The Woman In Black - Susan Hill

My first experience with Susan Hill came over ten years ago when I read her novel The Mist In The Mirror. I can now only vaguely remember details of the plot, but I do recall I thoroughly enjoyed it and the prevailing memory I have of it is the sense of unease which pervaded much of the story. When I discovered book blogs a few months ago and realised that Hill's The Woman in Black was the subject of much discussion (most of it positive!) I decided I would have to add this to my ever-growing collection of books to be read as quickly as possible. I was even more excited to find that this novel sounded like it would be another atmospheric ghostly tale in a similar vein to the novel which I had read more than a decade earlier.  

Shortly after that, I luckily discovered a copy of this Vintage edition of The Woman In Black at a local charity shop for the bargain price of £1. Of course I snapped it up. I took this down from the book shelf a few weeks ago and settled down with much anticipation for a classic scary read.  

The tale opens on Christmas Eve as our narrator, Arthur Kipps, listens to his step children tell ghostly stories around the fireside. When pressed to tell a spooky tale of his own, Arthur refuses. However, he does indeed have a story to tell, but has never dared speak of the events which occurred in his youth and which have haunted him throughout his life. Clearly troubled by the memories which his family's stories have stirred up, Arthur resolves to write down his reminiscences hoping it will be a cathartic experience:

"I should tell my tale, not aloud, by the fireside, not as a diversion for idle listeners - it was too solemn, and too real, for that. But I should set it down on paper, with every care in every detail. I would write my own ghost story. Then perhaps I should finally be free of it for whatever life remained for me to enjoy."

The narrative then relates the story of what happened to Arthur as a young man when he was working as a junior solicitor in London. Sent by his employer to the coastal town of Crythin Gifford, it is Arthur's duty to attend the funeral of a deceased client, a Mrs Alice Drablow, and to sort through her personal belongings and paperwork in an effort to find details of any living relatives. Arthur is initially keen to escape London for a few days, but upon his arrival in Crythin Gifford he finds the local people secretive and distinctly uneasy when questioned about the late Mrs. Drablow or her property, Eel Marsh House. Sensing something sinister, but nevertheless determined to perform his professional duties, he decides his work can best be carried out by staying for a few days in the old lady's isolated and marsh-bound house. However, things take a much darker turn when Arthur catches a glimpse of a skeletal young woman dressed all in black, which marks the beginning of a series of increasingly unnerving incidents which lead him along towards a dramatic climax.

The novel is certainly spooky and at only 160 pages long, it is perfect to immerse yourself in and read all in one go. Susan Hill seems to be a master of gothic scene-setting and she builds up a sense of menace and suspense seemingly with ease. In the tone of her work she clearly owes much to her ghost story writing predecessors and includes more than one knowing nod towards M.R James. Consequently it is a deliberately old-fashioned ghost story, and while there is nothing highly original here, I believe it is better for it. It can rightly be called a classic novel, in every sense, and one which I enjoyed greatly. I do urge everyone to read this book (if there is actually anyone left in the book blog community who has not yet done so...)

I believe there was TV adaptation of The Woman in Black some years ago, so I am now eager to get hold of this and see how well the novel's sense of atmosphere translates onto the screen! Has anyone seen the TV version? What did you think of it?


The House of Lost Souls - F.G. Cottam

I picked this book up some ago in my local Borders after being hooked by the beautiful cover. The title, together with the synopsis marked it out as the kind of unsettling and atmospheric chiller I usually love, so into the basket it went, and off to the checkout. I had never heard of author F. G Cottam before, so after a little googling and realising he was formerly in the lad-mag industry, I must admit my hopes for this novel dimmed considerably. Unfortunately, the opening chapter of the book did little to change my preconceptions. I found it muddled and the writing rather poor, and I did consider abandoning it there and then. However, I pressed on with it and was pleased to discover that as the plot progressed I really engaged with the story.

The novel revolves around the mysterious Fischer House, a brooding edifice on the Isle of Wight and the scene of dark deeds and paranormal events. The author skilfully weaves narratives from the present day, the 1980's and the 1920's as we meet various characters and learn how their lives are changed by their involvement with the Fischer House. Add in lots of period detail, elements of black magic, the supernatural and even the historical figures of Dennis Wheatley and Aleister Crowley who appear as characters, The House of Lost Souls is a creepy, understated thriller. Admittedly, the climax of the novel rather frustrated me as I felt it seemed a bit rushed and did not do the story justice in my opinion. Despite feeling a bit cheated at the end I enjoyed the tale overall and will probably give the author another go with one of his other books.

The House of Lost Souls is not a masterpiece and is unlikely to reinvent the genre, but if you like an unsettling read with a welcome absence of blood and gore you could do worse than to pick up a copy.