Saturday, 14 April 2012

Susan Hill - writing The Woman in Black...

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
I set out to write a ghost story in the classic 19th-century tradition'

Susan Hill
Friday 17 February 2012

When I am emailed by pupils studying The Woman in Black for GCSE and A-level, many refer to it as "gothic", and indeed it forms part of a university course in gothic literature. But although the book has something in common with the pure gothic fiction of the 18th and 19th centuries, it is really only a distant cousin of the genre. It is a ghost story – not a horror story, not a thriller – and not a gothic novel; although the terms are often used very loosely, they are not by any means the same thing.

I set out to write a ghost story in the classic 19th-century tradition, a full-length one. There have never been many, writers perhaps having felt the form would not stretch successfully. By the time I began mine, in the 1980s, full-length ghost stories seemed to have died out altogether. I read and studied the Jameses, Henry and MR, and Dickens, and I also had beside me the "bible" – Night Visitors by Julia Briggs (still the best study of the form).

The list of ingredients included atmosphere, a ghost, a haunted house and other places, and weather. A footnote to "ghost" was a) of a human being; and b) with a purpose. There are dozens of little books of "true" ghost stories, usually sorted by geographical location, but almost without exception the ghosts have no purpose and so the stories are ultimately unsatisfying. A headless horseman rides by, a phantom coach clatters down a dark road, a veiled lady drifts up a staircase and through a wall, a pale and misty child's face is glimpsed at a window – and that is all. The ghosts are there and they apparently go through the same motions again and again. It is ultimately uninteresting. There has to be more to fiction than that. There also has to be more than an easy manipulation of the reader's superficial emotions – unless making someone jump out of their skin is the writer's only aim. Not that trying to induce a delicious thrill of fear is bad – it is another form of entertainment, and what is wrong with being an entertainer? Dickens certainly considered himself to be one.

I knew my ghost story, like all my fiction, had to have a serious point and it was this that must sustain the length and underpin the sense of place, the creation of atmosphere and the events. But moral points come out of character, and I kept asking myself the question: "Why does a ghost return to this life?" Perhaps to give information that they have withheld in life – the whereabouts of a will, say, or the identity of a murderer, or to warn. But my ghost returns to exact revenge and it is the nature of revenge that it is never satisfied; and so, loss and grief lead the woman in black on, trying to exact revenge for her child's accidental death by causing those of others. She cannot let go, and her revenge is an evil that continues to be visited on Crythin Gifford. The grief and craving for revenge must be released or she cannot find resolution and peace on either side of the grave. So here was my central character. Why a "woman in black"? I must have had Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White in mind but it was more than 25 years since I had read his novel. Otherwise, I have no clear idea where she came from.

Thomas Hardy believed that places are as important as people in fiction, because people are formed by the landscapes in which they are born and bred, though that is probably less true now than it was in his day, when, especially in rural areas, they tended to remain rooted in one place. But a harsh climate and a hard landscape toughen people. A low-lying, dank place tends to be lowering to the spirits, and we all know that constant wind drives people mad. I think the pathetic fallacy is less fallacious than is often supposed.

I don't know where the plot of the book came from, partly because I never do know, partly because it is too long ago. But I remember one thing. In the early 1970s I worked by the sea, behind which were the marshes. Walking there at dusk, the light making the dykes gleam and the low wind rattle the reeds, was when I began to think seriously about ghosts.

It seemed natural to adopt a rather formal style and that came along with the point of view. I had to write in the first person. The narrator, Arthur Kipps, is the living key to the book, just as the woman in black is the dead one.

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