my bed, to push her face suddenly down close to mine as I lay asleep, so I awoke crying out in terror."
As a child I had this exact same nightmare, in which I dreamt an old man sat at the bottom of my bed. At intervals he would lunge over me, hovering with his face leering right above me and his eyes boring into me. It used to scare me witless and have me begging for the hall light to be left on: I'm right there with Arthur Kipps in his terror.
As noted already though it really is atmosphere and ambience that makes the novel work, since the plot is rather straight-forward and easily guessable, perhaps unsurprisingly given that the whole thing is only 160 pages long. It wasn't the mystery of the woman in black that had me clutching the duvet, it was the scene-setting: the London fog, yellow and cloying; the grey interminable marshes, one moment swallowing sounds and the next amplifying them; the empty, cold house in the middle of nowhere, with its unlived-in feel and locked internal doors. Its all the things that horror is made of. (N.B. I think the front cover captures it rather well. I was doubly disconcerted by the fact that my copy had a faint smell of musty flowers...)
Susan Hill quite obviously owes quite a lot to her ghost-writing forebears. During the novels' opening "frame", in which the elderly Arthur Kipps proclaims his intention to tell a horrifying, life-changing tale from his youth,, she gestures to the story's heritage. Kipps' step children are telling each other ghost stories of:
"...dripping stone walls in uninhabited castles and of ivy-clad monastery ruins by moonlight, of locked inner rooms and secret dungeons, dark charnel houses and overgrown graveyards, of footsteps creaking upon staircases and fingers tapping upon casements, of howlings and shriekings, groanings and scuttlings and clanking of chains, of hooded monks and headless horsemen, swirling mists and sudden winds, insubstantial spectres and sheeted creatures, vampires and bloodhounds, bats and rats andspiders, of men found at dawn and women turned white and raving lunatic, and of vanished corpses and curses upon heirs."
And although The Woman in Black doesn't have all of these things it certainly has some, and I imagine that many of the books other people are reading for the Challenge are packed with them too - The Monk, Dracula and The Mysteries of Udolpho spring immediately to mind. It makes me ponder the pool of images and tropes that immediately press our "fear" buttons. For example, a fog descends and I start to get antsy...if the wind starts to whistle down chimneys and candle flames start to gutter then I know I'm going to need a cushion to clutch... And some things, like marshes and empty houses, are a dead scared-y certainty, without anything having to happen at all. We're such predictable creatures, reacting to the same scenarios again and again, and then going back for more. I'm always so compelled by the things that scare me.
It seems to me that Hill also owes a lot to Dickens, or rather should I say that our narrator does, although I can't proclaim myself an expert having never read him. But there were overtones of Great Expectations - Mrs. Drablow has more than a hint of Miss Haversham, while Arthur has a fiance named Stella - and the overall style was in the Dickensian mode. Partly atmosphere again I suppose, but also a function of Arthur Kipps' own storytelling expectations: he gets in the groove of relating his horror, slipping into the "mode" of other works he's familiar with.
Only one thing really troubled my reading of the novel and that was use of a "frame" (again a device often used for "Gothic" and Victorian novels). Arthur's story is somewhat distanced and dimmed by his sudden decision to write it down after hearing his stepchildren's ghost stories. I can't help but feel it would have been improved by leaping straight into the action and working within the present tense...but, then again, that's just a personal preference.
All in all a very satisfying shiver-inducing start to the Challenge. On to Frankenstein next, a book that has me filled with anticipation.
In other bookish news: A beautiful sunny afternoon found me wondering happily around York town centre on my weekly, Sunday browse. I noticed a couple of things to covet: Marisha Pessl's very oddly titled Special Topics in Calamity Physics looks and sounds intriguing, and John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things has gone on my library hold list. Bryan Sykes' The Blood of the Isles, about "genetic archeology" looks like this week's tasty non-fiction pick, although I also noticed the very expensive and fat new biography of Leonard Woolf by Victoria Glendinning. It's had thoroughly mixed reviews and the quality of the scholarship has been questioned, so I'll have to wait and see what the London Review of Books thinks before I decide whether to go with it or not. Also a couple of paperbacks I hadn't come across before: R. M. Lamming's retelling of Genesis, As in Eden, and Electricity by none other than Victoria Glendinning, which I think got mentioned on the Guardian First Book Award commentaries (although possibly that was another book of the same name, I can't remember).
I finally ended up in my favourite second hand bookshop near the Minster and picked up two lovely old Virago Modern Classics (the ones with the nice covers) - Antonia White's Frost in May and Vita Sackville-Wests' All Passion Spent - for a grand total of £3. Bargainous.