How do you tell a new ghost story?
Answer: you don't. Just like there isn't really a lot new to say about interstellar empires or elven warriors or hard-boiled detectives. So, The Woman in Black
is a ghost story. It's a ghost story like all those other ghost stories you've heard. Of a less skilled writer, I'd have even said the author was practically doing a paint-by-numbers story.
But Susan Hill is really good. The key to a good ghost story is atmosphere
. A little creepiness, a little prickling at the back of the neck, something that will make you jump when the water pipes make a sound downstairs or something falls over in the kitchen. No one is going to be scared by some "new" interpretation of ghosts, or by making the story extra bloody. Stephen King gets some mileage out of being gross and gory, but when he's at his best, when he's really creeping you out, it's not with the gore and the grue, it's with the creeping dread he's able to infuse his stories with.
Susan Hill gets that. The Woman in Black
is your basic ghost story: a London solicitor goes to a creepy old mansion at the ass-end of nowhere to take care of a dead client's effects and paperwork, and discovers that the place is haunted. Which surprises him not at all — he pretty much expected a decrepit old house on the marshes outside a tiny, remote village to be "haunted." And even when he discovers that it's really
haunted, he's still not immediately impressed. Scared, sure, he's not so brave or superhuman as to claim that seeing a ghost and being convinced that it really is a ghost doesn't creep him out. That's part of what I liked about this story — the narrator is perfectly straightforward, he's neither an action hero nor an idiot, he's logical but he also doesn't retreat into denial. He asks all the questions and makes all the observations you or I would: "Okay, so it's a ghost. That's pretty creepy. But still, what can a ghost do
He finds out.
The evocative atmosphere makes the book. When the ghost(s) show up, they don't carry on with supernatural pyrotechnics, they just... ghost around, being ominous and spooky at the worst moments, like ghosts do. Eel Marsh House and Nine Lives Causeway are places made for haunting.
This is the kind of book that would make a fine read-out-loud Hallowe'en tale. Highly recommended for late night reading alone in a dark house!
4.5 stars. Almost
5 stars for the quality of the prose and the atmosphere, but for the basic lack of originality and the rather abrupt (and predictable) ending, I had to dock it a little. Still, this is a quick, short read that knows how to build up to a climax and then when to quit.