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Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black: A Most Supernatural Beckoning!

by Janet Lewison

Snow, ice and then a hint of fog. Boxing Day a time for keeping warm and feeding off festive calories whilst dozing and sipping mugs of tea. I have had Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black for several years and nearly read it but then passed over it for something less forbidding and dare I say, more overtly thrilling.
But the fog did it. And then a few pages in and Susan Hill made my fog seem puerile, a mere gesture in the creepy stakes. For her novel is like a cold hand on the back of your neck. It begins with a seeming collection of familiar conventions and then progressively undermines our complacency, our sense of smug orientation lost in the quicksands of Eel Marsh House. The sinister or ghostly becomes malignant and the malignancy breeds an atmosphere and behaviour more disturbing than we have ever met before. The dead are not just tragic, they want to destroy us in revenge for incidents we have had no part in, no control over at all. Time is collapsed. Everything waits for revenge.

The chapter entitled ‘Whistle and I’ll come to you’ is truly horrible. Inspired by M R James’ famous story of supernatural beckoning! The spirited loyal little dog Spider,companion to the immature hero, is lured onto the quicksand and nearly sucked under to a desperately upsetting death. And this emanates out of the most seeming innocent of dog loving gestures. The beckoning whistle. Such cruel, premeditated betrayal.
Yet the ending subverts even this chapter’s malignancy and horror. It is rather like those films whose credits are rolling, as we are climbing relieved out of our seats and heading for the sanctuary of the door when…the ‘thing’ we thought was safely cauterized returns. The return of the repressed sends us shattered in search of a very well lit room!
I felt glad to shut the book and shudder. The novel conveys an atmosphere as disturbing and insinuating as the opening of Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend where the unknown figures rowing on the Thames, are we come to realise, unlawfully and gainfully, hunting for the dead. Hill’s novel progressively alarms us for we come to realise that the woman in black is really hunting out our own fears, our own complacency as readers, as sofa companions to anyone who feels brave enough to confront the inexplicable with mere rationality.

Makes you appreciate Ovaltine!

I am Janet Lewison and live in Bolton United Kingdom where I run Tusitala English Tuition and an NLP inspired Confidence site, both with blogs, which seem to feed into each other at the moment. I love reading novels and poetry and my particular favourites at the moment are Denis Lehane, Mary Oliver and David Almond.
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  1. Teresa July 5, 2011

    I love your descriptions of this novel 🙂 We had to study The Woman in Black in English lessons many years ago, and it’s one of those few things I’m so glad to have learned about at school and had the opportunity to include in my life.
    It was so chilling and upon reaching the ending, the sense of despair and shock was a feeling that stayed with me for many days after that. To me, that’s the sign of a truly great book or film, where it has obviously affected you deep down. Susan Hill’s novel is something I will always treasure, even if I do feel a bit depressed after completing it!

  2. jason holmes December 24, 2011

    the woman in black is the best film l have ever seen in all the films l have seen l have seen in my life,susan hill is up there with the all time greats.l saw woman in black years ago with my wife we could not go to bed until the finish.and even then only go to bed made a mark on our lives we tell every body about it.l never read a lot but do now l dont think the computer would ever replace books. yours trully je holmes.

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