Okay, I'll admit it. When it comes to books, I'm a bit of a snob. Perfectly content on a heavy diet of Dickens, Leroux, Collins, and the like, I very rarely venture into the arena of modern literature. Most fiction writers alive today just don't interest me as much as those who penned in the 19th century. Maybe it's because I find that reading about the present-day is a snooze-fest in itself, or that writing styles today are somewhat sloppy in comparison, or maybe it's just that most authors nowadays seem to have no idea how to craft a genuinely good story.
With the new movie just released, I picked up "The Woman in Black" out of genuine curiosity, but with a fair amount of skepticism along, too. Don't get me wrong, I love ghost stories and mystery novels, but this one could have just as easily turned out to be a major let-down and left me wondering why I bothered to read it in the first place. I steeled myself in anticipation of a disappointment, but from the very first page I was instantly transported to a completely different time, completely different place, and couldn't put it down until it was all over.
Author Susan Hill is a master at creating a totally enveloping sense of atmosphere, as well as crafting an expert storyline. Her prose is intentionally old-fashioned without being pretentious, and helps to enforce the classic ghost-story feel. She writes so skillfully in first person that one can't help but feel like they're with the character every step of the way; talk about drawing you right into the story!
Without intending to be boring, I'd like to give a brief synopsis: Set somewhere around the turn of the century, 24-year-old lawyer Arthur Kipps has been called out to the remote English village of Crythin Gifford to sort out the papers of a recently deceased client. When he arrives, he finds the townspeople to be reluctant to speak of the former inhabitants of Eel Marsh House, and even more loath to direct him to the house itself, which is cut off from the main village by the Nine Lives Causeway, which is swallowed up by the sea at high tide. Soon after arriving, he becomes aware of various supernatural occurrences and learns that everything may not be as cut-and dried as he originally supposed.
In short, this story has all the ingredients for a good old-fashioned ghost-story: a heroic protagonist, a gaggle of secretive villagers, a creepy old house shrouded in mystery (or at least a marsh), a vengeful ghost, and a long-hidden secret to tie it all together. I'd classify this book as more of a psychological thriller or mystery novella than a horror story, though the new film adaptation begs to differ slightly, showing quite graphically what the novel only hints at.
Though the titular character herself never appears for more than a brief moment or two, her presence permeates each page exactly the way a good ghost should. Even though you can't always see her, you know she's there, lurking over Arthur's shoulder, waiting for her chance to spring upon you and scare you out of your wits. I'm not ashamed to admit I had trouble sleeping the night I finished the book!
In my opinion, what really makes this comparatively sedate thriller so effective is that it hinges on the power of suggestion and the human mind's tendency to pick up on what is implied rather than the explicit. You start to see things that aren't there, hear things when all is silent. This form of exposition makes you doubt your own senses -- a surefire way to induce chills!
Having just seen the film, I can say that while the movie is an all-out creep-fest, the book itself is a little more of a creep-up-on you kind of scary, where nothing really explosive happens, but it's just as frightening and nail-biting an experience just waiting for it to happen. Those looking for a gory, gruesome, truly-horrific ghost story may be sorely disappointed, but for those who enjoy the more low-key, psychological thrillers in the tradition of J. S. Le Fanu and M. R. James will find treasures galore here. Highly recommended.