I don’t like scary stuff. I don’t watch scary movies, or even “scary” movies; I just can’t handle suspense or gore. The main reason people enjoy scary movies, books, etc. is that they actually enjoy being scared. That’s not me. But, when a book is billed as a “Victorian ghost story,” well, that’s different. I loves me some Victorian (or Victorian-style) literature. And so, a good friend gave me Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black for All Hallows’ Read.
The book, published in 2002, is set sometime in the nineteenth century, and is more or less written in the style of that time period as well. It is narrated by Arthur Kipps, an older man who is recounting the tragic events surrounding his early adventures as a solicitor. As a young professional, he is sent to Eel Marsh House to attend the funeral of a client, Mrs. Drablow, and to tidy up her papers for his firm. What he encounters are fearful townspeople, a strange landscape, frightening sounds in the fog, and the mysterious woman in black. In his youthful desire to find the mundane explanation for a series of strange events, he unwittingly becomes enmeshed in an older story that brings terrible loss to any who encounter it.
The Woman in Black, I’m very sorry to say, was a disappointment across the board. It’s obviously intended to be written in the style of greats like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, but it falls somewhat short of the mark. The language is similar, and Hill manages to recreate the exacting descriptions of landscapes and architecture, but the overall tone is still modern in inflection and feeling. The story itself is fine, if a bit slow to build. Since we know it’s a ghost story from the outset, it’s hard not to feel impatient after about four chapters with nothing more than a lot of broad hints as to the nature of the terrifying experience our narrator has undergone. Once the real action begins, there are definitely some effective, creepy scenes, and the mystery of the story is not one that can be figured out at a glance, so it’s got that going for it. Overall, though, I found it a little lackluster, and that’s coming from someone who’s pretty much a wimp when it comes to scary stuff. For my money, if you want something somewhat spooky that reads like a Victorian novel, your best bet is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Or, you know, something actually written in the nineteenth century, preferably by Wilkie Collins.