Hell of a Ghost

Daniel Radcliffe, for reasons not obvious to me, was offered the lead role in an adaptation of Susan Hill’s Woman in Black. It is a curious piece of casting because Radcliffe is no actor worthy of the title. His acting skills are playing catch-up to his success. This should be the other way about. The novel (acknowledging the stage-play and the television adaptation) is, or should be, the first stop for anyone wanting to take in the tale properly. That the awful film will be the first experience many have of this excellent tale is a shame.

It is worth having a look at the book because Susan Hill takes the classic elements from the genre – used in countless tales – and makes them all fit perfectly. There is the swirling mist; the old and creaky house; the locals who are reluctant to “talk about it” and the sound of horses clip-clopping about in the darkness and all the rest. When you read the book you get the sense of the familiar, that what’s coming is every ghost story you have ever read. Things do not bode well for the book in that respect, yet Hill makes all the ostensibly clichéd elements work.

That the story is written in the first person forces Hill to impose a heavy burden upon herself and her narrator by declaring, at the outset, that the tale is almost too terrifying to recount. One gets the sense she does this to force her imagination to cash the cheques her introductory pages have written. At any rate she delivers the creepiest 160 pages I have read in a while.

We are told of a ghost-story game in which Arthur Kipps cannot participate because for him to tell the scariest story he can think of means talking of the woman in black and he cannot bring this woman to a scary, but innocent, family game; rather, he composes himself and writes the tale we hold in our hands as a way of finally shaking the last cobwebs of the horror from his psyche. The novel is an act of therapy for him. After reading it, one understands his position perfectly.

In a great many tales of this kind the ghost has a purpose. It tends to want to avenge some terrible injustice and manipulate a character into finding the evidence to convict a person who had done them wrong. Sometimes the ghost can be ingenious, sometimes “in your face”, sometimes both. Hill has said her ghost needed to have a purpose and, goodness me, she gives it one, but is no more than obsessively malicious.

So to begin with we have Arthur Kipps – a twenty-three year old solicitor – being assigned to collate the papers of Mrs Drablow, a Miss Havisham type character who occupied the obligatory secluded house at the end of a causeway which is passable only during low-tide. Kipps is London-based – the Drablow estate is hidden away in some far-flung and cold estuary – and Hill uses her early pages to give the reader a sense of the horrors to come. Even the London fog through which Kipps moves is something more than pea-soup:

In the streets, there was a din, of brakes grinding and horns blowing, and the shouts of a hundred drivers, slowed down and blinded by the fog, and, as I peered from out of the cab window into the gloom, what figures I could make out, fumbling their way through the murk, were like ghost figures, their mouths and lower faces muffled in scarves and veils and handkerchiefs, but on gaining the temporary safety of some pool of light they became red-eyed and demonic.

That is just a drive through some fog. It is typical of the tone that Hill has her narrator set, and the tone of voice, the way of speaking used by Kipps, helps this along. Though he is but twenty-three he talks like a sixty year old would now; in a slightly formal and much better educated way; he has a stiffness which implies a sort of Christian abstention in certain matters. We know he will not be living it up while away working on the Drablow papers. He wants to file an excellent piece of work to his boss – who is more tightly–collared and stuffier than him – and use his assignment as a stepping stone to advancement within the firm. With advancement comes more money which would allow him to support a wife and child. He exudes typical, lower-middle class aspirations. His world is one of ink wells, large dusty ledgers and stiff, creaking wooden chairs and offices of absolute silence. The year is not given, but the impression is that the year cannot be later than 1910.

Hill slips but twice, as far as I can spot, with her narrator’s language. Consider these passages:

I had been both relieved and pleased when finally he took me into full partnership with himself, after so many years, while at the same time believing the position to be no more than my due, for I had done my fair share of the donkey work and borne a good deal of the burden of responsibility for directing the fortunes of the firm with, I felt, inadequate reward – at least in terms of position.


I saw the face of my watch. It was barely three o’clock and I hoped that the candle would burn until dawn, which on a stormy day at this fag end of the year would come late.

In both passages Hill allows her narrator, as it were, to “drop an aitch”. From the first, the phrase “donkey work”, and from the second, “fag-end” stand-out. Whether they sound too modern for the person talking is not quite the point. They sound too scruffy for him to be saying. These are the only examples I can find, and they jumped off the page as I read. Apart from these two minor lapses the narrator’s language – the word choice, tone, the visual impressions offered and so on – is first rate and the thoughts I had at the back of my mind were of a smarter, more restrained world, a world of propriety and good manners; a world, in other words, long gone.

His long journey up-country comes to an end in the small town of Crythin Gifford where he has lodgings in the pub, the Gifford Arms. Hardly could his first night have been a better one. He brushes the locals’ reluctance to discuss Mrs Drablow aside:

On the whole, that night, with my stomach full of home-cooked food, a pleasing drowsiness induced by good wine, and the sight of the low fire, and inviting, turned-back covers of the deep, soft bed, I was inclined to let myself enjoy the whole business, and to be amused by it, as adding a touch of spice and local colour to my expedition, and I fell asleep most peacefully. I can still recall it, that sensation of slipping down, down into the welcoming arms of sleep, surrounded by warmth and softness, happy and secure as a small child in the nursery.

You feel almost drowsy reading it…

Kipps’s first engagement is the funeral of Mrs Drablow. For this he adopts a “professionally mournful expression” as he takes his place in the cold church. Towards the end of the service, our narrator sees the woman in black for the first time. I think a longer quote is appropriate for this moment in the story:

On hearing a slight rustle behind me, I half turned, discreetly and caught a glimpse of another mourner, a woman, who must have slipped into the church after we of the funeral party had taken our places and who stood several rows behind and quite alone, very erect and still, and not holding a prayer book. She was dressed in deepest black, in the style of full mourning that had rather gone out of fashion except, I imagined, in court circles on the most formal of occasions. Indeed, it had clearly been dug out of some old trunk or wardrobe, for its blackness was a little rusty looking. A bonnet-type hat covered her head and shaded her face, but, although I did not stare, even the swift glance I took of the woman showed me enough to recognise that she was suffering from some terrible wasting disease, for not only was she extremely pale, even more than a contrast with the blackness of her garments could account for, but the skin, and, it seemed, only the thinnest layer of flesh was tautly stretched and strained across her bones, so that it gleamed with a curious blue-white sheen.

There she is. Just watching. Look at the descriptions of her, and, knowing she’s a ghost, pick out the most salient point to pay attention to – the piece of information which might reveal her character. The most salient point is the easiest to miss. She is not holding a prayer book. That little detail tells you, pretty much, all you need to know about this entity. The passage is the first sighting – not so much of a ghost with a sulk – but of the visual representation of a supernatural, malevolent force with a weapons-grade grudge. No prayer book? I wonder why…

There is a little problem here. From where, exactly, does the creature in black (and any ghost come to that) derive, not its hostility, but its ability to employ that hostility? Why does being dead give it more power to “make things happen” than it had in life? Innumerable ghost stories allow this question to go unanswered. If we are to follow the spiritual reasoning then, a living human has access to the same spiritual planes and energies as the spirit of a dead human has; in fact, the spirit of a living human, it could be argued, is more powerful than the spirit of a dead one because the body is a battery, feeding power to the psychic planes. Yet no haunting is done until the aggrieved person dies. If the woman in black was (and is) resentful about this or that, then her spirit could have done some haunting while she was alive – freed from physical constraints while she slept: Her astral-ghost could have got up to mischief and she would have been unaware of it, at least consciously. I know of no ghost story in which the spirit is of a living person does the haunting. Yet Robert Bruce, for example, mentions in his non-fiction book, Astral Dynamics, that the astral-ghost of a living person is “not to be trifled with”. There is a contradiction between those who write about ghosts as fiction and those who write of the spiritual world and astral planes as non-fiction. Stephen King answers the question of how some ghosts might obtain their “abilities” in Bag of Bones.

The ghost of the narrator’s wife has been forcing her way back down to the lower frequencies of the physical world to make her former husband aware of a thing or two. In contrast to many other ghosts in books and film and television, which can trash bedrooms in absolute silence (the woman in black included), this, it is implied, is no easy task for the kindly spirit in question. Another spirit in this story, the spiteful Sara (whose motivations are the same as the woman in black’s), has been haunting the locals – and forcing them to sacrifice their own children – for decades.

Mike Noonan, King’s narrator, is warned by his wife’s ghost to jolly-well get a move on, and makes his own observations:

“Git out, bitch!” the Sara-thing snarled. It raised its arms toward Jo as it had raised them to me in my worst nightmares.

   “Not at all.” Jo’s voice remained calm. She turned toward me. “Hurry, Mike. You have to be quick. It’s not really her anymore. She’s let one of the Outsiders in, and they’re very dangerous.

   Sara shrieked and then began to spin. Leaves and branches blurred together and lost coherence; it was like watching something liquefy in a food blender. The entity which had only looked a little like a woman to begin with now dropped its masquerade entirely.

Well, quite. Hill has her woman in black have – or rather be – a force with unpleasant intentions, but suggests nothing which might explain where her abilities and her power come from. We are left to suppose that, well, she’s a ghost, and that’s what ghosts do. But a pact made in the afterlife, with not so much another non-physical entity as a never-physical entity, would have explained the question of ghosts’ powers and posed some unsettling questions about bargaining on the other side of the tapestry.

 Enquiries are made by Kipps about this wretched creature (the correct word) and they follow obviously from what he has seen, and to her credit, Hill doesn’t even come close to the clichéd dialogue and behaviour of the locals which can be found in, say, the work of James Herbert. (What I’m talking about is any local who describes their village and surrounding area as “these parts”. Anyone who has read Herbert’s The Secret of Crickley Hall­ – just as an example – will know what I mean.) No, they change the subject and it is obvious they will not be drawn, but there are no “get out while ye can!” moments.

In any event Kipps begins his job of collating Mrs Drablow’s papers and the creature in black rather takes a shine to him straight away. It is difficult to understand the creature’s motivations as regards her interest in the young solicitor. Take, as an example, the little dog which a local man gives to Kipps to keep him company while working at the Drablow house. This dog scratches and snarls at the doors during the night, and nothing too bad happens to Kipps while the dog is about. Later, while taking a breath of air outside, someone unseen out in the mist on the marshes which surround the house whistles to the dog and off it scampers. It is the creature up to no good, drawing the dog away from Kipps and onto the marshes to slowly sink and drown. But why? It is unclear if the creature does this so that Kipps can feel the pain of a loved one lost to the marshes, or if her intentions are more sinister: Getting the dog away so she can get to him. The second explanation is certainly creepier, but both are unsatisfactory.

That animals snarl and bark at entities unseen to humans is nothing new in fiction, but it makes no sense that any ghost – certainly not the woman in black – should be bothered or in any way put off by a little canine scratching and sniffing about the place. What can a little dog do against this negative force that a human cannot? Why should the woman in black be kept at bay by no more than a little dog? It implies that all a person need do is behave aggressively toward the ghost and she will lose her bottle. It might be the case that the ghost simply wants to kill the dog on the marshes so Kipps can feel a little of what she felt, but, given her spite, that would never be enough for her and doesn’t fit very tidily anyhow. (Later, she scares a horse to take her revenge, so why is a tiny dog considered a problem, but a muscular horse easily spooked – and able to know that the woman in black is something to be scared of to begin with?)

If she wants rid of the dog to somehow and in some way get closer to Kipps, then I wonder what prevented her getting as close as she wanted before the dog was introduced. The goings-on with the dog question the whole point of the ghost’s haunting, questions the idea that the entity is all-powerful and fearless, and, in so doing, weakens the book in a subtle but fundamental way. In short, what on earth is she scared of?

The haunting experienced by Kipps does not always take the form of visions or mysterious sounds. During one period spent at the Drablow house, Kipps is made to feel an aching sorrow in his heart, an absolute sadness which takes him by surprise and shocks him with its intensity. This is, clearly, the woman in black haunting him, but in a different way to the usual. It is with this kind of haunting that one wonders if the woman in black is motivated by the desire to express no more than how she felt when the tragedy, which Kipps is yet to discover, happened. It seems like a play for sympathy in a sense, the ghost saying “You see! You see how bad it was for me!” This, like the scenario with the dog, offers some questions. Why does the woman in black want Kipps to feel this way, to feel the agonizing heartbreak she was forced to endure? If he concentrates on this, understands it, and realises that the woman was hideously torn by the tragedy, perhaps she might leave him alone? She might feel as if she has, finally, made her point? But it might be a form of torture, a way to make him suffer before….what? One wonders what would have happened to Kipps if he had, quite simply, stayed in the house and let the woman in black do her worst. That she haunts is hardly in question, but exactly why she does it is unclear for most of the book.

Hill layers the scares and the shocks, builds them one on the other, but this seems to be for our benefit, the readers, who are tugged slowly along and the pressure increased little by little. Kipps is dismissive of the ghostly question and then accepting too easily, he moves from A to B too smoothly. A man in his position – by which I mean a solicitor with an analytical mind – would be more determined to find the logical explanation behind the facts and evidence which presented themselves before succumbing to the horrific truth. (And I think it unlikely that such a person would succumb so easily, anyhow. Most of us see the evidence which strengthens our beliefs rather than weakens them. All kinds of problems are caused by this small piece of psychology.)

So on he goes, delving into the papers of the deceased woman and getting deeper embroiled in the history of the family and the tragedy which is the woman in black’s motivation.

That the book is written in the first person, and set years after the adventures at Eel Marsh House, tells us that Kipps escapes from his predicament with his life (if not all his sanity). This detracts somewhat from the suspense as the reader goes along, and is the payment for the narrator telling us just how terrifying the story is at the beginning. That he’s telling it means he got out. (If you want a first-person narrative which manages to turn this contradiction on its head, then Robert Harris’s The Ghost does this perfectly. That his narrator is telling this tale does not mean he gets out of the soup at all…)

The final reel, as it were, is rather tacked-on at the end as an after-thought, like an attempt to “get one in” at the end for allowing us to know that Kipps escapes from his ordeal. But, as I mentioned earlier, even that poses questions because here the woman in black terrifies a solid horse, yet before, she seemed troubled by a little dog.

That the novel is considered a “classic” of the genre is justified, but even classics are not without their contradictions and problems.

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