Tuesday Terror! The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

Frets on the marshes…

Young solicitor Arthur Kipps is sent to the small town of Crythin Gifford to attend the funeral of a client of his firm, the elderly Mrs Drablow of Eel Marsh House. The town is set on the edge of salt marshes which have encroached over the years, leaving Eel Marsh House on a kind of islet, accessible only by crossing a causeway when the tide is out. The marshes are vast and lonely, and Arthur soon picks up from the reaction of the locals that Mrs Drablow lived an isolated life, in a house surrounded by superstition and dread. Sensible young Arthur doesn’t believe in ghosts, though, so after the funeral he sets off quite happily to sort through Mrs Drablow’s papers. It won’t be long before he begins to wonder if the old tales are true…

A man may be accused of cowardice for fleeing away from all manner of physical dangers but when things supernatural, insubstantial and inexplicable threaten not only his safety and well-being but his sanity, his innermost soul, then retreat is not a sign of weakness but the most prudent course.

I’ve only read one of Hill’s ghost stories before, Printer’s Devil Court, and was rather unimpressed by it, so I went into this with fairly low expectations despite its reputation as a modern classic of the ghost story. I’m delighted to say I was wrong – this is a deliciously chilling story with plenty of spookiness and tension, and a narrator who is easy to care about.

It’s written in the style of classic ghost stories of the likes of MR James, and indeed Hill nods to one or two of the greats along the way. There’s nothing terribly original about it, but I’d say that’s true of many ghost stories – the effectiveness all comes from the story-telling. It’s set in the early part of the twentieth century, just as pony traps were giving way to cars, and Hill captures the period well, with Arthur having a modern outlook appropriate to the time and his age, but the history of the house and the origin of the haunting dating back into the darker days of the Victorian era. She also makes excellent use of her settings with some fine descriptive writing, first of the London fogs and then of the empty marshes, where sudden “frets” – sea mists – come rolling in, cutting off visibility and access to the mainland, and creating the perfect conditions for all kinds of vague eerieness to occur.

For a long time, I did not move from the dark, wood-panelled hall. I wanted company, and I had none, lights and warmth and a strong drink inside me, I needed reassurance. But, more than anything else, I needed an explanation. It is remarkable how powerful a force simple curiosity can be. I had never realized that before now. In spite of my intense fear and sense of shock, I was consumed with the desire to find out exactly who it was that I had seen, and how, I could not rest until I had settled the business, for all that, while out there, I had not dared to stay and make any investigations.

The main eerieness is, of course, the appearance of the mysterious woman in black, but she’s only part of the story – the scariest bits involve dark happenings out on the marshes, which I won’t reveal more about. The style means the scares all come from spookiness and dread – it’s happily gore-free and works much better because of it. It’s not terrifying, but it has a couple of excellent heart-in-the-mouth moments, and creates a nicely spine-tingling atmosphere of approaching doom.

Following his first scary night in the house, a kindly acquaintance from the town lends Arthur a dog to stay with him, and Spider quickly becomes an important character in her own right, providing warmth to the story as she provides comfort and companionship to Arthur. She also adds a further layer of tension, since now the reader has to worry about Spider as much as about Arthur (or, in my case, more…).

It was true that the ghastly sounds I had heard through the fog had greatly upset me but far worse was what emanated from and surrounded these things and arose to unsteady me, an atmosphere, a force – I do not exactly know what to call it – of evil and uncleanness, of terror and suffering, of malevolence and bitter anger.

The pacing is very good – it starts off slow and then builds, never becoming frantic but never dragging. And while the end is foreshadowed to a degree, it’s still done well enough to surprise and shock. Novella-length, it can be read in two or three hours, so perfect for a long winter evening, when the wind is howling around the house, and the cats are making strange noises in the room above, and somewhere outside is the sound of… is it a fox barking? Or is it a child, crying out through the fog…?

Not so scary as to give the reader nightmares, but definitely one that will tingle the spine and chill the blood. Highly recommended!

The porpy enjoyed the marsh setting too!

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

TBR Thursday 217…

Episode 217

Oops! A tiny little increase in the TBR this week – up 1 to 215. But it’s not my fault! It’s all these politicians! How is a girl to concentrate when the “civilised” world is going into meltdown?? Still, they might all be useless, but at least our new PM is more entertaining than the last one…

Here are a few more I’ll be putting to the vote soon…

American Classic

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

I surprised myself by loving my introduction to Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises, a few years ago, so am hoping he works the same magic with this one, which actually sounds more like my kind of thing…

The Blurb says: High in the pine forests of the Spanish Sierra, a guerrilla band prepares to blow up a vital bridge. Robert Jordan, a young American volunteer, has been sent to handle the dynamiting. There, in the mountains, he finds the dangers and the intense comradeship of war. And there he discovers Maria, a young woman who has escaped from Franco’s rebels…

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Vintage Sci-Fi Shorts

Menace of the Monster edited by Mike Ashley

I thoroughly enjoyed the other volume I’ve read in this series of vintage sci-fi from the British Library, Menace of the Machine, so I have high hopes for this one. I’ve already dipped into it to find a Tuesday Terror! story and the porpy and I were both cowering behind a barrel of ant spray after reading De Profundis – we’re hoping they’re not all quite as scary as that one!

The Blurb says: The field of classic science fiction is populated with bizarre and fearsome creatures, be they lifeforms from other worlds, corrupted beasts from our own planet or entities from unimaginable dimensions.

Collected within is a diverse host of these otherworldly beings, from savage prehistoric revenants to nightmare predators encountered in the dark of space; from alien visitors on trial under US law to unfamiliar species under the knife in an intergalactic hospital; and from warlike Martians to the peaceful creatures for whom Man might be the monstrous invader…

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Horror

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

This has been on my TBR since 2014, mainly because I’ve only read one ghost story of Hill’s and it was bland, unscary and derivative. This one is of course much praised, so hopefully it will be better, but my expectations are low. I did see a theatre adaptation of it many moons ago and, hmm, well, let’s just say I snored more than I shrieked… but the book is always better, right? Right?

The Blurb says: The classic ghost story by Susan Hill: a chilling tale about a menacing spectre haunting a small English town.

Arthur Kipps is an up-and-coming London solicitor who is sent to Crythin Gifford—a faraway town in the windswept salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway—to attend the funeral and settle the affairs of a client, Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. Mrs. Drablow’s house stands at the end of the causeway, wreathed in fog and mystery, but Kipps is unaware of the tragic secrets that lie hidden behind its sheltered windows. The routine business trip he anticipated quickly takes a horrifying turn when he finds himself haunted by a series of mysterious sounds and images—a rocking chair in a deserted nursery, the eerie sound of a pony and trap, a child’s scream in the fog, and, most terrifying of all, a ghostly woman dressed all in black. Psychologically terrifying and deliciously eerie, The Woman in Black is a remarkable thriller of the first rate.

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Scottish Classic

The New Road by Neil Munro

I know nothing about this one other than it regularly appears on lists of Scottish classics. The blurb might be short but it still sounds intriguing… 

The Blurb says: The New Road tells the story of Aeneas McMaster – a young man haunted by the disappearance of his Jacobite father 14 years earlier. It is also the story of the Highlands at the time when General Wade’s road was carving its way between Stirling and Inverness into the traditional strongholds of the Clans.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads or Amazon UK.

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So…what do you think? Are you tempted?

Printer’s Devil Court by Susan Hill read by Steven Pacey

printer's devil courtVictoria sponge…

🙂 🙂 😐

A young medical student has taken rooms in Printer’s Devil Court in London, sharing them with three other medical men. One evening, the four men have a discussion as to whether the story of Lazarus could possibly have been true – is it scientifically possible to bring someone back from the dead? Two of the men hint that they have been carrying out experiments on the subject and ask Meredith and the fourth man if they would like to join in. The fourth man considers the whole idea to be blasphemous and refuses, but Meredith’s curiosity wins out, and he agrees to be a witness to the experiments – a decision he will regret for the rest of his life.

Susan Hill has written this very much in the style of a Victorian ghost story although it’s set in the 20th century. It feels very much like working to a recipe…

1 notebook revealing a terrible secret
1 creepy street name
4 medical students
2 or 3 graveyards to taste
2 corpses
1 late night adventure in a mortuary
1 man racked by conscience and haunted for the rest of his life

Mix all together with a wooden spoon until smooth, and bake for 1 hour and 40 minutes.

Unfortunately, the resulting cake is somewhat bland – a Victoria sponge without the jam perhaps. One feels that a vital ingredient has been forgotten…

1 generous splash of essence of horror

graveyard

The quality of the writing and storytelling is quite high – it’s just that it’s a story we’ve all heard so often in various forms and Hill brings nothing new to the recipe. I felt she was so busily ensuring that she got it to sound authentically Victorian, which she succeeds in doing very well, that she lost sight somewhat of the fact that a ghost story ought to be scary, and in order to be scary it must have some element of unpredictability. I kept hoping there was going to be a twist that would turn expectations on their head, but I’m afraid it ran along too smoothly from beginning to end without deviating from the obvious route. And there’s no added ingredient to make up for the lack of the scare factor – no great moral questions are raised, there’s no element of humour.

Susan Hill © Ben Graville
Susan Hill © Ben Graville

The most effective bits are the mortuary scene and the first graveyard scene, in both of which the quality of the writing does manage to create a chilling atmosphere, but from there on the story meanders on, not really going anywhere at all, until it reaches a completely anticlimactic end.

I listened to the audiobook version which has a running time of 1 hour and 40 minutes. The narrator Steven Pacey does a good job with the material available, but I’m afraid that my spine remained untingled and my hair unraised.

NB This book was provided for review by Audible UK via Midas PR.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link