Oct 27, 2010

The Woman in Black & Love Lies Bleeding

The Woman in Black Love Lies Bleeding

Today I have two fantastic RIP books to tell you about: Susan Hill’s classic ghost story The Woman in Black, and Edmund Crispin’s 1948 mystery Love Lies Bleeding. The two couldn’t be more different, but each in in their own way they were both perfect October reads.

The Woman in Black
opens on Christmas Eve: our narrator, Arthur Kipps, listens to his stepchildren tell ghost stories, and what is to them an innocent and fun game awakens in him some dreadful memories. As a young solicitor, Kipps was once sent to the funeral of one of his firm’s clients, a widow by the name of Mrs Alice Drablow, who lived on her own in the solitary Eel Marsh House. Kipps is requested not only to represent the firm at the funeral, but to sort through Mrs Drablow’s papers, which means that he has to spend some time at Eel Marsh. Bit by bit, he discovers why the townspeople seem to shudder at any mention of the house or its occupants, as well as just who the spectral-looking woman in black he saw at the funeral is, and what exactly happened at the house in the past.

What makes The Woman in Black stand out is most of all its atmosphere. Susan Hill’s writing is extremely evocative, and I know that the mood and the imagery of the story will stay with me for a very long time even, if I forget some of the details of the plot. Take, for example, this wonderful description of a November fog:
Fog was outdoors, hanging over the ricer, creeping in and out of alleyways and passages, swirling thickly between the bare trees of all the parks and gardens of the city, and indoors, too, seething through cracks and crannies like sour breath, gaining a sly entrance at every opening of a door. It was a yellow fog, a filthy, evil-smelling fog, a fog that chocked and blinded, smeared and stained. Groping their way blindly across roads, men and women took their lives in their hands, stumbling along the pavements, they clutched a railings and at one another, for guidance.
Sounds were deadened, shapes blurred. It was a fog that had come the day before, and did not seem inclined to go away and it had, I suppose, the quality of all such fogs – it was menacing and sinister, disguising the familiar world and confusing the people in it, as they were confused by having their eyes covered and being turned about, in a game of Blind Man’s Buff.
The story itself didn’t exactly scare me (and I say this with some regret), but there’s no denying that it is unsettling, especially the chilling coda. I think the reason why it didn’t have more of an impact on me is because in some ways it’s a fairly standard ghost story, in the sense that none of the things that happen were all that difficult to see coming. However, even as I write this I realise how unfair a comment it is, because that was probably not really the case when The Woman in Black was first published. I suspect that this is one of those stories whose popularity has made it become part of our collective set of narrative references, and as a result it no longer feels new even to readers encountering it for the first time. But even so, the superb writing and the tone are still more than enough to make it unique. And anyway, there is such a thing as overrating the immediate thrills provided by the element of surprise – The Woman in Black works in more subtle and ultimately more satisfying ways.

At first I was also slightly disappointed that we only ever get to see the woman in black herself from the outside, but then again, it would be very difficult to make this work as a ghost story if that weren’t the case. My initial disappointment was due to the fact that even when we get to the heart of the mystery that surrounds her, she remains a cipher, and a fairly stereotypical example of the embittered female spectre. But again, this is a somewhat unfair comment: the more I think about the story, the more I realise that even though it doesn’t dwell at length on what motivates this woman’s grief and rage, the chilling power of the story alone is enough to invite readers to think about the social structure that allowed something like this to happen.

I apologise for the vagueness, but spoilers prevent me from saying more. So I’ll wrap this up by saying that The Woman in Black was a very satisfying read, and the more I think about it, the more I like it.

Edmund Crispin’s Love Lies Bleeding is, as I mentioned, a different sort of book altogether: while Hill’s story is atmospheric and unsettling, this is a cosy and humorous sort of book. Love Lies Bleeding is one of Crispin’s Gervase Fen mysteries, which were written just after the end of WW2 (and yes, it was interesting to read a book from the same period Sarah Waters was writing about, and set in the same area too, so shortly after The Little Stranger). This is not the first of Crispin’s Fen mysteries, but it works perfectly as a stand alone and as an introduction to his work. Gervase Fen, by the way, is an Oxford Professor of English who does some amateur sleuthing in his spare time – and this alone should tell you a lot about what to expect from these books. They’re eccentric, slightly academic, a little absurd, and full of references to other literary works.

Love Lies Bleeding is set at Castrevenford, a boy’s boarding school in Warwickshire. As the school is preparing for the Speech Day ceremonies, several strange incidents take place: first, a student from a neighbouring girl’s school begins to act strangely, as if she had seem something that terrified her, which causes the headmistress to confer with the headmaster of Castrevenford. Secondly, someone breaks into a locked cupboard in the chemistry lab and steals and unknown quantity of an unspecified dangerous substance. Thirdly, the aforementioned girl, Brenda, disappears when returning home from school the following day. And finally, two members of the Castrevenford staff turn up dead.

This was a somewhat implausible but nevertheless very enjoyable mystery involving boarding school politics, intrigue, and the works of William Shakespeare. What I enjoyed the most was Crispin’s satirical tone – the humour put me in mind of Milne’s The Red House Mystery – and his tendency for metafictional one-liners.

If I have one complaint, it’s the fact that Crispin makes use of the off-putting suspense-inducing strategy of not letting readers in on secrets the characters already know. And as a consequence of this there’s the fact that there’s a bit of information dumping towards the end, when the whole of the mystery’s solution is exposed at one time rather than being gradually revealed. But considering how much fun I had with this book in general, those are minor complains. I can’t wait to get my hands on Crispin’s The Moving Toyshop.

They read it too:
The Woman in Black: Chasing Bawa, Melody’s Reading Corner, books i done read, A Book Sanctuary, cardigangirlverity, Book Gazing, Nonsuch Book, Savidge Reads, You Can Never Have Too Many Books, Paperback Reader

Love Lies Bleeding: Sadly I couldn’t find any other reviews.

Have I missed yours?


  1. I didn't find The Woman in Black scary either, but what makes it so great is the build up of the atmosphere!

    Love Lies Bleeding sounds intriguing! I'll have to check that out! Thanks for the lovely reviews, Ana!

  2. The Woman in Black didn't scare me as much as I hoped/feared, but I thought it was very chilling and agree with you that she is a master at creating suspense! I've got Crispin's The Moving Toyshop which I've been planning to read for ages but haven't. I've heard lots of good things about it.

  3. You just don't care what you do to my wish list, do you?!! Not one little iota. ;)

    Yep, I did add them both, but I have to say that it's The Woman in Black that *really* has me wanting to hit the book store. That passage you shared...wow. It was so vivid, it even made me a bit queasy. Not that I like being queasy, but that's powerful writing!

  4. Perhaps I simply scare easily but I was scared by The Woman in Black! (I also reviewed it pre-refusing-to-read-anything-ever-again-by-Susan-Hill). I even said at the time that I am relieved I didn't read it during wintry months!

  5. How have I never heard of Gervase Fen before this? He sounds like exactly the kind of sleuth I enjoy in my mysteries, as you know I have a fondness for books set in academia and also love an English mystery! Must find Love Lies Bleeding asap!

  6. I think I should try Susan Hill sometime.

    That second title...well let's just say I've had In My Hands by Fuel in my head since reading the title...not that there's anything against that song! I actually really love that song. But (and this is going to sound really silly) I tend to avoid books that automatically put songs in my head, because it's distracting. Sometimes I read them anyway (like Lost at Sea, which automatically brings to mind Feathery Wings by Voltaire), but it's hard when the atmosphere of the book doesn't match that of the song for me. I'm know, I'm weird.

  7. The Woman in Black does sound rather interesting, and although these types of books never end up scaring me, I like to read them around this time of year. I will have to look into it soon! Halloween is almost here!

    Also, I am not sure if I would like Love Lies Bleeding because I hate it when there is scant information about the mystery all through the text, and then everything is thrown out all at once at the end. It lose interest when that happens.

    I just watched a movie over the weekend called Love Lies Bleeding, but it clearly had nothing to do with the book of the same name. It was all about a couple on the run with a stolen bag of cash.

  8. Both sound great! I love atmospheric ghost stories. :)

  9. Melody, I completely agree. Hill is amazing at atmosphere.

    Sakura: As have I! You'll probably read it before I do, so I look forward to your review to remind me again that I need to pick it up :P

    Debi: You know by now that I don't ;) And yes, the writing really was great! Also, I should warn you that it's quite a sad book, though I can't talk about that aspect of it much without giving the plot away.

    Claire: Oops, somehow I'd missed your review - all fixed now! I don't think it's a bad thing to scare easily! It makes reading these stories all the more fun.

    Steph: You know what, I hadn't heard of Fen either - or Crispin - until the cover of one of the books happened to catch my eye one day. The world needs more Gervase Fen love!

    Amanda: You're not weird! Just unique :P Which isn't in the least a bad thing.

    Zibilee: I think it depends on how you read the Crispin book - it's not very good in a I-want-this-mystery-to-be-guessable sort of way, but if you read it for the humour, the period language and details, and the academic setting, then it's a whole lot of fun.

    Amy: I think you're really like The Woman in Black!

  10. I read and enjoyed The Woman In Black... the creepiest part for me were the sounds down the hall, coming from the nursery. The whole book had fantastic atmosphere! i agree, probably was more impactful when it first came out, but still a great classic ghost story. The movie was okay, sort of disappointing, but kind of fun to watch.

  11. I have just ordered The Small Hand by Susan Hill for the Novella Challenge. I was hoping to hear that The Woman in Black was really scary, as I love nothing better.

  12. I enjoyed Woman in Black when a read it a couple of years ago, but I made the mistake of reading it a little bit at a time over a few days.

    Which meant I missed out a little on that wonderful atmosphere. If I had read it in one go, I'd have been able to completely envelope myself in it!

  13. I was lucky enough to get my hands on several Edmund Crispin books for my collection (I love mysteries written during this time period). So far I've only read one of the Gervase Fen books, but you are right about the humor element. It was very enjoyable. Now I need to find me a copy of Woman in Black! Loved these two reviews, Ana :o)

  14. Both books sound really good and neither one was on my radar. This is unfortunate, as now my ever expanding TBR pile is now two books longer!

  15. I started Susan Hill's Simon Serrauiller stories but only read book 1. I thought it was fantastic, and it really surprised me the choices she made with that book. Maybe I'll read this one for the next RIP challenge.

  16. I really need to dig this book out of my pile. I've been telling myself I need to read this book and that, but the time just never seems to come. I'm doing bit by bit with whatever time I have. Going by the small chunks of time I have. Very slow, but I'll get there eventually. :)

  17. I loved The Woman in Black, if you ever get the opportunity to see the dramatised version in the theatre, make haste to the booking office! It is even creepier than the book.

  18. I must hunt down a copy of Love Lies Bleeding! How have I never heard of Edmund Crispin? Those books sound right up my street! Thanks for the review, Ana :o)

  19. I had good intentions about writing a review of Love Lies Bleeding, but I just didn't have the time :( Your review is perfect though!

  20. Hmm. Oddly, creepy stories, whether books or movies, leave me slightly queasy. Life itself is scary enough!

  21. I just wanted to add something to what you said about The Woman in Black but realised I can't. Spoiler alert. I wrote in my review it is oldfashioned in tone but actually also in other elements.
    Love lies bleeding could be something I would like too. Hadn't heard of it before.

  22. Just wanted to say that your blog is very beautiful. My favourite color, will certainly visit again

  23. Both of these sound like fun reads, but I have to say that the first one sounds better, to me. I'll add it to my wish list.

  24. Daphne: That was a powerful scene for sure, yes. Hill is excellent at building up tension.

    Vivienne: Don't take my word for it, as I'm sure many people would find it scarier than I did! Looking forward to your thoughts on The Small Hand.

    Darren: Reading it in one go is what I did, and I definitely do recommend it!

    Terri B: The humour is a delight, isn't it? I need to read more of them!

    Stephanie: Sorry about that ;)

    Jenners: I hadn't heard of that one before, but will certainly check it out!

    Alice: It's a pretty short read, so you'll get there sooner than you think, you'll see!

    Treez: I'll be on the lookout for performances!

    Boof: I hadn't heard of him either until recently! These books aren't getting the love they deserve :P

    GeraniumCat: You must make it up to us by reviewing the next Crispin book you read :P

    Shelley: Though I enjoy them myself I do agree with that!

    Caroline: Aw, thank you for the kind words! I think I might know what you mean besides the tone, and if I'm right, I do agree.

    Amy: Yes, I think I'd say I enjoyed it a bit more. Both were great, though!

  25. after reading your post, i had a nagging feeling i'd heard of 'the woman in black' so i asked my husband about it.

    it was he who mentioned it to me--while on a trip to london in the 90s, he went with his sister and saw the stage performance of this novel!

    glad you enjoyed these haunting reads--perfect for october. :)

  26. Have you see the TV movie based on The Woman in Black? I wonder if the "scariness" of the story improves in audiovisual :)

  27. Nat: That's so great that he got to see the play! I've heard great things about it.

    Alexandra: I haven't, but I do wonder about that!

  28. Two great reads, I'm sure! I think I need to order something by Susan Hill online if I'm ever to read her works. Not quite sure why my libraries have yet to notice her.

    And I'm glad you loved Crispin, it's everything I'm expecting from his books, but I'm still saving them up (for what I'm not quite sure).

  29. The Woman in Black sounds like it has a bit of a Shirley Jackson feel to it...I say that probably because I just finished reading We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but it seems to drip with atmosphere like Jackson and that is certainly a check in the win column for me!

    As for Love Lies Bleeding, I had never heard of it or it's author before and now I'm super excited to discover them both :D

  30. Woman In Black does sound good, even if it didnt scare you.
    I like the description of the November fog. This past week we had a very heavy fog in the early morning, theres always something so creepy and beautiful about it.


  31. Bina: I can't wait to hear what you make of Crispin! And that's such a pity that your library has no Hill.

    Chris: I prefer Jackson because her writing has more of a mischievous feel to it, but I can see your point about the similarities :)

    Naida: I think I know your taste well by now, and I'm willing to bet you'd love The Woman in Black!

  32. Oooh, I love that description of the fog! Great review :)

  33. Love Lies Bleeding was the first Fen novel by Crispin that I read, but the others I've read are fun, too. The Moving Toyshop is excellent, and Holy Disorders starts out light and farcical in tone, but gets a lot darker.

    I've reviewed Swan Song and Buried for Pleasure on my blog: http://ela21.wordpress.com/2010/01/06/swan-song-buried-for-pleasure-%E2%80%93-edmund-crispin/

    Found your blog through the Literary Omnivore


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.