Our columnist gives a more sombre spin to this day that celebrates mothers with this question: Do you cease to be a mother when your only child dies?
I recently re-read Susan Hill’s The Woman In Black and wished I could go watch the stage play again in London.
I’ve been four times already and been scared witless each time.
If you haven’t read the book, or seen the movie or stage play, this column contains spoilers so stop reading now if you mind them.
I love ghost stories and The Woman In Black is one of the best, and the very kind I especially enjoy.
It’s a subtle tale that develops slowly, the tension – created by the narrative and our own expectations of evil – building bit by bit, the screw tightening and loosening, then tightening again up to its shattering, screeching climax.
The setting is quiet and remote, quite beautiful: a market town on the edge of the marshes, and lonely Eel Marsh House, accessible only via a causeway and cut off during high tide. The descriptions are stark, blunt – effective in conjuring cold winds and a bleak landscape. There is a feeling of vast emptiness, room for your mind to wander and your imagination to take terrifying leaps into the unspeakable unknown.
Arthur Kipps is a young solicitor sent to attend the funeral of Alice Drablow, owner of the house, and to sort out her private documents. He notices that the people from the village react oddly when Mrs Drablow’s name is mentioned. Then, at the funeral in the graveyard, he notices a young woman with a pale, wasted face: the Woman In Black.
Arthur discovers later that this woman is the ghost of Jennet Humfrye, Alice Drablow’s sister. Jennet had had a child out of wedlock and Mrs Drablow adopted the boy and eventually allowed Jennet access to him on condition that she did not reveal that she was his real mother. However, Jennet and her son grew close and she planned to take him away.
Before she could manage it, though, the boy drowned in an accident out on the marshes. After she died, Jennet’s ghost began to haunt Eel Marsh House and the market town, and whenever she is seen, a child would soon die, often violently.
The book ends with Arthur, his wife Stella, and their baby son enjoying an afternoon out in a park. While Stella and the baby son are riding in a pony and trap, Arthur sees the Woman In Black. The ghost steps in front of the pony, causing it to bolt. The resulting accident kills the baby and injures Stella who also dies three months later.
In the film of the book (the 2012 version starring Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe as Arthur), the ending is modified to offer the viewer some hope and comfort. The book leaves you wondering if Jennet Humfrye’s anger and grief will ever be assuaged, or if she will simply continue to feed it with more hatred and more misery.
In the first chapter, Arthur is an elderly man, spending Christmas with family. After dinner, ghost stories are told by the fire and Arthur observes that the children’s tales are “ghoulish, lurid inventions” – what The Woman In Black is most certainly not. In Arthur’s words: “Nothing so blood-curdling and becreepered and crude…. The truth is quite other, and altogether more terrible.”