A Magpie Stories Review of Susan Hill’s English Ghost story
There is something wonderful about curling up with a good book and letting the story wash over you like a soothing liquid blanket. When I first picked up this novel this was not my immediate feeling. I was not reading for pleasure; I was reading for a deadline for an essay back somewhere in the early noughties. As usual, I had left the reading a little on the late side and needed to finish the entirety of the book that evening. I chastised myself and prepared for a long slog. I had come home to my parents for the weekend to be away from any distractions (namely friends and the pub) and sat down at the kitchen table, pot of tea ready and notebook forlornly open, new royal blue ink cartridge in fountain pen.
By the end of the tenth page, I was engrossed. I had forgotten that I was supposed to be making notes, highlighting passages, everything. I did not look up from the pages (aside when the family dog brushed passed my leg and freaking me out massively). The impact this book had on me was profound and now, running an English department, I have included it on the curriculum as an introduction to the gothic genre.
In this novel Susan Hill has perfectly encapsulated gothic tropes into an original piece of fiction that intrigues, delights, and leaves the reader guessing throughout. She has borrowed and reinvigorated tropes of horror and more specifically the gothic genre into something that is not pastiche or tired but bolstered and new.
There is the classic ghost story trope of beginning a story around a fire at Christmas time, a group of excited step children press their step father, Arthur Kipps, to tell a tale. He does know one, one that hits far too close to home. He refuses and thus us, as the reader are drawn into what exactly might have transpired. Fair warning at this point, you might not want to know. But here is where Hill perfectly leaves literary bait for us to pounce on.
The exposition of the early novel is beautifully done. Details are laid out that will be relevant later in the tale, there is nothing that is superfluous. What should be a simple execution of an estate, a formal legal problem one that is within the scope of what we know, that can be codified and explained and executed through simple man-made legal precedent and common law transposes into a rural mystery that fall outside the bounds of the common and everyday. We are lead through the vehicle of Kipp’s, discovering along with him the events that will entwine like dark ivy into his own narrative. The description of London, safe reliable and urban contrasts beautifully with the northern town (wherever it might be) and its strange rituals, people who have local knowledge that is given in dribs and drabs and the mysterious (and very deceased) Mrs Drablow, woman who has died and the town worries about.
There is something distinctly hazardous about the rural setting where the fret (or fog for us townies) rolls in (akin to descriptions from Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde) but leaving dangers in its wake.
The juxtaposition of landscape and emotion is incredibly vivid. We know the land surrounding Eel Marsh House is flooded by the sea, the very earth is salted meaning nothing can live and thrive. The perfect backdrop to events that unfold.
We know there is danger from this Woman in Black, her mystery, the threat she poses to the most naïve and innocent. She is the unknown, especially to our protagonist. Somehow, Hill has managed to reveal information about the titular character as Kipps begins to unravel the mystery, but not at any point make her less dangerous or menacing. Indeed, the more we learn the greater the threat and oppression.
I do not exaggerate; this is a book that is simply worth reading.