It was nine-thirty on Christmas eve.
Arthur Kipps is a mature and responsible individual. His first wife & child died many years ago, but he has since found happiness with his second wife and her children, although they are mostly grown at this stage. One Christmas eve the family is gathered together, and as is traditional the children begin to tell each other ghost stories. But when they ask Arthur to join in he surprises them by becoming quite shaken, and almost fleeing the cosy room, returning later and pretending that his emotions had not overwhlemed him. He knows his behaviour has upset and puzzled his wife, but feels unable to confide in her, as he doesn’t wish to relive the memories, instead he decides to write out exactly what happened. If at some future date he dies then this story will be read.
And it is a haunting, creepy and atmospheric tale.
Arthur begins by telling us of his younger self, and how, as a young man wasn’t he full of the confidence and self-belief that only the young can hold. He writes this description in a slightly mocking, and yet nostlagic manner. Which begins to build up the notion that something terrible happened our narrator when he travelled off to that lonely village to investigate the will of Old Mrs. Drablow.
And as he tells the story, the atmosphere really does build. Hill really succeeds in both arousing your curiosity, but at the same time you sort of don’t want to know what happened, because the little hints she begins to drop are really effective. The ghost story revolves around this mysterious “woman in black” that Arthur first encounters by the graveyard of Mrs. Drablow. At first he thinks her merely an ill woman, dressed in old-fashioned mourning. But soon he realises that she is not a woman at all, and the sense of hatred and malevolence he begins to feel is quite over-powering.
The first Susan Hill book I read was The Small Hand and there is a similar feel to this novel. It is a short book, very evocative and atmospheric, never veering off into gore, and with a wonderful gothic feel to it. It also references other books in this genre. The title of course echoes The woman in white by Wilkie Collins, and there is a chapter called Whistle and I’ll come to you which is another ghost story that I have heard so much about but have never read.
Perhaps if I had read those two at least this book may have been even better. As it was it was an extremely well-told story. And one that means I’ll keep trying more and more of Hill’s work.