Susan Hill: The Woman Behind The Woman in Black

Susan Hill_wl (3)

Susan Hill (February 5, 1942) is a prolific woman- a novelist for both children as well as adults, a radio presenter for BBC Radio 4’s ‘Bookshelf’, a publisher, editor and short story writer. Educated at Scarborough Convent School and later, at King’s College, London, she published her first novel The Enclosure in 1961, when she was still a student. She won a Somerset Maugham Award for I’m the King of the Castle (1970); the Whitbread Novel Award for The Bird of Night (1972); and the Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for The Albatross (1971), a collection of short stories.
She became a household name to the amateur reader for The Woman in Black (1983), a Victorian gothic ghost story, which was adapted for stage and television. While The Woman in Black has tinges reminiscent of an England of the past, it is equally modernist in its approach to its characters. The style and setting of the story creates in the reader nostalgia for the England of Dickens, and this is enhanced further by the constant references made to Great Expectations. In this way, Hill borrows from the tropes of the Realist novel, and though pining for a time of the past, her stories identify the city as a place of squalor, disease and death. Hill’s characters however, show the deep psychological dimension that she attributes to them, thus making them rounded and more realistic personalities, as compared to the caricaturing typical of Dickens. Hill’s characters are mostly isolated and mentally anguished in some way or another, and their familial lives and relationships are usually broken or dysfunctional.

What separates Hill’s story from the conventional ghost stories that we usually come across is her economy of words and crispness of description. The fear builds up for the reader slowly and subtly, and there are no cliché descriptions of empty hallways or ghosts trying too hard to live up to a gruesome reputation. The use of language is to create an atmosphere, leaving much to interpretation instead of an explicit statement of events. Hill creates a setting that is sensory as well as cognizant, which is reminiscent of short stories like “The Pit and The Pendulum” by Edgar Allan Poe. There is an eerie feel to the story, one that makes it more unnatural than supernatural. The difference might seem insignificant but it is the fulcrum on which the genius of the story sustains itself.

Going into the narrative details of the story would quite possibly ruin it for prospective readers, because this is not a novel to be read in front of a bonfire on a cold dark night with a circle of friends. This is a story to be read in the quiet comfort of a bed lamp, with nothing more than thoughts for company. Some things are best left to imagination, and The Woman in Black knows exactly how to excite it.

Ashmita Chatterjee

About For a book lover, writer, interestingness hunter and a curious mind at large. We are blurring the lines between reality and fiction.

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