When I was a kid, nothing said ‘spooky story’ to me like an old, creaking Victorian house on the misty moors with a veiled woman and a mouldering graveyard. I’ve met people that swear by Camp Crystal Lake and others that don Freddy’s classic bladed gloves or put on the Ghostface mask from the Scream series. I’ve seen all of those movies and all of their iterations. But nothing really gives me that feeling of decay, destruction, and ghostliness like stories, films, and books that have Victorian settings.
Then again, I do favour the Victorian aesthetic when it comes to decorating, wallpaper, and paint colours as well. There’s nothing I find more comforting in a space than a cozy amount of clutter — preferably books. It’s not everyone’s favourite. There are several relatives that I know have told us we have a lot of stuff sitting everywhere or that we have a lot of artwork and walls that are too covered with it. But it’s a style that’s very us and it’s not one that I plan on letting go of anytime soon.
A Classic Narrative Done Well
I’ll start of by saying that the setting of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black isn’t quite Victorian. I would instead call it early Edwardian. However, it does contain elements to the narrative and atmosphere that I would firmly place in the Victorian era. The story is a simple one, involving a ghost who has lost a child and is now a wrathful spirit set on vengeance.
Simplicity can be a beautiful thing and is so in the hands of Hill’s classic novel. She uses the easily grasped story to highlight the atmosphere she creates and the eeriness that becomes utterly pervasive as the narrative progresses. The Woman in Black is a perfect spooky season read that you can finish in the course of one dark and stormy evening.
It’s All About the Atmosphere
It’s partly the atmosphere that makes this book so special and so spooky. It might seem like a simple thing, but creating an environment, setting, and atmosphere for a story to take place in is a complex process. There are writes, there are re-writes, there are brain-storming sessions in scribbles on notepaper, and there are multiple drafts that make their way to the bin due to problems with this very element. It can literally make or break a story.
It’s not just a matter of describing humidity or an old house. You have to make the reader feel the dampness in the air and the decay all around them. It’s about a feeling and putting the reader in the moment with the narrative. It’s also about timing and language. Hill is a master of knowing just when and how to describe a door suddenly creaking open for maximum effect. She also knows just when to throw in a shadow or a presence or a subtle feeling in an empty room using just the right word in a sentence that is just the right length.
This is one of those books that, as a writer, I love to read because the mechanics of it are so skillfully worked and so painstakingly applied that it leaves you wanting to work on your own writing skills. Because no matter how polished you think your latest work is, there’s always a voice in the back of your head wanting to polish it further and really make it shine.
The Woman in Black has a story that is straightforward, as I have said in the paragraphs above, but it’s a story that the reader is expected to construct out of events and evidence they encounter in the narrative. The plot is there, but it’s hidden under a veil, light enough that you can clearly see it but it doesn’t stand out starkly and clearly until the narrative reaches its end.
It’s a difficult technique to pull off, but when it does work, it works very, very well. The Woman in Black uses it to envelop the events of the story in a cloud of whispering superstition and conjecture that only adds to the mysterious and gloomy atmosphere of the narrative.
It’s A Bit Different This Year
In most places, Halloween is going to proceed a little bit differently this year. My lovely spouse loves Halloween, so it was saddening to realize that some of our favourite traditions wouldn’t be possible this year. But I think that it gives us a unique opportunity to think about just what Halloween means to us and what traditions we have that we can still enjoy.
There are still spooky movies, and spooky books, and Halloween specials on TV. There can still be costumes and photos of cats in spooky hats. We have each other and we have the joy of the turning of the seasons and a time to celebrate folklore and legends about all of the things that go bump in the night.
There’s also the knowledge that, though things might be different for a while, those traditions won’t be gone forever. So, whatever your Halloween looks like, be sure to stay safe, and stay healthy, and above all have a happy Halloween!
For now, look for a special extra feature on October 31st as well as a review of the last spooky book for the season on October 26th!