I don’t know how I’ve managed to miss Susan Hill, given the strong feelings I have for the classical English supernatural tale as manifest from the Victorian era through to the first few decades of the Twentieth century. Perhaps it’s because I have a general dislike for pastiche in literature (if not in other genres) and, in the postmodern age in particular, I tend to find it an excuse for failing to make up an original plot and/or use an original style (while the often anachronistic attempt at adoption often merely puts the skill of the writer being pastiched into an even more flattering light). None of these faults, however, are to be found in Hill’s ghostly novella.
The Woman In Black – set in the early part of the twentieth century, where cars still vie with pony traps – is told with the classic framing device of the elderly reflection on a terrifying and traumatic event of youth; the occurrence in question is the visit of Arthur Kipps, a junior solicitor, to lonely Eel Marsh House. The house, with attendant crumbling cemetery, lies on a piece of land far out in the windswept salt marshes, accessible only by a causeway which is periodically covered by the rising tide. Kipps is in the process of going through the papers of Mrs Drablow, the late unlamented inhabitant of Eel Marsh House; but when he sees an emaciated woman in unfashionable black clothes at the funeral (getting only surly hostility from the locals on questioning), and starts to hear strange noises from across the marshes and from the locked room at the end of the passageway, things take a turn for the sanity-destroying.
As that précis indicates, all of the ingredients of the supernatural tale of terror are present here, as are James’ five key features of the English ghost story. Hill herself has indicated that her earlier novels are ‘serious,’ while her latter works, including TWIB and her Serailler detective series, do not fall into this category. Certainly it could not be said that TWIB is an original piece (though we might also say that of many of the ‘classical’ works of supernatural fiction), but it stands as a consummate example of an art which might have been considered lost in the age of torture porn and gritty realism. Indeed, we might ask whether originality is an important demand in genre work. Hill’s writing is fine (in the best sense of that word, and in contrast to the lonely setting), despite the frequent comma splices (but please ignore my soapboxing a pet peeve), rising to more poetic heights in some beautiful descriptions of landscape and atmosphere:
Away to the west, on my right hand, the sun was already beginning to slip down in a great, wintry, golden-red ball which shot arrows of fire and blood-red streaks across the water. To the east, sea and sky had darkened slightly to a uniform, leaden grey. The wind that came suddenly snaking off the estuary was cold.
Am I wrong in thinking that, mood-wise, the echoing spaces and sudden emotional stabs of The Cure circa Seventeen Seconds/Faith/Pornography (that is, in the same period as TWIB was written) would be an appropriate soundtrack? Rosemary Jackson, bringing a feminist analysis to Hill’s work (more on this anon), has suggested ‘coldness’ as its imaginative centre, and the tension between detachment from and desire for life as fundamental. The themes here are the ‘sensational’ passions – possessive love, revenge, fear, memory – refracted in sharp shards through the mirror of the past, a liminal demarcation (reminiscent of James’ own story 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad') which takes form literally in the flat sea surrounding the house, stressing the inaccessibility of the recollected, and the dangers both of the alluring yet treacherous waters of forgetfulness, and those of painful recollection – a double Charybdis which in either case leaves the overcurious subject isolated and, ultimately, suffocated.
In this sense, there is an aspect of the ‘psychological ghost story’ to TWIB, manifest in a not-so-pathetic fallacy, which is heir to works like de Maupassant’s The Horla or even Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (though without that work’s prescient questioning of perception itself) – and we might associate this existential alienation, resolved but never quite forgotten or overcome, with the dislocated temporal position of the narrator, trapped between old certainties and modernist innovations, with the house both as a space of security from the external world (the classic Victorian model), and as manifestation of anxiety - in being, on the one hand, the place par excellence for the determination of (cultural) capital, and, in this case, empty, that is, both void of any audience for such a display, and signifying the growing bourgeois realisation of the ultimate emptiness of the endeavour of wealth accumulation and conspicuous consumption.
On this note, class issues – fluidity and the lack thereof – are central to the landscape here. Class transformation is evident in the narrator’s own trajectory (given in the framing story), and a symbolic moment occurs when he transforms, in the eyes of a friendly but unsophisticated, new-moneyed landowner local, from suave young solicitor to dishevelled and fearful victim of the irrational. Beyond this, the fact that class mores were a determining factor in the events which led to the haunting is made explicit in the text – figuring, in other words, the (equally oceanic) arriviste on a lonesome road (one whose lonesomeness is only exaggerated by the many who tread it yet dare not recognise each other), desiring yet dreading to turn his head to see the ‘frightful fiend’ of class ignominy (a common theme in the sensation novel).
This anxiety – the prevailing mood of both the psychological ghost story, and of modernism itself and those who literarily anticipated its concerns – is also manifest in gender relationships. The narrator here moves in a masculine world of solidity (and reassuring, if undesirable, stolidity) while the appearance of the feminine in the text foreshadows catastrophe and unknowability – whether the unseen Mrs Drablow, the ‘woman in black' herself, or Kipps’ fiancé, Stella, who remains offstage and undescribed virtually throughout. One of M. R. James’ rules for the ghost story is the absence of gratuitous bloodshed and sex, and while this is certainly the case here (and while not wanting to emphasise overmuch the repressive hypothesis), nonetheless the events in question are put in motion by the sexual act (not to mention the absent father) - and the attraction-repulsion between the narrator and the ‘woman in black,’ who is a fallen woman both in the sexual and soteriological sense, who is both punished and who punishes, who is caught textually somewhere between the figure of the ‘natural’ and the ‘unnatural mother’ – certainly holds a strong sexual charge, the most obvious manifestation of which occurs in his discernment of the traces of beauty in her wasted features. One might ask, is there a scent here of the unnamed ‘wasting disease’ – the highly sexualised consumption, perhaps – as a punishment for sexual and maternal misconduct? It might be drawing too long a bow to recognise here the advent of HIV/AIDS, but it certainly resonates with the historical moment in which the novel was published.
Meanwhile, the counter-balancing feminine forces, equally without character – the remembrance of the maternal care of Kipps’ mother and his nurse, the warm asexual figure of his latter-day wife – certainly play into a narrative of the saviour Madonna in contrast to the unnatural whore or the barren hag. But I wouldn’t by any means say that this is a novel in which there lies concealed a misogynist narrative – rather, that these tropes of the supernatural genre, in the hands of a female writer (not that that necessarily counts for mitigation), are played upon and indeed complexified in their emotional import. Indeed, we might read the presence of these ‘silent women,’ and the reasons for their silence, as a statement in itself.
In order to appreciate TWIB, however, it’s not necessary (though it’s certainly enjoyable) to analyse the ways in which this work is a reflection on the sensibilities which shaped the classic ghost story, as filtered through the lens of the early 1980s (a period in which the gothic was once again beginning to take hold of popular culture). In short, what we have here is a worthy heir to James, Le Fanu, Mrs. Gaskell and the other luminaries of the luna-nary canon.