Discussion location: The Sack of Potatoes, Aston University Campus

Chosen by:Theresa Edwards

Reason for choice: Had not previously read the book, film adaptation had just been released, scared of horror films so wanted to be in the know before the film, was going to read it anyway then conveniently it got chosen first out of the hat.

Review:

The Woman in Black is a Victorian horror novel, written in 1983, about a young solicitor who spends several days alone in an isolated house, where he experiences an increasingly terrifying series of occurrences, which culminate in a personal tragedy.  Based on this essentially enjoyable concept and intriguing story line, the novel has great potential.  Moreover, the initially subtle suggestions of fear by local residents who refuse to discuss the matter, increasing throughout the novel to first hand experiences of the ghostly woman in black,  and the terrifying moments in the marshes surrounding the house, build an intense atmosphere of suspense.  However, The Woman in Black fails to achieve its potential impact, mainly due to its significantly abrupt ending, and the considerably slender size of the novel.

Briefness is not something usually complained of in a novel, in fact, more often readers complain of the opposite, but in the case of The Woman in Black, the length, or lack there of, detracts from the story, leaving gaps in detail and justification which pose more questions than the novel could provide answers to.

In particular, the novel fails to fully explain the characters’ rationale in staying at Eel Marsh house or the local village, locations where the woman in black appeared and which always resulted in the death of a child. For example, the local residents who stay despite their own children falling victim to the woman in black, and the sister of the woman in black – the recently deceased Alice Drablow, who lived at Eel Marsh House for many years during the hauntings.

There is also no convincing explanation why Arthur, who has no link to the house or the local area, decides to stay at the house, ultimately jeopardising his own fate.  Although there are hints that Arthur stays due to his ambition to succeed in his firm, or of clinging desperately to his own rational nature, it becomes apparent within a short amount of time that the strange occurrences are unnatural, and that any rational person would get the first train home.

Most noticeably, the diminutive length of the novel is reflected in novel’s finale and the tragedy that befalls Arthur, who having escaped from Eel Marsh house and back in London, marries and has a child, both of whom die, a year later, in a freak accident caused by the woman in black. The event is rushed through with little detail and almost no emotion, with his marriage, the birth of his child, and the death of his wife and child lasting a mere three pages.

Furthermore, there is no explanation why the woman in black chose to follow Arthur to another location when there was no indication she had left the town before, or why she chose the strange, uncertain method of death, crashing a pony and cart into a tree, rather than it crashing into the boating lake which would have fit more succinctly with the death of her own son.

In general, the ending of the novel is disappointing as the final chapter seems rushed, with an abrupt ending which lacked detail compared with other areas of the book, such as the causeway scenes; and lacking closure compared to the opening of the book, which spent an entire chapter detailing Arthur’s current wife and her children, and the Christmas eve setting which led to him documenting the story.  The novel may have benefited from a return to the opening story, detailing the emotion or the effect of Arthur finally inscribing his story.

Perhaps the most important question to be asked of a horror novel is – was it scary? In this case the answer is, it started to be but it somewhat fizzed out. There is a lot to be said of the subtle, psychological horrors rather than the gory, exaggerated ones, and in these areas this novel excelled, with some chilling moments, such as the noise of the rocking chair behind the closed door and Arthur discovering the previously tidy, intact nursery suddenly destroyed. Indeed, the subtly scary moments seem to be increasing towards a thrilling crescendo, however, just at the moment where the climax threatens, Arthur is rescued and the novel ends.

Overall rating: 6/10. Moderated to 5/10 following more scores recieved at meeting 2.

The Woman in Black was full of promise, but ultimately failed to deliver a truly chilling conclusion.

Plot synopsis

 

The plot follows Arthur Kipps, a young solicitor who is sent fromLondonto a remote part ofEnglandto sort the paperwork of a recently deceased elderly woman named Alice Drablow.  Kipps is an optimistic young man, who pays no attention to the villager’s fear of Alice Drablow’s home, Eel Marsh house, which is accessible only via Nine Lives Causeway and marsh land, cutting it off from the main land whilst the tide is in.

During Alice Drablow’s funeral, Kipps sees the figure of a woman dressed in old fashioned black attire, with the appearance of having “some kind of muscle wasting disease”, and ignores his fellow solicitor Jerome’s statement that there is nobody there.  On his first day at the once grand, now shabby Eel Marsh house, Arthur experiences increasingly strange noises, and unsettling experiences, and despite this he decides to stay at the house to apparently sort the paperwork quicker.

A local businessman, Sam Daly, lends Arthur his dog, Spider, despite professing that he did not believe the scaremongering about Eel Marsh house.   During his few days at the house, Arthur experiences progressively more disturbing incidents, seeing the woman in black in an abandoned graveyard, hearing noises behind a locked door, getting lost several times in the marshes, hearing the sounds of a pony and trap in distress, and a child screaming, and another time hearing a whistle to which Spider almost drowns.

Whilst searching through Alice Drablow’s paperwork, Arthur discovers that Mrs. Drablow’s sister, Jennet gave birth to a child out of wedlock, and was subsequently forced to let Alice and her husband adopt the child, Nathaniel.  Jennet was enraged that Alice refused to let Nathaniel discover his true parenthood, and whilst she stayed at Eel Marsh House, she became very close to Nathaniel and planned to run away with him. One day, Jennet witnessed from the window of the house, the pony and trap carrying Nathaniel sinking into the marshes, killing the boy. Jennet later died and her malevolent ghost, the woman in black, returned to haunt the house and local town, causing the death of a child every time her ghost was seen.

After the increasingly terrifying events, Sam Daly rescues Arthur from the house and discovers the full details of the children that have died in the village. He returns toLondonand marries his partner, Stella, who gives birth to a son within a year. On a day out in the park, Arthur sees the woman in black who stares at him, then steps in front of the pony and trap carrying his wife and child, startling the pony, which collides with a tree, killing the child instantly and injuring Stella, who dies ten months later.

NEXT BOOK: Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

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