“I did not look about me, though sometimes I glanced up into the great bowl of the night sky and at the constellations scattered there and the sight was calming and comforting to me, things in the heavens seemed to be alright and unchanged. But nothing else was, within me or all around. I knew now that I had entered some hitherto unimagined – indeed unbelieved-in realm of consciousness, that coming to this place had already changed me and that there was no going back.”
I have read The Woman in Black before, but it was so long ago that I have forgotten the details, save that it was very good and extremely unsettling. And so a re-read, before seeing the film, seemed to be in order.
It is a ghost story built on classic lines: with an isolated house, a bleak landscape, wild weather, ghostly figures, inexplicable events …
But first there is a framing story, which is positively Dickensian, in which a family is telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve. The children of the family have a wonderful time, scaring and entertaining each other, but their step-father pulls away. For him their stories are stirring terrible memories.
Because when he was a young, newly qualified solicitor Arthur Kipps was sent to Eel Marsh House, tasked with to going through the papers of client who had died. A simple, routine job, he thinks. But when he arrives he finds that all of the local villagers are fearful of the house, unwillling to say why, and unwilling to cross the causeway, open only at low tide, that is the only path to the house.
He represents his firm at the funeral service of his firm’s client, and he is unsettled by the distant presence of a young woman shrouded in black.
But he has a job to do, and so he crosses the causeway to the big house. While he is there storms rage. He hears terrible cries, inexplicable sounds out on the marshes. He worries over one locked door for which there is no key. And then, once more, he sees the woman in black.
Meanwhile family papers are revealing a tragic history. He thinks that he understands. But he doesn’t, and he will pay for that in a shocking conclusion.
The storytelling is pitch perfect, and it was so easy to be drawn in.
But I found that, this time, it was also easy to pull away.
The framing story told me that Arthur had survived, that the things he had experienced were in the past, over and done. And the story itself is a little stretched, and maybe too firmly rooted in tradition, with the only real shock coming at the very end.
Maybe I’ve been spoiled by reading so wonderful ghost stories over the years. Virago anthologies, Oxford anthologies …
Maybe this will work better on screen than on the printed page.
But for now all that I can say is that The Woman in Black is nicely done, but no more than that.