March 1, 2011


by Susan Hill
144 pages, David R. Godine

Review by Hereward L.M. Proops

Susan Hill's “The Woman in Black” has received widespread acclaim since its initial publication in 1983. The story has been adapted into a 1989 TV movie, a long-running West End stage play and a glossy adaptation starring Daniel Radcliffe which will be gracing our cinema screens later this year. For such a slight book, this is no mean feat. I was under the impression that it was a longer novel and was genuinely surprised when I saw that the story clocked in at a mere 160 pages.

What the novel lacks in length it more than makes up for in atmosphere. “The Woman in Black” is a ghost story set in Edwardian England and features all the standard clichés of the genre. An isolated house. A naïve protagonist who doesn't heed the muttered warnings of the terrified locals. Swirling fogs and mysterious noises. It's almost as though the author was writing the book to a tried-and-tested formula. But one mustn't judge the book unfairly - what sets “The Woman in Black” apart from its peers is that it is genuinely sh*t-your-pants scary.

It shouldn't work. Almost every aspect of the story has been seen before, whether in the stories of MR James or a late-night horror movie. Fans of the genre might well be able to predict the way the story will turn out and though the “twist” at the end of the story is shocking, I'd be lying if I said I didn't see it coming a mile off. So what is it about this short, predictable little novel that has gotten me so excited? Why is it the first thing I think about when I wake and why is it still slithering around my mind as I turn in for the night? Because it is so damn well-written, that's why.

Susan Hill is clearly well aware that a good novel does not have to be a thousand pages long, nor does it have to invent a genre and style all of its own. “The Woman in Black” is an old-school ghost story – it has no pretensions of being anything else and its power lies in this disarming simplicity. Her prose manages to have enough description to generate an effective sense of place and atmosphere without slowing the pace of the narrative. Atmosphere is all-important in a ghost story and Hill displays a truly awe-inspiring ability to create a sense of gloom and menace. Though filled to the brim with horror clichés, Hill's measured and restrained prose means that she keeps a firm control over her narrative, gradually building the tension without swamping the reader with melodrama.

“The Woman in Black” is a wonderfully effective little chiller. Perfectly paced and totally gripping from start to finish, Hill's small novel punches well above its weight and deserves all the acclaim that has hitherto been heaped upon it. The big screen adaptation is bound to introduce a whole new generation of readers to the book, but the question remains whether the director will be able to breathe as much life into the story as Susan Hill's brilliant prose.

Hereward L.M. Proops

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