The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
Published by: Vintage
Publication Date: 1983
Format: Paperback, 164 Pages
Rating: ★★ To Buy
Arthur Kipps could easily contribute to his family's tradition of ghost stories on Christmas Eve... only his ghost story is so dark and so disturbing he dare not utter it. After the holidays he decides he will commit it to paper so that it is recorded, exorcised from his life. A life that was destroyed by him going to Crythin Gifford to deal with the estate of Mrs. Alice Drablow. As a young solicitor he was excited at the opportunity this job gave him to prove his worth. He planned to spend a few days sorting out the elderly widow's papers and return to London and his fiance. Though the townspeople seemed reluctant to endorse his staying out at Eel Marsh House by himself. Arthur thought it was because of the Nine Lives Causeway which would cut him off from the mainland during high tide... but the seclusion wasn't the only reason. The main reason is a woman in black Arthur saw at Mrs. Drablow's funeral. A woman whose appearance presages something which the villagers dare not discuss. Despite vocal opposition Arthur ensconces himself at Eel Marsh House and is subjected to many supernatural apparitions, terrifying noises coming from the causeway, as well as many revelations. He learns who the woman in black is and what she wants, and what she will take from him... though, even in death, it looks like she will forever be unsatisfied.
I remember when the Daniel Radcliffe adaptation of this book arrived in cinemas, everyone who saw it kept insisting that it didn't capture the book. How The Woman in Black was a classic of Gothic storytelling and the stage adaptation was brilliant, but how I should avoid the movie and just go to the source. Of course I did both. I picked up the book at Barnes and Noble and then I eventually got around to watching the movie. Oddly for me I actually decided to watch the movie first and was unimpressed and confused. The sequel, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, which had almost nothing to do with the book or the adaptation, might actually be my favorite among the three. As for the book, I don't know if it's because people were building it up to me or if it's just that horror films and other Gothic stories have gone so far beyond what Hill did here in the early eighties that it fell flat. The worst person though in building up this story is Hill herself. She set herself up for a fall with all the allusions to this story being too terrifying for Christmas Eve, and that it really shouldn't be uttered. I'm sorry, but if your narrator is telling a story about his past right there almost all jeopardy is gone. He's alive at the end. He survives into old age. He's never in real danger, so why is this story so scary if he makes it out alive?
But Hill keeps insisting on the danger... and with each insistence, with each demurral from daring to tell the tale she comes across as smug and overly pleased with herself. Oh Arthur was so damaged he never recovered... yet here he is with his new family surrounded by love and light at Christmas! So Hill thinks she's SO clever trying to break all the tropes? Others have broken the tropes and FAR better. She thinks the beauty of nature and the surrounding country makes it not your typical ghost story? I think that Mary Shelley kind of blasted apart the setting trope with her Gothic classic. Breaking with genre locals and connecting with nature... sorry to say but a pretty place doesn't a book make. The question of who is really the baby's mother? Um, yeah, it's not like this is anything original. Especially in Gothic literature! As for the townsfolk who don't trust outsiders and close ranks? Seriously, you think this was groundbreaking? In fact, this is also to everyone who recommended this book to me. Seriously? And no, you're not allowed to use the excuse that she did it first, because 1983 isn't that long ago and many many people did it better first. I just couldn't shake this feeling of Hill thinking she was superior throughout the book and this continually alienated me.
The narrative just didn't sit right with me. But then again this could all be Arthur's fault. Arthur isn't a good lead. Skipping over his dramatics about even wanting to tell his story, let's just go with him being a whiny little pretentious bitch. He views this job as a real feather in his cap. Oh, he'll just do this job so well that he'll get a huge promotion enabling him to marry his fiance sooner and well, his boss will just love him and never want to let him go, just throwing money at him for simply doing his job. I could say that this was Hill showing the naivety of youth that will be jaded by experience... but the fact is I wanted to smack him so bad that I couldn't relate to him on any level. Plus he's like manic depressive or something, split personality perhaps? Because during the days at Eel Marsh House nothing bothers him, he's all rainbows and puppies and oh, that noise was nothing, look at the beautiful view out these glorious windows, and the night falls and he's running around like a chicken with his head cut off screaming about the noises on the causeway. Maybe Jekyll and Hyde is a more apt way of describing Arthur. Yes, things can get scary at night, in the dark, but having him so blithely swan through the day talking about how lovely everything is? He's in serious denial and needs help. But it's not coming from me.
What does "help" Arthur is that lovely trope of the fever that puts him abed. Suffered by any overactive man who just collapses from strain. I kind of wonder if this is a trope that women writers use to just poke fun at men who have been claiming that women are weaker and prone to fainting... because whenever I've seen this trope used so heavy-handedly it's always been from the pen of a female author. Like they're saying, "we'll show you a wilted flower!" Which amuses me to no end. But then again Conan Doyle even used this trope in a Sherlock Holmes story... so maybe it was really a thing. And I have to say, if this is a real thing, how can I get in on this action? Because I'd seriously like a month off to just lay in bed and read. Because I don't want to take it to the extreme of delirium, but just a slight wasting problem that needed bed rest. Can you seriously, in this day and age, imagine someone saying that they are convalescing for the foreseeable future do to nerves? Everything is so diagnosable now this isn't something that can be believable in novels written in present times about the past. We know better now and so this trope too must pass.
The Woman in Black was actually in a perilous position. Until the last few pages it was about to receive the dreaded one star rating and then it surprisingly redeemed itself, just a little. If you don't know the motives of the woman in black, Mrs. Drablow's sister, now is the time to get a fever and take to your bed. OK, so I assume now if you're still reading you either already know or don't care to be spoiled that the woman in blacks appearance heralds the death of a child, which is why the villagers never wanted to talk about it, because it might be their child next. So Arthur figures this all out we and think he's getting his happily ever after, he gets married, has a child, but turns out, things aren't so resolved. Because the woman in black, she is a ghost that is unrepentantly evil. She is not able to be "put to rest" or "exorcised" and THIS is the selling point of the book. There is no happy resolution. Arthur loses his wife and child to the woman in black because she is pure evil. This is rare in ghost stories, I can only think of a few, usually Japanese in base, where there is no tidy resolution, evil wins. Yes, you could say that Henry James did this with The Turn of the Screw, but he didn't do it effectively. Here there is no doubt that evil wins. And I like that. It's spelled out cleanly and clearly, like the vengeful ghost in The Ring. So if you stick with it, there's this lovely light at the end of the tunnel. Sure it's actually a train, but it brings you some satisfaction.
Angelica by Arthur Phillips
Published by: Penguin Books
Publication Date: April 3rd, 2007
Format: Paperback, 331 Pages
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)
The Barton household is about to be violently upset. Whether it's of a supernatural nature or a more prosaic nature is dependent on who you are listening to. The simple facts are these. Constance Barton and her husband Joseph had a hard time having a child. Two painful miscarriages and finally Angelica was born. In an attempt to thwart her husband's sexual advantages Angelica has been living in their bedroom for four years. Constance couldn't handle more disappointments and Angelica is enough for her. Angelica is her everything. But things are changing and Joseph finally imposes his will, which is a rare occurrence, and Angelica is removed to her nursery and the master bedroom is once more home to the martial bed. That is when the trouble starts. Constance views it as a haunting. There are smells and spectres and while Joseph points out that it could all be due to her high strung nature, she is convinced something more is at play; and is Angelica playing along? Could the child actually be scared or is she feeding off her mother's emotions? When Joseph claims his martial rights with Constance the spectre takes on physical form and something must be done. The maid Nora has heard of a spiritualist who specializes in cleansing houses, Anne Montague, a failed actress who is supplementing her income via overwrought housewives. But Anne sees something in the Barton household to change her mind about her "calling" and helps Constance. As for Joseph, he is easily taken care of... and as for Angelica? It turns out this is her story in more ways than one.
If you're looking for a book strewn with contradictory stories and lack of resolution, than this here is the book for you! If instead you're looking for a psychological thriller that has supernatural elements, then I'd suggest you walk away. Or at the very least only read Constance's viewpoint, because the only thing going for this book was, aside from Phillips's ability to capture the language of the time period heavily reminiscent of Lewis Carroll, the first section with it's paranormal activities. Because this book isn't about the supernatural it's about unreliable narrators and the fallibility of memory and how each and every person sees the world differently. Which is all fine and good, it's just not the book I thought I was signing up to read and therefore I was a very dissatisfied reader. But more on my complete dissatisfaction later, with spoilers aplenty, so you've been warned. The problem with having four distinct perspectives is that they will never agree, add to this that Angelica is technically the vehicle for the other three narrators, and it's a jumbled mess. Yes, it's interesting to see the different interpretations of the same events, but overall it needed some grounding. There needed to be some character that you could connect to over the others, someone needed to be a little more believable so that you could take that away as what you believe is the truth. Instead, by not having this element the inconclusive ending makes for dissatisfied reading.
Seeing the story in order from the POVs of Constance, Anne, Joseph, and finally Angelica, who we've really been hearing from all along because this is her therapy session, Phillips seemed to want to discount the previous POV. Yes, everyone sees the world in their own unique way, but he seems determined to lessen the book in each section by paving over what came before and making it unbelievable. Therefore instead of being able to pick apart the POVs and find some thread of truth, we have each subsequent narrator totally disproving what came before. With Constance it's a ghost, but then Anne comes along and it's not a ghost it's sexual abuse, though she still lets Constance think it's a ghost. Then along comes Joseph and it's not sexual abuse it's that women be crazy yo. As for Angelica... she confirms nor denies any of these stories. So all is plausible. Say what!?! All is true and nothing is true? I know you can mimic the writing of Carroll, but please, no. Phillips you are no Carroll when it comes to nonsense and riddles. Unreliable narrators are really popular at the moment from Gone Girl to The Girl on the Train, heck this book technically has the ever popular "girl" in the title with Angelica's name, but these books succeed, and I really can't believe I'm saying there's something successful in Gone Girl, but they succeed because you get closure, not some supposedly deep yet ultimately aggravating non-ending.
But then again, this is a book that basically writes itself off in the end. In fact, rarely have I hated a book so much in it's last few sentences that I grew to despise it and wanted to throw it more than anything."Flames, on the side of my face, breathing-breathl- heaving breaths. Heaving breaths... Heathing..." So let's break down that ending. At the conclusion of the book Angelica, the gimmicky narrator/manipulative bitch we've been hearing from tells her therapist to just ignore everything she's said, he will never understand her and he should just bring on the next "pretty hysteric." Now I've had long talks with one of my friends over this abrupt ending, seeing as we read this book for book club. Her conclusion, in as simplified a manner as I can make it, is that Angelica realizes that the therapist will never understand her, a complex modern woman, and the slight is to the therapist. Whereas I think it's the exact opposite. I think it's the author not bothering to understand women but just flipping them off at the end. They're women, they aren't worth figuring out because this wasn't Angelica's story it was Joseph's story all along. And why do I think this? Because Phillips, while writing so much about women here can't help that he is a male and as evidenced strongly in Joseph's section all his sympathies are with the male of the species so he's just writing from his entitled white male POV. Yeah, so let's throw this book out a window shall we?
Going back to Joseph's section, not only does it discount everything that Constance and Anne have said, it makes Joseph this tragic figure who isn't understood at work or at home and he just has no friends and blah blah blah blah. I'm sorry your wife doesn't want to sleep with you, could it be because there is no birth control and she doesn't want to almost die having a stillborn child again? Every aspect of Constance's life is put under the microscope, every thing she does, says, feels, is up for debate, whereas Joseph, well, it's just poor Joseph don't pick on him, he's having a bad day, so let's let him be. Why not scrutinize Joseph? Put him under the harsh lights he uses in experimenting on animals, a job that is noble and not at all amoral! The true theme of this book isn't about memory and differing POVs, in Joseph's section we see Phillips's true motive, everything comes down to "poor men." Because obviously, like the recent Portlandia sketch, men have been pushed aside and marginalized too long. All women want from them is to trick them into marriage so they can have babies. Yeah, that's right. This very modern and topical view that women are out there to trick men into baby making is thrust into this Victorian period piece. I just kept thinking, yes, things are cyclical and men could have felt that way then, but more I kept thinking, is the author's girlfriend trying to get him to put a ring on it and a bun in the oven?
So as you can imagine by this point, I'd sworn off the book. Whatever good had happened with Constance and Anne, all was washed away by the modern hypocrisy just screaming at me from these pages that made up Joseph's section. Was there hope that Angelica could redeem the book? As you've read already. No. There wasn't. In fact Angelica's section is so slight it barely deserves a mention, except for one point; Constance and Anne hooking up. This is an issue I have with many male authors, they think that women will just randomly be lesbians if it suits the needs of the men. George R. R. Martin might be the worst, but can't they get that people are born who they are and that's that? You can see why Constance and Anne might be drawn to each other, Constance hasn't fared well at the hands of men, especially in regard to reproduction, and Anne is a wonderful protector and provider. But like the male entitlement that just oozed off the pages earlier, this just seems to be another nail in the coffin of women as manipulators. They got the child they wanted, killed Joseph, and now can live happily ever after. Or you could look at it as Constance doesn't like Joseph or his attentions so therefore she must be gay. In other words, everything in this book is seen through male entitlement glasses, I wouldn't say they're rose colored, they're more shit colored, because what makes you think that it's OK to think like this? Women are people too. I know many men are trying to change this, and reading a book that thinks that way... it just enrages me.
Seconds by Bryan Lee O'Malley
Published by: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: July 15th, 2014
Format: Hardcover, 336 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★ To Buy
Four years ago Katie started a restaurant with her friends. Since then they have all moved on. Seconds feels like Katie's past now. Her future is a new restaurant, Katie's (she can live without the snarky commentary on the vanity of this name), that she will actually be part owner in versus just their culinary genius. Yet as the new restaurant is taking longer and longer to become a reality and she's still a presence at Seconds she feels frustrated being trapped between the life she's outgrown and the life she has yet to live. Then one night there's an accident at Seconds and one of the waitresses, Hazel, gets injured. Katie feels guilty and that night in a dreamlike state she finds a box with a mushroom, a notebook, and a card saying "A SECOND CHANCE AWAITS. 1. Write your mistake 2. Ingest one mushroom 3. Go to sleep 4. Wake anew."
Katie follows the instructions and awakes in the morning to find that Hazel's accident never happened. Confused Katie befriends Hazel and learns that perhaps Seconds has a House Spirit, a being protecting their restaurant and willing to help Katie fix Hazel's accident. This is well and good, as long as the house spirit is happy then Seconds is happy. Only Katie happens to find more mushrooms... what was to be a one time gift of the House Spirit is used by Katie to start fixing all the problems she feels are plaguing her life. The House Spirit tries to stop her, but things start to spiral out of control the more Katie tries to fix her life. Perhaps it would have been better if she had never started on this path, but it's too late to stop now.
Bryan Lee O'Malley has this surreal dreamlike quality to his stories that make you feel that you might be inhabiting the world of a video game or some other leftover hiding place from your childhood. He connects with my generation so well because he taps into our cultural zeitgeist of angst and nostalgia, where a heroine with the hair of Sonic the Hedgehog isn't just cool, but that we embrace her. The meta narrative technique of having Katie snarkily comment on what the omniscient narrator is saying feeds into the my sarcastic and disillusioned generation that isn't quite generation X or Y, being forgotten by the roadside when they started having a need to generationally label us.
But what I connected to so much is this idea of seconds, of a do-over. People of my age are still in a time of flux, they are on a path but they aren't sure it's the right one, they don't know if this will be their life. They keep waiting for their life to start not realizing that while you're waiting it's actually happening, you are missing your life because of the illusory belief that someone will tell you when it's actually begun. I know I keep hoping that instead of being forced to grow up that there will miraculously appear an easy way out, a way to pave the path in front of me and save me blood, sweat, and tears. Their might be some truth in the thought that my generation feels entitled to a life of ease, a life that helps and doesn't hider your path, that we would be willing to take whatever might ease our journey, but I think this is more rooted in the fear we all have of growing up.
And isn't the childlike dream that still lives in us the idea that whatever goes wrong it will be fixed for us? Here it might be a magic mushroom, but in our past it was our parents. Who wouldn't want a chance at a do-over? A chance to tweak one thing in our lives? A chance to take a different path? It's not surprising that Katie falls into the bad habit of re-writing what she didn't want to happen. If you had a bucket full of mushrooms and no apparent consequences, wouldn't you jump at a second chance? It's the final realization that their is no easy way out, their is no shortcut, no warps, no way to get through life then by living it that is the final step in growing up. Katie might have needed a little more of a push to learn this, but haven't we all at some time?
What I feel elevates this book beyond the angst and eighties nostalgia of Bryan Lee O'Malley's previous works is the, not mystical, but the folkloric side to the story. The House Spirit, or Household Deity of Lis, grounds the story in the realm of fairy tales versus 8-bit console entertainment. This makes Seconds feel more of a fable, a coming of age tale then Bryan's previous ventures. Even the Brothers Grimm wrote about these family guardians, these protectors of home and hearth.
In fact, the more I think about it, growing up is not just about leaving childish ideas behind and knowing that their is no easy answer, but in finding your place in the word, finding where you belong, finding your home. While some might just write off a graphic novel as cartoons, which is the biggest mistake I think anyone could make, I at least implore you to look beyond the girl with the Sonic the Hedgehog hair on the cover and read between the covers to find a magical coming of age story full of wit, wonder, and life lessons that all of us could be reminded of.