Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black is a well-constructed example of the Gothic genre. Its style pays homage to high Victorian fiction yet operates at a manageable length, especially for burgeoning readers, making it a good introduction to the genre.
The heart of horror in this story beats from the intensity of its suggested sensibilities rather a reliance on than gore and violence. The sheer malevolence of the eponymous Woman in Black makes the reader wonder if she is justified in her pursuit of apparent revenge. Although the first person narrator sympathises us to Arthur’s view, the psychological conflict of the ghostly antagonist is implied and terrifying. Why does she hate so much?
Like with Dickens, the environmental description demonstrates a tremendous amount of evocative detail. I particularly liked how the enclosed fears of a provincial community undermine the cosmopolitan confidence of the educated narrator. Like with Dracula, the theme of civilization under threat from the countryside masses is one I find compelling. The excellent ending serves as a final catharsis for this, with a Final Destinationesque experience.
Where Susan Hill excels is her unsettling style. The manifestation of what is feared is, for me, kept to a minimum whilst the unknown and ambiguous is foregrounded. Repeated bird imagery, like with King of the Castle, operates like a cackling, knowing observers, all the more effective as the confidence of the capitalist intrusion weakens progressively. All of this occurs within a strangely displaced time context, presumably Edwardian with horse carts and a lack of war. However, the style feels High-Victorian rather than early twentieth Century. Given that the novel was written in the 1980s, this offers an unusual experience and works wonderfully well, as much as it duly frustrates some readers.
Finally, having watched the film, I think Arthur Kipps (the protagonist) would have been better casted as someone else than Daniel Radcliffe. Although Radcliffe does bring in people to watch it, he plays his adult roles with a Macaulay Culkinesque bizarreness. On paper that works, but the book clearly frames the protagonist’s forty-something worldly weariness as the motivation for telling his story. You can only really get that from reading the novel, so this is a good recommendation.