For me, there are two types of horror: superficial horror intended to get a temporary rise out of the consumer (Boo!—pun intended), and horror with depth—metaphorical, psychological, existential, slipstream, Weird, etc. The moment my brain encounters the former, it looks for something better to do, whereas the latter can set it tingling with uncomfortable interest, yet certainly interest. What then to say about Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black (1983)?
A frame story, The Woman in Black tells the tale of Arthur Kipps. Having a splendid Christmas time with his family, things take a strange turn when sitting around the hearth the family members are asked to tell the best ghost story they know. Kipps uncomfortable with the idea, he knows his story is not a story, but a memory he is still struggling with. As a young man just starting his career, Kipps was asked by his boss to go the country estate of a recently deceased woman and take account of her affairs. Arriving at the small village nearby, things start to take on an uncertain hue. Seeing things that may or may not exist, Kipps nevertheless is interested in spending the night in the deceased woman’s marshy home to get his commission over with. It is a decision he will doubt the rest of his life.
Though written in 1983, The Woman in Black is classic, classic Gothic horror. Not one step out of place from books written in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Hill wonderfully captures the tone and style of the horror novels of that era. Kipps’ tale is indeed that begins domestically and innocently enough before unpacking itself one properly contextualized detail at a time into the haunting bit. Hill expertly leads the reader along this trail of bread crumbs, the plot payoff satisfying.
But it’s the payoff that also sours me—that sets my brain looking for something else to do. What was shaping up to be a nicely psychological bit of horror, something meaningful for Kipps, and by extension, potentially the reader as well, instead resolves itself in a cheap horror moment. Hill veils this ultimate resolve until the final pages, but that does not stop it from coursing back through the novel, making everything that happened up to that point almost as cheap and meaningless.
The Woman in Black is a quick (+/-150 page) read that wonderfully develops plot momentum through to its final pages. Tension springing off the page in certain scenes, there is a genuine sense of suspense and wonder. And for most of the book, there is also a genuine sense that the story will have some profound effect on Kipps. But such is not the case. No spoilers, except to say the final chapter is oh-so ordinary, deflating the balloon of what could have been a more sophisticated offering. Horror has a reputation among certain circles for being a cheap medium, and unfortunately, The Woman in Black is an example in terms of not capitalizing on the chance to have more than one layer. (Otherwise, the writing is fantastic.) Fans of retro horror will certainly enjoy, however.