The Woman in Black, Susan Hill

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I saw The Woman in Black performed by a two man drama group many years ago, and whilst I remembered a lot about the dramatic techniques used etc, I could remember nothing of the story! So when I discovered that The Woman in Black is on my reading list, I was pretty eager to read it to see where that drama had come from. I do feel as if I’ve had to read it quite quickly… partly because the third and final Tearling novel is burning a hole in my bookshelf, and partly because there are so many other curriculum texts to read also sat on my bookcase. But it was good to read this and get a real sense of the original text.

The Premise

After the death of Mrs Alice Drablow, Arthur Kipps heads to Eel Marsh House to sort through her papers and begin to sell her property. He is surprised to discover that the residents of Crythin Gifford are reluctant to even discuss the reclusive deceased and even more surprised when the sole mourner at her funeral disappears without a trace. Arthur tries to hold onto his logical beliefs, but they are slowly eroded by the few, repetitive manifestations that plague his visits to Eel Marsh House. Will they lead to his greatest tragedy, or can he escape the curse of the Woman in Black?

The Verdict

I was surprised at how un-scary this was as a text. From the hype that the Daniel Radcliffe film received, and my vague memories of the play I watched, I would have thought there was a lot more suspense and action. Because ultimately, Arthur survives 3 days before he becomes too afraid to return, and the ultimate death of his family is recorded in an after-note following the main story.

The first person narrative does help to build tension as the use of foreshadowing points to the more sinister aspects of the story, but it didn’t really do much for me in regard to the Daily Express review on the front of my copy… ‘heartstoppingly chilling’.

The story was quite basic, and the writing simplistic. I’m not really sure of the value in studying it in school. That said, for pupils a little more afraid of 20th texts that they are unfamiliar with, perhaps the ease of the reading is a nice introduction for them to unfamiliar reading. The story is intriguing. We’ve been learning about ‘Whooshes’ today in lectures, I can see how I would utilise that technique to revise the story, though I wouldn’t want to ruin the ending of course!

Overall, whilst I was disappointed with the text as a whole, I can actually see the value of teaching it. I think I’ll look into more ways of teaching in online, and reserve my judgement till then.

Definitely a classic, and as a result a must read, I’d recommend this for an easy read and prepare yourself for disappointment!

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Alice, Christina Henry

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I love Alice in Wonderland. I loved ‘After Alice’ by Gregory Maguire. I adore the story and the extent to which it is possible to redesign Carroll’s original world.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so traumatised upon reading a book, and yet there’s a sequel and I’ve ordered it because I’m stubborn like that.

The Plot

Alice is in a mental asylum, next to a man called Hatcher. She is there because she was found covered in blood and weeping, and kept talking about a rabbit. He is there because he murdered 12 people with an axe. An intriguing opening, with a lot of mystery intertwined in. Alice and Hatcher escape the asylum, and begin a journey through the city to defeat the Jabberwock – a magician from the old days trapped when he turned to dark magic. In the meantime, their journey through the filthy underworld of Cheshire, Caterpillar, Walrus and Rabbit is the most horrifying and disgustingly foul thing I have ever read.

Walrus rapes girls and eats them so he can absorb their magic, but he is disappointed every time because the only girl with magic is Alice, who escaped him. Caterpillar keeps girls in a brothel dressed like butterflies, and in the meantime has a mermaid trapped and a woman surgically altered to look like a butterfly in a cage. The woman’s only escape is to beg for death, which Hatcher fulfills. Rabbit sells girls, rapes Alice when she is 16 to ‘break’ her. Cheshire seems a little more stable, but his game playing and cruelty is immeasurable.

I felt sick reading this, but at the same time, gripped by the mystery. Who is Jenny? Will Alice survive? What really happened.

And then of course there was Pipkin; a white bunny made into a giant so that he could fight in cage fights, who Alice can talk to and rescues, and who sets himself up as a protector of all the girls that Alice frees. Pipkin was a moment of light relief.

Henry has created a disturbing and horrific world, one that I only engage with because of the strong and clever interweaving of the original Alice in Wonderland stories. Based in an unnamed city, where the Old City is separated from the New City by soldiers and guards and no intermingling is allowed, Henry does not for a moment pretend that Wonderland exists. Everything is almost believable – the names, the characters. I was most impressed with Cheshire; he was the one character throughout that I felt really stayed true to the original characterisation. He is mysterious, has a great big grin, and helps only when it suits him, and even then his ‘help’ is confusing and misguided.

But nothing can excuse the rape, the murder, the blood, the horror of this story. It has all been so unnecessary. It would have been an intriguing tale without the horror that runs alongside it. But Henry overplays her hand, allowing the blood and gore to overtake the terrifying world that she has created.

Don’t get me wrong; whilst simple, Henry’s writing of place is absolutely fantastic. You can feel the difference between the Old City and the New City. There are no long, intrusive descriptions, but you learn enough about the place through what they witness. Alice and Hatcher’s amnesia both help with that, because they have to run through what is familiar to work out what they know and what they don’t.

Her characterisation is also very impressive. It helps that she is working with a much loved story and well known characters, but the development of love between Alice and Hatcher, the chase for the Rabbit, who you know as evil and are surprised by his physical state when he is found, and the creation of the over lords of the City are all very impressive. Some characters you feel you know before you actually meet them. Others, you get to know along the way. The physical descriptions were lacking a little, but again, because of the nature of the transformation, you can work with what you know about the story beforehand.

I’m just upset and slight disgusted that someone can think it’s okay to write such horror in such a blithe way. I expected a mystery, some uncomfortable-ness, but not a blaise writing of rape. It is almost as if Henry undermines the horror of the experience – rape is not bad enough, so let’s imagine someone eating their victim, or turning them into a human butterfly with broken legs… I can’t get over the imagery. It was foul and horrid.

So whilst the writing was good and the transformation interesting, overall I have hated reading this novel. I can’t help myself, the sequel is already on its way, and as Alice and Hatcher are leaving the city to hunt for Hatcher’s daughter, I hope that some of the horror will dissipate. But it has left a horrid taste in my mouth.