Thursday, September 29, 2011

We all need a good scare sometimes

Telling ghost stories with your group of friends or family on a cold night has become something of a cultural cliché. But who says that just because it's a cliché, it has to be boring, no? I think that it's a great way to bond and be scared shitless by one another's tales of the supernatural. And if there's one great story to share with your friends, it's Susan Hill's classic novella, The Woman in Black.

Arthur Kipps, the main character, has been sent to the estate of one recently deceased Mrs Alice Drablow of Eel House Marsh. Kipps has been sent to arrange whatever papers Mrs Drablow may have left and also to attend to her funeral. During the funeral, Kipps sees a woman in black, a figure whom he refuses to believe at first to be a ghost. But unknown to Kipps, once you see this woman, things start to go wrong your way. For one, her appearance, it is revealed later in the novel, causes the death of a child.

As a ghost story, The Woman in Black succeeds in a very subtle way. Hill doesn't give you the horror angle in one go. The haunting happens in small stages, as if Hill teases her readers and motivates them to further read into the story despite the knowledge that something bad will eventually happen. It's a creepy read beginning at page 1. The ghost that is the woman in black is also unveiled gradually. Kipps sees her at the funeral and eventually at Eel House Marsh only to realize that she is indeed a ghost, one that is hellbent on vengeance.

Stereotypes in gothic horror fiction are in full force here, but are used in a very controlled maner. The isolated and crumbling Eel House Marsh never comes off as campy. The thick mist that surrounds the marsh simply adds to the element of dread. The hauntings do not go into the physical, merely just an invasion of space inhabited by the living. The dog who expectedly detects the presence of the ghost becomes a good companion of Kipps, not just something employed by the writer to signal the arrival of the ghostly presence.

With all the horror novels that I've read, it takes more than the usual to get me scared. For all its moments of subtle horror and intermittent scenes of dread, The Woman in Black is one work of fiction that creeped me out.

Read this book if:
  1. Ghost stories are your thing.
  2. You love women in black.
  3. You're alone on a cold night.

For this month, the book club discussed The Woman in Black in our face-to-face meeting. I was fortunate enough to moderate the discussion. Judging from the reactions of those who attended, a lot of us liked Hill's short but satisfying ghost story. Here's to good friends, great book talks, and scary stories!

The members of Flips Flipping Pages who attended the discussion.
Notice that most of them are wearing black. I'm the one in pink.


ram said...

nice shirt...

Stepford Mum said...

Peter in Pink! Perfect :) So sorry I missed this discussion.

Peter S. said...

@ram: Thanks!

@Stepford Mum: We will see you soon, hopefully for the October discussion.

Ryan said...

This has been on my TBR list for what seems forever now. I really need to get ahold of it.

Peter S. said...

I'm sure you'll love it, Ryan!