The Woman in Black – Susan Hill (1983)

Although tagged with labels such as “horror fiction” and “spine-tingling”, this novel (perhaps novella?) was not as straight-on spooky as I thought it was going to be. Perhaps I have become de-sensitized to things in my old age, but I was all prepared for worrysome reading when, actually, it was quite tame overall. I think I thought this was going to be more Exorcist-y or Stephen-King-y than it was (and I’m glad it wasn’t), so this was a fun read overall.

The novella is written in a faux-Gothic Victorian style from the PoV of an aging lawyer who is looking back at his life one evening trying to tell his story so perhaps he can more easily forget about it. Early in his career, he was assigned a case of the death of an isolated old lady in a very rural place and from this, the lawyer is convinced that he has suffered ramifications in his own life ever after that.

This was a good fast read – lots of Gothic descriptions of windy rainy nights on the flat Fens of East Anglia (SE England) and a small insulated village packed with legends and hearsay. Having read quite a lot of Victorian fiction so far, this really resonated with me and I thought Hill did a very good job of using that style to project the fear and impending gloomy atmosphere. The story almost veered into sensation novel territory, but retained a more somber tone than they do.

I know this may sound like a pretty lukewarm review, but I really did enjoy this story and its lush descriptions of the Fens. I found out that the play that was adapted from this book has been seen by more than one million people on the London stage, and now there is a film adaptation of it with Daniel Radcliffe which looks very intriguing. (According to Hill’s website, it was out in February 2012.) And – it’s also a set book for GCSE and A-level. Hmm. I don’t remember having anything that modern to read for my exams, but it’s a whole different world now. 🙂

Hill is a noted author of both non-fiction and fiction, and I actually have (and have read) one of her earlier non-fiction books about life on her farming place (‘Magic Apple Tree’ – which has to  be one of the most ridiculous titles for quite a serious factual book ever. It’s a shame as that is really a very good book.) I found another one of her horror fiction books at the library and bought that home. We’ll see how that progresses. Perhaps my imagination is worse than other people’s!

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