By Joshua Wise
One does not like to write about things only when they are at the very top of the public consciousness. There is something rather mercenary about only bending one’s pen to write about the topic that everyone at that very moment has on their lips. Thus it is with some relief that I can now look around and see that the brief hubbub surrounding The Woman in Black has died down. It was never really much of a hubbub, but it was rather inconvenient. For I found Susan Hill’s amazing book merely three months before the movie appeared; only after encountering the story, did I learn about the film.
The movie did its job, and the actors did theirs. All are to be commended. However, the whole affair rather missed the point of the book, and that’s quite all right. For the movie doesn’t ruin the book, nor pull it from shelves, nor lighten its memory. Instead it stands as something apart, an impression, or an homage to a rather stupendous piece of supernatural fiction.
With all of these formalities now aside, I turn to the work itself, for the book, The Woman in Black, is that rare unlookedfor treat in the Halloween season: A Ghost Story with Theology. Now, let that not scare away the reader who fears proselytizing more than the unquiet dead. For Hill is no preacher. She weaves a tale that rouses its hero, Arthur Kipps, to a wakefulness concerning the kind of world that contains Eel Marsh House. His experiences bring to mind ultimate questions, much as Elwin Ransom’s do. And, like Ransom, he enters a strange world while he is engaged in a bit of philosophy. At one point, he approaches a room that should be terrifying, but he is strangely unafraid:
“I felt that nothing could come near to harm or affright me, but I had a protector and guardian close at hand. And, indeed, perhaps I had, perhaps all I had ever learned and believed in the nursery about unseen heavenly spirits surrounding, upholding and preserving us was indeed true; or perhaps it was only that my memories around by the rocking sound were so positive and so powerfully strong that they overcame and quite drove out all that was sinister and alarming, evil and disturbed.”
Hill balances Arthur Kipps’ wakening to supernatural realities with amazing care, allowing him to admit that they might indeed exist, something his previous life as a mere solicitor in London would not have suggested to him, or that there may be a more earthly explanation for his protection from terror. We must remember that Mr. Kipps is a neophyte to the ways of the supernatural. It does not cross his mind that the two things may indeed be very much related, or even identifiable with each other.
His state of vacillation does not last, and before the end of the book, the rather stunning statement is made by the hero:
“Now, I realized that there were forces for good and those for evil doing battle together and that a man might range himself on one side or another.”
All of this is very good, and we wish to see more of this philosophizing by fictional characters who confront the supernatural. For to meet the truly supernatural would be to put out of joint many of our everyday conventions about what is reasonable and what is most decidedly not reasonable. But these meditations on the common man’s confrontation with the fantastic are not the crowning theological jewel in Susan Hill’s masterful ghost story. Instead, it is a scene involving a dog, a bog, and a man who makes every effort to rescue the little creature. The scene might be read on a prayer retreat, or in a Eucharistic Adoration chapel. It is an expression of Christian Salvation Theology that touches at the heart of the matter better than all but one that I know, also by a Brit, and which also has the benefit of being an illustration, and not technical theology.
The scene in question happens late in the story, and it should not be spoiled here beyond what I have already said. But anyone who has read the book will know it immediately, those who are only initiate through the movie will not have seen it. For though it is a great work of narrative spirituality and theology, the filmmakers did not think it had a place in the movie.
This consideration of the theology in The Woman in Black should not be taken to say that this is what Susan Hill meant, or that this should be the heart of the story for those who read it. Instead, it is a single thread in the well spun ghost yarn. And, lest this theologizing suggest to anyone that it is therefore a friendly or cheerful ghost story, there is one other great theological element we must point out.
For The Woman in Black takes very seriously the darkness, malevolence, and power of evil. Hatred and spite are mighty elemental forces. Some theologians might object from an abstract perspective that evil, being non-entity, is not really ultimately powerful. But here Hill is like Lewis or Milton. Demonic might is great because it is corrupted good. Hatred that was once love is terrible because it retains something of the terrible visage of Love, and Hill does not miss this. Thus the realizations of Mr. Kipps are all the more glorious, for the night he makes them in is so dreadfully dark.
It is always a pleasure to find those books that you can return to, year after year. They often have something in common, something dense and substantial to them. The Woman in Black is one of those books, and this is its proper season.