Mystery and Imagination

Stephen Bann

Tales of the supernatural have come a long way over the past two decades. When Fontana published their collections of ‘Great Ghost Stories’ in the early 1960s, it might have seemed as if the genre had become canonical and almost complete. A long and distinguished line led back, through such expert modern practitioners as L.P. Hartley and Walter de la Mare, to the definitive achievements of M.R. James, Stevenson and Le Fanu, and their Gothic predecessors. The ghost story, or original tale of the supernatural, was essentially a short story, delicately crafted to obtain the maximum effect from its metaphysical equivocations. If it did not aspire to the mathematical rigour of Poe, it set great store by the gradual development of an exquisite suspense, preparing the reader for the decisive point at which the balance of belief and disbelief could be tipped – ever so slightly – in favour of the impossible fictional world. What has happened since the 1960s is that the true ghost story has been overhauled by its bastard brother, the horror story. Discreet, poetic effects have been replaced by grand guignol, polite complicity with the reader by a sadistic desire to shock at all costs; in place of the short story, there is the gross and overblown novel which strains its every sinew to the state of commercial apotheosis which is awaiting it upon the cinema screen.

Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black and William Peter Blatty’s Legion (‘The sequel to The Exorcist’) very neatly illustrate this parting of the ways. If Susan Hill’s ‘ghost story’ is not a pastiche, it is undoubtedly an essay in recreating the almost exhausted genre. We are back in that indefinable period when English society could still be epitomised in terms of Christmas parties around the fire in the Drawing Room, journeys through the fog in steam locomotives, and excursions with a pony and trap across a deserted marsh. As we are told at one point of ‘the sort of spot where, a hundred years or more earlier, romantically-minded poets would have lingered and been inspired to compose some cloyingly sad verse’, we can make a guess at circa 1910. The fact that our hero only aspires to a half-bottle of claret with his ‘home-made broth, sirloin of beef, apple and raisin tart with cream, and some Stilton cheese’, suggests a Wellsian decorum rather than a Dickensian extravagance.

Against this reassuring decor, Susan Hill manages her gradual escalation of uncanny effects. The drama is never over-pitched: a ‘sound like a regular yet intermittent bump or rumble’ is about as much as we get for the first intimation of unearthly goings-on in the isolated Eel Marsh House, and it is in describing the narrator’s complicated reactions to this stimulus that she attains her most authentic tone of eloquence:

I do not know how long I stood there in fear and trembling and in dreadful bewilderment. I lost all sense of time and ordinary reality. Through my head went a tumbling confusion of half-thoughts and emotions, visions of spectres and of real fleshy intruders, ideas of murder and violence, and all manner of odd, distorted fears. And, all the time, the door stood wide open and the rocking continued. Rocking. Yes. I came to, because I had realised at last what the noise within the room was – or at least, what it reminded me of closely. It was the sound of the wooden runners of my nurse’s rocking chair, when she had sat beside me every night while I went to sleep, as a small child, rocking, rocking.

Such fine points, in which the familiar flips over into the unfamiliar (and vice versa), recur throughout The Woman in Black, and impel us to disregard its flavour of mild archaism. Susan Hill has carefully managed the sequence of chapters, giving to each a structure, and a title, which suggest a succession of self-contained episodes, several of them being individual ‘ghost stories’ in their own right. (It must however be said that the greatest mystery of all, which survives the end of the novel, is that the chapter with a reminiscent title, ‘Whistle and I’ll come to you’, is about discovering a packet of letters, while the previous chapter, ‘A Packet of Letters’, is about a dog being summoned by a ghostly whistle. Has M.R. James been tinkering around from beyond the grave?) A final credit should be given to the admirable illustrations by John Lawrence, which themselves suggest the interesting precedent of Brisley Le Fanu’s wash drawings to accompany Sheridan’s tales. In giving us an additional, visual register against which to check the ambiguities and intimations of the narrative, the illustrator is not just offering a decorative border: he is contributing to an integral experience of reading, in which the disparity between text and image is subsumed in the reader’s pleasurable exploration of states of credulity and disbelief. We look at the picture to be sure of what is going on. But, of course, the picture returns us perpetually to the text.

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[*] The Stories of Frank Sargeson, Penguin, 358 pp., £2.95, 25 November 1982, 0 1400 6068 5.