The Woman in Black, Susan Hill
I read quite a few of Susan Hill's books last year, starting with The Small Hand and then going on to her Simon Serrailler mystery series. When The Woman in Black, originally published in 1983, was recently re-issued, I added a copy to the TBR pile.
Like The Turn of the Screw, it starts out with Christmas Eve ghost stories, but it isn't at all a holiday story. As the story opens, Arthur Kipps is preparing to join his family in the drawing room of his country home, Monk's Piece. He and his second wife Esmé have no children of their own, but she brought four children from her first marriage. The family gathers around the fire, with the lights out, and the stories are told, each more gruesome, more fantastic, than the last. As Arthur listens, he becomes increasingly uncomfortable, haunted by memories. When the young people demand a story from him in turn, he abruptly leaves the room, unable to explain. Standing outside in the frosty darkness, he resolves to write an account of the one ghost story he does know, from personal experience, one that he has never shared with anyone, the memory of which he has tried for many years to suppress. This account will be left unopened, unread, until after his death.
The story that follows is his account. Many years ago, as a young lawyer, he was sent to represent the firm at the funeral of a long-time client, Mrs. Alice Drablow, and to sort out her estate. Mrs. Drablow lived at Eel Marsh House, near the village of Crythin Gifford, in the Fen country. When Arthur arrives in the village, he finds that the house is isolated, accessible only by a causeway that is underwater at high tide. He also finds the villages unwilling to talk about Mrs. Drablow, uneasy when they realize why he has come. Arthur and the deceased's agent, Mr. Jerome, are the only mourners at the funeral, until he notices a woman in black at the back of the church, and later standing among the graves. No one else sees her, and Arthur's mention of her clearly startles and dismays Mr. Jerome.
Realizing there is a mystery here, Arthur makes his way out to the deserted house, where he encounters her again. He is determined to discover who she is, perhaps through the lifetime of papers that Mrs. Drablow accumulated, which must be sorted out for the estate. Against the advice of nearly everyone he meets, he decides to stay in the house to finish the job as quickly as possible. What happens there makes up the rest of the story.
I finished this book in one afternoon, and it did keep me reading, to find out what happened next and how it all turned out. (The ending, while I saw it coming, was still a shock.) I enjoyed seeing Arthur piece the story together through the family archives (and I couldn't help thinking that the local historical society might be interested in the papers he is discarding as rubbish). Despite all the ghostly encounters, though, I didn't find the story all that scary. I think the narration is part of the problem. Arthur is clearly terrified by the ghostly manifestations he experiences, but I didn't feel that terror, and the repetition of the manifestations dulls the effect a bit, or at least it did for me. I was perhaps not the most sympathetic reader, because while I know the conventions of the ghost story demand that he stay in the isolated house, against all advice, I still wanted him to be more sensible - pack up the papers and take them back to the nice comfortable inn. I was also frustrated by the villagers' unwillingness to talk to Arthur, about any aspect of Mrs. Drablow's life or history in the place. I know it is a small village, but isn't there always a town gossip? The events at Eel Marsh House have personally affected people in the village; as painful as it has been, wouldn't they want to talk to Arthur, at least to warn him? As the story unfolded, I found myself distracted by the details of Mrs. Drablow's life: what happened to her husband? Were the manifestations a constant of life at Eel Marsh House? If so, how did she manage to keep servants? There is a reference to a house-keeper, but no explanation of what happened to her either.
A film version starring Daniel Radcliffe is coming out later this year, and I think this will make a good movie. The atmosphere in the village and at the house, the manifestations, could all be conveyed very effectively on film, according to the rule of "Show, don't tell." I will be interested to see it.