The son of a book club friend joined us at one of our meetings one evening, with an armful of books he’d enjoyed for some and hated for others. I borrowed one that fell in the “awesome” category, The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (published by Vintage Classics) for three reasons. One, I liked the sound of a creepy book, and the book lender’s Mum reassured me that no, this book would not keep me awake at night really. Two, how could I resist a title like The Woman in Black, loving as I do the sometimes slightly ghostly but mostly plain brilliant The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins? Three, I’d read Mrs De Winter, a “sequel” to Daphne du Maurier’s glorious Rebecca by the same author (I mean Susan Hill, not Du Maurier) years ago, and had enjoyed it.
I can’t really put it much better than a Guardian review quoted on the back, describing the book as a “rattling good yarn”. That time-honoured expression does a great job here: the narrative is engaging and well paced, the spookiness is of the suitably predictable sort, following the expected flow of suspense to a nicety, and the characters are worthy people, with the virtues and defects normally associated with youth or wealth or their opposites. The setting is England in the early 20th century, I’d say (there are motor cars, but they are clearly fairly newfangled things), the plot concerns what befalls Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer sent to settle the estate of a wealthy woman. The title’s “woman in black” is basically what befalls him, as young Kipps travels to the deceased client’s house, which is accessible only when tides permit and surrounded by a sinister superstition, richly deserved as it turns out.
The story is told by the hero in his later years, when an innocent conversation with his children ends with a request for him to tell a ghost story and provides him with an unwelcome reminder of the past horror. He rushes away from his family and unburdens himself by putting pen to paper so that, once the story is revealed after his own death, his nearest and dearest can find out why he was so upset when asked to tell a ghost story.
And if you don’t want to do the same, well tant pis.