Susan Hill writes about curses and misfortunes, but her own career seemed
charmed almost from the outset. How many authors get a novel accepted by a
major publisher while they are still in high school? Ms. Hill was studying for A
Levels while checking out the intense press coverage of her debut book
—a book that was branded by the Daily Mail as a “sex-ridden
sensational novel.” Of course, that was the year (1960) of the
s Lover trial, and such denunciations only helped sales.

After this promising start, Hill enjoyed an

extraordinary string of successes in her
twenties and early thirties. She won the
Somerset Maugham for I’m the King of
the Castle (1970), the Whitbread Novel
Award for The Bird of Night (1972) and
the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for The
Albatross (1972)—the latter title also
made the shortlist for the Booker Prize.
That same year Hill was invited to become
a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature,
the elite literary organization, founded by
King George IV in 1820, which has allowed
most of the great British authors of the last
two centuries, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge
to J.K. Rowling to put the esteemed initials
FRSL after their names.

Such accolades outght to be sufficient for even

a charmed literary life, but Hill saved her biggest success for middle age.  In
1983, not long after Hill’s fortieth birthday, she published
The Woman in
, a compact horror novel, that has enjoyed enormous multimedia
success.  The stage play adaptation is the second longest-running dramatic
production in the history of London’s West End—topped only by
. But it has proven almost as successful in Mexico and Japan. The
play has been translated into at least a dozen languages and put on stage in
some forty countries. The 2012 film version landed
Harry Potter star Daniel
Radcliffe as leading man, and grossed more than $100 million, setting a box
office record for British horror flicks.  Hill’s story has also shown up on
television and radio.

But the novel that started this cascade of success continues to find an
enthusiastic audience—a significant portion of it the children (and probably
grandchildren) of its first generation of readers.
The Woman in Black is, in
short, a modern horror classic. The book is frequently assigned in schools—no
doubt providing some satisfaction to Ms. Hill, who was told by the
headmistress of Barr’s Hill, after the 'scandal'
of her debut novel, that she "had
brought shame and disgrace"
to the school. When Hill makes a public
appearance, the large contingent of teenage fans—seemingly more suitable for
a Justin Bieber or One Direction performance—stands out in the audience.

Yet, despite all this acclaim,
The Woman in
Black is an unlikely success story.  Hill's
novel came out in the era that launched A
Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th  
as blockbuster franchises. The horror genre
was getting bloodier and bloodier, with rising
body counts and falling IQ points. Even horror
novels were expected to churn out senseless
gore—just check out Jack Ketchum’s bestselling
Off Season go see how unsophisticated scare
stories were in the early 1980s. In the midst
of all that mutilation and dismemberment, Hill
delivered a taut, slow-paced gothic ghost story,
and somehow turned it into a mass market

Yes, a charmed life…how else can we account for it? Who would have thought
that atmospheric suspense, a throwback to Daphne du Maurier if not Horace
Walpole, could captivate the Freddy Krueger generation? Yet, in an odd way,
Hill may have wisely timed her moment. At the very same juncture that
Woman in Black
appeared in print, Universal was embarking on a program of
re-releasing five classic Alfred Hitchcock films into movie theaters, and
proving that a new generation of fans appreciated blood-free horror stories,
built on implication rather than decapitation. Hill was working that same
groove—indeed, you could almost imagine her, in an earlier day, writing
screenplays for Mr. Hitchcock (and she later penned a sequel to
Rebecca, one
of that director’s biggest box office hits).

So much of
The Woman in Black builds on mood, setting and the unspoken
aspects of the story.  A junior attorney, Arthur Kipps, has been sent by his firm
to Crythin Gifford, a remote village in northeast England. Here he is to attend
the funeral of deceased client, Alice Drablow, and review her private papers in
preparation for settling the estate. But almost from the start, Kipps senses he
has been assigned eerie, unsettling mission.  Nobody wants to talk about Mrs.
Drablow, but everyone who knew her seems to be withholding information.
Some dark secret must be involved, but our young hero has no idea what it
might be.

Another writer might be able to sustain this ambiguous tension, without any
violence or physical threat let alone bloodshed, for twenty or thirty pages, but
Hill maintains it for most of the novel. And when some disturbing deed finally
breaks the ominous tranquility, it is presented indirectly—heard in the
distance, or described in a letter.

If the book has gravitational center, it is neither the hero Kipps nor the
deceased Drablow. Even the mysterious woman in dark, seen at a distance at
several junctures in the book, is merely a bit player for most of the story’s
duration. The real star of this novel is the house, the Drablow family manor,
described and situated by the author with extraordinary care. I’ve read plenty
of books about haunted houses, but this one comes to life in a way few others
match.  You will be able to see it vividly in your mind’s eye: the isolated manor
at the end of a long causeway, surrounded by marshland and murky water,
shrouded fog and mist. I’m hardly surprised that this novel was made into a
successful movie—the visual element jumps off the page and almost demands
transference to the screen.

And the most important supporting role here goes to the weather. "English
weather is a gift to English writers," Hill has commented, and she
demonstrates that again and again in
The Woman in Black. "I am sure it is
possible to set a ghost story on a bright sunny day," she adds—but she must
have been saving that trick for another book. In this novel, the fog, the cold,
the rising damp and falling mist are employed with subtle skill, and even
become key elements in the plot. I suspect that readers of this novel, when
recalling it years later, think first of the mist and the house, and only later of
the protagonist and his preoccupations.

But Hill isn’t just a mood-maker and scene-setter. When she eventually
unleashes her malevolent lady dressed in mourning, she will shock you—and
with all the more intensity because of the great care she has devoted to laying
the groundwork for this moment. The slow build-up pays off with a vengeance
when Hill moves her story into its final paces.

No, this isn’t a novel for horror genre fans seeking another
Books of Blood or
American Psycho. This novel is a throwback, a reminder of an earlier
conception of suspense storytelling. But if you are old school, you will find
kindred spirits in this novel—in which people have access to automobiles, but
still prefer to travel in a pony-drawn carriage, and ignore the telephone in
order to send letters by post.

This feels like a Victorian novel, even though it was written in Thatcher’s
England and set in a modern day. There’s nothing virtual or digital to be found
anywhere in these pages. But the eerie isn't digital either—that elusive quality
thrives at the border between the palpable and the metaphysical, the perceived
and the imagined. And those are intersections Susan Hill knows well, and
where her woman in black lurks. It’s old school indeed, but hardly a nostalgia
trip, and suspenseful in ways the new schools might want to emulate.

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His most recent book,
Love Songs: The Hidden History, is published by Oxford University Press.

Publication date: February 22, 2016
The Woman in Black
by Susan Hill
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This is my year of horrible reading. I am
reading the classics of horror fiction during the
course of 2016, and each week will write about
a significant work in the genre. You are invited
to join me in my
annus horribilis. During the
course of the year
if we survivewe will
have tackled zombies, serial killers, ghosts,
demons, vampires, and monsters of all
denominations. Check back each week for a
new title...but remember to bring along garlic,
silver bullets and a protective amulet.  
Essay by Ted Gioia
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe

Week 4:
By Stephen King

Week 5:
The Passion According to G.H.
By Clarice Lispector

Week 6:
By H.P. Lovecraft

Week 7:
The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty

Week 8:
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill
To purchase, click on image
If you are old school, you
will find kindred spirits
in this novel—in which
people have access to
automobiles, but still
prefer to travel in a pony-
drawn carriage, and
ignore the telephone in
order to send letters by
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Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

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Barefoot in the Head

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Report on Probability A

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The House of the Spirits

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Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

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Time's Arrow

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The Foundation Trilogy

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I, Robot

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Dandelion Wine

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2001: A Space Odyssey

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Little, Big

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House of Leaves

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Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

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Camp Concentration

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The Genocides

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Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

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I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

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A Maggot

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Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

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Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

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The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

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Time Enough for Love

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Winter's Tale

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Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

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Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

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The Haunting of Hill House

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

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Flowers for Algernon

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The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

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The Big Time

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Conjure Wife

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Swords & Deviltry

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The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
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Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

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Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

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Station Eleven

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Doctor Faustus

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Hell House

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Cloud Atlas

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Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
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Ada, or Ardor

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At Swim-Two-Birds

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The Famished Road

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Love in the Ruins

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Gravity's Rainbow

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Red Mars

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Dimension of Miracles

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Dying  Inside

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Some of Your Blood

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Gulliver's Travels

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Woolf, Virginia

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The Bear Comes Home

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Lord of Light

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This Immortal

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Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
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Remembering Fritz Leiber
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Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
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The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
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