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On Our Bookshelves – The Woman in Black

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NOVEL: The Woman in Black

AUTHOR: Susan Hill

YEAR OF PUBLICATION: 1983

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There’s a chill in the air, and the days are getting shorter. The leaves are starting to turn and suddenly it seems that summertime was long ago. As the kids start planning their Halloween costumes, it’s time to think about ghost stories. This one was published in 1983, but it’s seriously old-fashioned…if it weren’t for a few references to electric lights, it could have been set over a century beforehand. The Victorians loved to tell ghost stories, oddly enough for modern sensibilities, at Christmastime (Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the example most of us know) and that’s how this tale begins.

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Arthur Kipps is home with his family on Christmas Eve as they tell spooky tales; he won’t participate, is teased for being a spoilsport, and suddenly walks out, visibly shaken. Unbeknownst to them, he has his own story from the past, “a story, a true story, a story of haunting and evil, fear and confusion, horror and tragedy. But it was not a story to be told for casual entertainment, around the fireside…” This is the framing device in the novel; he decides, rather than sharing it with his relations, to write it all down, to attempt to exorcise the past and at last free himself from the memories.

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What follows is a very effective, eerie, and downright horrifying tale. I first encountered this story as a play in London’s West End (which had the additional framing device of Arthur Kipps attempting to dramatize the story by hiring an actor to play his younger self). It was exceedingly well done on the stage, but I think the original novel is even better.

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Without revealing too much of the plot, the young Arthur, an up-and-coming London solicitor, goes out to a small, remote village for the funeral of a client, with an aim to settle up her affairs. With all the arrogance of the young professional from the city, he fails to understand or take seriously the warnings of the locals, and slowly learns the history of Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh, the tragic history of her family, and the continued malevolence of what haunts her house.

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It is, I think, a bit of an indictment of how unnecessarily cruelly women can be treated in the name of conventional morality, and may be a bit of an allegory of how one generation’s traumas continue to cause suffering, but whether or not you see a feminist lesson here, the story is effectively chilling.

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Perhaps it’s not best to read this one on Christmas Eve; the Victorians did have odd tastes.

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RATING (one to five whistles, with five being the best): 3 1/2 Whistles

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HOW TO PURCHASE: Amazon

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Laura LaVelle is an attorney and writer who lives in Connecticut, in a not quite 100-year-old house, along with her husband, two daughters, and a cockatiel.

Laura can be contacted at laura@newswhistle.com

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Lead-In Art Courtesy of Ethiriel / Shutterstock.com

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