Snow, ice and then a hint of fog. Boxing Day a time for keeping warm and feeding off festive calories whilst dozing and sipping mugs of tea. I have had Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black for several years and nearly read it but then passed over it for something less forbidding and dare I say, more overtly thrilling.
But the fog did it. And then a few pages in and Susan Hill made my fog seem puerile, a mere gesture in the creepy stakes. For her novel is like a cold hand on the back of your neck. It begins with a seeming collection of familiar conventions and then progressively undermines our complacency, our sense of smug orientation lost in the quicksands of Eel Marsh House. The sinister or ghostly becomes malignant and the malignancy breeds an atmosphere and behaviour more disturbing than we have ever met before. The dead are not just tragic, they want to destroy us in revenge for incidents we have had no part in, no control over at all. Time is collpased. Everything waits for revenge.
The chapter entitled ‘Whistle and I’ll come to you’ is truly horrible. The spirited loyal liitle dog Spider,companion to the immature hero, is lured onto the quicksand and nearly sucked under to a desperately upsetting death. And this emanates out of the most seeming innocent of dog loving gestures. The beckoning whistle. Such cruel, premediated betrayal.
Yet the ending subverts even this chapter’s malignancy for horror. It is rather like the films whose credits are rolling so we are clmbing relieved out of our seats and heading for the sanctuary of the door when…the ‘thing’ we thought was safely cauterized returns. The return of the repressed sends us shattered for a well lit room!
I felt glad to shut the book and shudder. An atmosphere as disturbing as the opening of Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend where the unknown figures rowing on the Thames, are we realise, unlawfully and gainfully, hunting for the dead. Hill’s novel alarms us for we come to realise that the woman in black is really hunting out our own fears, our own complacency as readers, as sofa companions to anyone who feels brave enough to confront the inexplicable with mere rationality.
Makes you appreciate Ovaltine!
The Woman in Black
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