That Woman In Black: Susan Hill — a Gothic Writer for the Canon


It’s time we got one thing straight: what all seminal writers of what should become our Horror canon have in common is this – whatever they write, from wherever they come, however long they are with us, their stories shape the genre in some important and unforgettable way.

Yet at this moment in our history, we have apparently “decided” that along with writers who also write in other genres, the ones we should ignore are the ones who “reject” our genre or who write limited works in our genre.

This is stupid and a horrible, intentional oversight.

We can excuse Literary Critics who embrace their favorites based on their academic interpretations and understanding of not only what makes Literary writing great, but what qualifying mechanics they also prefer to see in their own love of Horror. But in truth, for the rest of us what truly belongs in our canon are works that drive the evolution of our genre, stories that beget stories and ever newer interpretations of Horror, tales that reinvent established subgenres so that modern times can participate in the traditions of the genre.

Yet this is not what is happening. There are certain authors whose names seem “forcibly” and reluctantly mentioned when the Establishment is pressed to supply qualifying names for our as-yet-established canon…and Susan Hill is just such a writer.

H1

It’s All About the Writing, Right?

Susan Hill was born in Scarborough, England, February 5, 1942, educated at a convent school, a graduate of King’s College, London. Her first novel was published while in school in 1961, and she was a freelance journalist from 1963-1968, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1972. She has been described as a “prolific writer of numerous novels, collections of short stories, non-fiction and children’s fiction as well as a respected reviewer, critic, broadcaster and editor.” (British). In 1975 she married Shakespearean actor Stanley Wells, leaving him in 2013 to move in with her current partner… “The unexpected happened to me: I fell in love with another woman who fell in love with me.” The woman is screenwriter and producer Barbara Machin, creator of Waking the Dead, for whom Hill left her husband of almost 40 years, the respected Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells….” (Kean)

Why Hill appears to be so easily dismissed by the genre seems to have an unnecessarily complicated motivation – one that may have more to do with her rejection of us…because she has indeed repeatedly tried to distance herself and her works from the Horror genre.

The question I have, is did we at any time encourage her or writers like her to just go away?

Have we gotten so arrogant in our Establishment that we banish works from writers who want nothing to do with us and do we ever ask why? When a writer recoils when called a Horror writer, should we be offended or take a much harder look at the type of works we are allowing the genre to be represented by? Furthermore, shouldn’t our Establishment be taking that very opportunity to educate both writers and readers about the true nature of our genre’s historic meanderings through so many genres, its influence on and from so many genres – and its very impressive depth?

But we also have to ask if there is something even more insidious at work here. Is our Establishment choosing and excluding writers also based not only on written content, but perhaps their own personal lives? Are we miscommunicating and even limiting the genre by our inherent “favoritisms”? And are those favorites more likely to be at least white, preferably married men, preferably within a certain agnostic or atheistic circle? Are we playing conformity games with presumed moral authority?

Is it a coincidence that Susan Hill is yet another writer in our genre who is living a nontraditional lifestyle? Whose private life is public knowledge? Who might be lesbian or bisexual or any other label so easily affixed?

We need to be asking and answering these questions. And this is not the job of the Literary Critic, but the job of those of us who collectively make up the genre. This may mean it is time for editors to explain their selections, for governing bodies to explain their rejections, and for fans to demand access to the best writers in our genre regardless of sexual orientation, lifestyle choices, or even “home” genres…

Without pressure from the Horror base, we are going to see increasingly institutionalized discrimination against new and old writers in the genre. We are going to see publication choices made that will have a chilling effect on the future trajectory and evolution of the genre. We need variety of story and voice, not censorship. And Susan Hill’s modern journey in the genre is a perfect example of what happens to writers who fall “outside” the lines… Because those other questions remain: do you know who Susan Hill is? Do you know her work? If not, why not?

Is our collective silence in the face of Susan Hill’s subsequent rejection of the genre the only reason we tend to reluctantly “mention” Susan Hill when we are talking about modern canon-elect authors? Did her rejection of us happen because she dislikes what Horror the genre is being interpreted to represent, or because she in her personal life didn’t fit the desired stereotype? And has anyone at all got a really legitimate reason why Susan Hill is never really mentioned as a foundational author in our genre?

We as a genre have begun to put out certain “vibes” that only passionate followers willing to conform to historic whim and dedicated acolytes willing reinforce emotionally-driven criteria need apply, and that everyone else who might reject or refuse to “toe the party line” will be summarily excluded. We have given the Cold Shoulder to quite a few writers and their works in our rush to enshrine Lovecraft and Poe… writers like Susan Hill, author of many well-known, well-respected ghost stories such as The Woman in Black and The Mist in the Mirror…Does this bother anyone else out there? Does it bother anyone else that “certain” writers are given honorable mention in the most reluctant of ways – even when the general public can see a relevant contribution when it is made?

We have spent so much time in the genre clamoring for Literary writers… and Susan Hill is exactly that. Yet once again, despite the raw obviousness of her ghost stories being Horror stories, we have shrugged her off. We have come to pretend that works labelled “Gothic” aren’t really Horror because they aren’t “hard core” enough. But…the Gothic, people…. this is our foundational HISTORY.

Susan Hill walked away and we just let her go…

And yet, instead of holding the Establishment accountable, we default to blaming Hollywood, using the success or box office failure of the film to justify rejection of the work. Such is the unfortunate case with The Woman in Black (where the book is in fact, better)… Hollywood managed to botch the film – an otherwise capable tale told with substantial actors – with what looked horribly like poorly rendered, drawn-in, cartoon Dementor-like ghosts and whereupon reviewers spent most of their critical currency discussing Daniel Radcliffe and comparisons to Harry Potter films. But sadly, the presence of the film has overshadowed the wonder of the work.

Indeed, it seems that most people don’t realize that there even was a book that preceded the movie – let alone that it was fantastic in its own right. We are unfortunately today more likely to assume a work began on film instead of looking for the book that the film was created from. And perhaps – just perhaps that is a little of why we don’t really know the name of Susan Hill, but honestly the more I dug into her biography, the more I suspect something more sinister has happened to erase Hill from our present catalog of works.

Susan Hill, you see, is another author whose sexual identity is at crosshairs with the old way of seeing things, and whose works have been summarily exiled to “Literary Fiction.”

Are you seeing the same pattern I am seeing? It looks like once again exile has nothing to do with Horror. And I am embarrassed for our genre.

Furthermore, I really don’t know when we are going to get our noses out of everyone else’s personal business. But this type of “problem” we have in our genre is yet another reason I support the Literary Critical position that the author does not matter in the analysis of their work…

How can we read The Woman in Black, The Mist in the Mirror, Dolly, or The Small Hand and ignore the legacy of Susan Hill in our genre? She has a place with us… She fills a spot emptied by the passing of the great Ghost Story Gothicists… She is a British Joyce Carol Oates, a more modern heir to the tradition of Daphne DuMaurier, her work so molecularly related to the important strands of Horror DNA that her exclusion from reading lists and recommendations is flat-out glaring.

Yet she is not touted by the genre as one of our own. Our Establishment barely acknowledges her.

Could it be because Hill rejected us first? Or because she did so very publicly?

Are we three years old and playing in sandboxes?

H2

Fixing Our Image Problem Is Not Done With Censorship

Susan Hill, you see, seems to shrink from any association with our genre – and while I would like to think that this is because of her age, that it has more to do with her own memories and rejection of the 1980’s shift to the sloppy work that spewed from the exhausted Boom or the emergence of the slasher subgenre – I suspect it might be the ghost of Clive Barker rising again… that once more our Establishment decided to play both moral and creative judge.

We are, I believe, losing authors due to two things in the Horror genre – arrogance in the Establishment that is both unfounded and totally undefined by established criteria, and a lack of official history in the genre that tells everyone interested in Horror exactly what genres and subgenres Horror encompasses.

The Horror genre is dominated by a collective ignorance – not because people are stupid, but because none of us are being educated about the genre today and because the Tech Boom’s obliteration of traditional publishing models is pushing our more modern “classics” from print and/or availability. Readers in the genre today are having a much harder time finding historically rendered Horror written by established or accepted top tier writers (like Poe, Lovecraft, King, Campbell, Barker, Rice)…let alone newer (and what would have been) mid-list authors or Literary cross-pollinators like Hill.

Worse, we have NO requirements. No matter what the Establishment says or implies, no one has drawn up any definitive and historically derived guidelines… they cannot even agree on tropes and conventions. They cannot even assemble those in one place with easily interpreted, applicable definitions. Instead any student of Horror will find not only variable lists of “accepted” authors and works, but additionally a wide interpretation and usage of terms whose definitions and usage vary according to the “authority’s” needs. No one EVER explains anything thoroughly in the genre…because clearly THEY don’t know either…and pretending it is a secret or that only Real Writers Know is just plain conceit.

This has resulted in a total identity crisis… And all the time we keep saying it is all about the writing.

Horror is what anyone says it is. And that has led to the exposure of yet another truth: our history (with the exception of recent efforts by Critics like S.T. Joshi and a few dedicated fans) remains predominantly and officially undocumented…

In other words, when a writer (let alone a reader) sees the “Horror” label, even today most do not see Classic Literature, Science Fiction, Detective/Mystery Fiction, Fantasy/Dark Fantasy Fiction, the Gothic, New Gothic, Southern Gothic, Gothic Romance, the Ghost Story as tributaries of a huge, historic Horror river. Instead they see Halloween, Chuckie, Nightmare on Elm Street, and all the really kitschy summer blockbusters of yore…

Is this what happened to Susan Hill? Was it her interpretations of self and works — or ours?

Our editors tend to look upon writers whose works mimic in any way the styles of earlier Horror incarnations as “bad” writers…as “uninteresting”…”too slow-paced”… “not modern enough”… They want something equally as yet undefined but that will please Critics, reinvigorate the genre, and sell like Stephen King… But they can’t tell you what it is…only what they think it isn’t.

And if you don’t like them…it isn’t. And increasingly, it also looks like if you are a gay or transgender writer, you probably don’t belong to us either…

Perhaps it was her own opinion of her own work, then, that reinforced one part of our Establishment’s opinion of her. As stated in piece by The Guardian, she tries mightily to distance herself from the genre:

“It is a ghost story – not a horror story, not a thriller – and not a gothic novel; although the terms are often used very loosely, they are not by any means the same thing…” (Mullan)

In the article, Hill explains herself, stating:

“I set out to write a ghost story in the classic 19th-century tradition, a full-length one. There have never been many, writers perhaps having felt the form would not stretch successfully. By the time I began mine, in the 1980s, full-length ghost stories seemed to have died out altogether. I read and studied the Jameses, Henry and MR, and Dickens, and I also had beside me the “bible” – Night Visitors by Julia Briggs (still the best study of the form).

“The list of ingredients included atmosphere, a ghost, a haunted house and other places, and weather. A footnote to “ghost” was a) of a human being; and b) with a purpose. There are dozens of little books of “true” ghost stories, usually sorted by geographical location, but almost without exception the ghosts have no purpose and so the stories are ultimately unsatisfying… There has to be more to fiction than that. There also has to be more than an easy manipulation of the reader’s superficial emotions – unless making someone jump out of their skin is the writer’s only aim. Not that trying to induce a delicious thrill of fear is bad – it is another form of entertainment, and what is wrong with being an entertainer? Dickens certainly considered himself to be one.” (Mullan)

Did she give our Establishment a way out of recognizing her work?

Worse, is she a product of the times when Horror had a less-than-savory reputation for mass market writing that was seriously less than Literary? Is she missing the forest for the trees? Does she not see her own importance to our genre based on the resonant DNA? Don’t WE?

Or is this about her sexuality? I cannot help but wonder…Because the writers I have loved as a fan are almost unanimously turning out to be gay or transgendered or wrestling with sexual identity (as well as excluded from the genre)… a fact I neither knew nor cared about growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s…because for me it has always been about the writing….

H3 H4 H5

Reclaiming the Gothic

I think the technical problem we have in the genre is a misplaced sense of “purity”… of pedigree that has not yet been firmly established by Literary Critics. But that fact does not give our Establishment free rein to declare who is and is not in-genre – not when the same Establishment cannot or will not provide clear definitions and guidelines for what it argues IS the Horror genre. Neither does it excuse the eviction of authors who are not straight, white, Christian-or-rebel-atheist and male…

Ultimately it will be the Literary Critic who decides about technical definitions – something perhaps we all conveniently forgot when we threw ourselves at the Literary Critic and demanded a belly-rub. And now that we are firmly in the sights of Literary Criticism, having finally arrived at a point where Poe would be proud, we are trying to shove innumerable authors under the carpet. Why?

In a time when we are hearing a demand for better, more Literary fiction in the genre, why are we dismissing so many writers as “other-genre”? Why aren’t we fighting for them?

Despite Hill’s own assessment of her work, I argue she most certainly does write Horror. Literary Horror. The kind of Horror that blooms from very old roots. And her writing these ghost stories prompts some very important questions for our ghost story subgenre – especially in lieu of S.T. Joshi (our one dedicated Horror Literary Critic) to state his belief that the ghost story is “done” as a subgenre, and cannot be improved upon after M.R. James… While many there may be limits on how ghosts are pressed into service, why are they any different than Vampires? Why isn’t it about telling stories and original angles? About scaring anew?

This could not be more important or timely. Do we really believe the Ghost Story is dead? Can it be properly adapted in both short story and novel to sustain originality expectations? Believability?

And what does this say about the Gothic thereafter? Is this the reason we have seen both Gothic and Southern Gothic go “silent” in the genre?

How we got to a point in Horror where we disavow the Gothic for heaven’s sake, I don’t know. I cannot imagine. While Gothic Romance teeters on the fringe of Horror to the point it leans into another genre entirely, the straight Gothic and Southern Gothic are right here… in our subgenres…most often as Ghost Stories.

Yet no one speaks on their behalf. Not the genre, not the readers, not the publishers… and sometimes, not even the writers…

Perhaps Hill does not wish to be identified as a Horror writer, and I understand: the 1980’s left a particularly bad taste in the mouths of many readers and Critics who wanted so much more from us. Maybe we need to acknowledge the price this decade has also had on what were then “future” writers; because even I have to admit, the 1980s is precisely when I began to drift away from Horror. Perhaps the slasher/trashier sloppiness of the published writings drove away a lot more people than has been explained as fans aging out. Hill is a perfect example; she was born in 1942, writing her first novel her first year at university (which was criticized as “unsuitable” for having been written by a schoolgirl), and writing eight novels between 1968 and 1974. She wrote The Woman in Black in 1983 – just as the publishing mills were spinning gold, but not much in the way of Literature – especially in Horror.

Yet one can only split hairs so much. The Woman In Black may be Literary, may be Gothic… but it is indisputably also a Ghost Story. We can empathize with her ambitions to write “better” than what was exemplified by Horror at the time. However Hill is definitively Gothic… even somewhat in her more recent move to Crime Fiction. Since its inception, Horror has been irretrievably linked to both Science Fiction by way of Lovecraft and Detective Fiction by way of Wilkie Collins. In leaving the genre Hill (on her own or otherwise) has not really, fully left the genre…

I argue this is not a bad thing. And I hope Hill herself will come to see it.

I would say that Horror needs writers like her in it, needs her works filling out the spice rack. Writers in the Horror genre today are writing in the dark. We have no real, definitive guidance as to who among modern writers have or are shaping the genre today… we barely have acknowledgement of which writers have partially solidified the still-fuzzy boundaries of the genre. All we have to tell us are the plethora of theme-based anthologies, tribute anthologies, editorial stylings, and Hollywood.

It’s time this changed. We are just now beginning to have Literary Criticism look at the genre. We need to help Critics plow through the massive dump of writings out there… to make suggestions as a genre as to who we find to be significant influences on modern works so that future Literary Critics can take a hard look at the nominees and see if they have the merit we sense they do.

Clearly, we cannot rely on our Establishment to do this, at least right now. For whatever reason, heads are firmly planted in the sand. And with the internet severely cutting into the way Classic Horror is published (so many falling out of copyright protections so that “anyone” seems to be publishing them, leaving their rightful legacy unacknowledged by the authorities of the genre) that some very important names are not being given their due respect. New readers in the genre do not know who they are. And all too often, many are falling out of publication (where in the past history of publishing houses these authors might have been backlisted but they were still proudly available).

Meanwhile in our own genre, we are seeing a tendency toward separating the Literary from Horror, and wielding what looks like moral judgment.

In fact, the presence of so many Literary talents who also write occasionally in our genre should be a welcome thing. Naming them as part of the genre could be an educational thing — an elevating-our-game thing.

H6

When Gothic Is Horror: Is Horror Literary or Not?

After everything Poe and Lovecraft went through, and all of those marvelous essays by our genre’s writers and editors… What the hell is going on?

All of a sudden a Literary writer is not a Horror writer.

Funny. I don’t see the Establishment banning Poe or Lovecraft, two of our most Literary writers. And this means we all have a burning question for the Establishment as readers AND writers:

What do you want?

And don’t think Literary Critics won’t notice the choices being made and who is making them: Literary Critics thrive on pattern recognition…

To deny a writer because they either consistently write as Literary writers, in other genres, or even if they totally disdain our genre is totally irresponsible. By their works ye shall know them… And if that denial has anything at all to do with sexual orientation, we have and even bigger problem…

Susan Hill wrote Horror. (Sorry, Ms. Hill, but this is true. And it is awesome.)

But is this also a case of moral exclusion?

Are we again seeing a case where a writer’s personal life has colored the perceptions of our Establishment?

Especially with today’s proliferation of the internet and social media – with the amount of pure, adulterated, unfounded gossip… The very idea that Literary Criticism might be conducted with a writer’s reputation and scandal-meter in mind is absolutely horrifying. If we are, for example, excluding a writer like Hill based on the “limited” scandal of her sexuality in her time, what damage could be done to the whole of Literature if we do not firmly and immediately embrace Roland Barthes’ essay “The Death of the Author”?

If we are excluding her because she doesn’t like us, maybe we should be asking if we are like-able…Or if we are all doing our jobs properly.

It is time to put a stop to this, no matter where it is coming from. Writing, like music and any of the Arts, should stand alone, to be let to speak its truth. Knowing about the biography of the writer, musician or artist should enhance the work… not define it. A writer’s sexuality, except perhaps in its Literary influence in his or her work has nothing to do with the work.

Susan Hill belongs in our canon.

I am not a Literary Critic, so I am not sure where in it she belongs. But I DO know her writing helped bring our attention back to the ghost story. She is part of the new movement of gothic ghost story currently gaining a bit of leverage, but left to languish in the orphaned “Gothic” (which is ours and us, by the way)… writers like Canadian author Simone St. James, Australians Darcy Coates and John Harwood, and English author Judy Finnegan, and American Jennifer McMahon…

Have you heard of THOSE writers? If not, why not? We need to be asking – no – DEMANDING answers from our establishment…and we can begin by demanding recognition of Susan Hill.

To say that they are mainstream, or too other-genre, or not interesting enough is flat-out insulting. This is Horror now: we are not Poe or Lovecraft… and many of us are WOMEN… but all of us love the stories that make Horror Horror…

And that is how “trends” start… One writer at a time… with a writer who remembers the way another writer once made him or her feel…

 

Bibliography

2014 The Soul of Discretion

2013 Black Sheep

2012 Dolly

2012 A Question of Identity

2011 The Betrayal of Trust

2011 A Kind Man

2010 The Small Hand

2010 The Shadows in the Street

2009 Howards End is on the Landing

2008 The Battle for Gullywith

2008 The Vows of Silence

2008 The Beacon

2007 The Man in the Picture

2006 Farthing House: And Other Stories

2006 The Risk of Darkness

2005 The Pure in Heart

2004 The Various Haunts of Men

2003 The Boy Who Taught the Beekeeper to Read

1998 The Service of Clouds

1997 Listening to the Orchestra

1997 The Second Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories

1995 Contemporary Women’s Short Stories

1995 Reflections from a Garden

1994 The Christmas Collection

1994 Pirate Poll

1993 Mrs de Winter

1993 King of Kings

1993 Beware, Beware

1992 The Mist in the Mirror: A Ghost Story

1992 A Very Special Birthday

1991 The Penguin Book of Modern Women’s Short Stories

1991 The Glass Angels

1991 Air and Angels

1990 Ghost Stories

1990 The Parchment Man: An Anthology of Modern Women’s Short Stories

1990 Stories from Codling Village

1990 I Won’t Go There Again

1990 Septimus Honeydew

1990 The Walker Book of Ghost Stories

1989 Family

1989 Suzy’s Shoes

1988 Can It Be True?: A Christmas Story

1988 The Spirit of the Cotswolds

1987 Lanterns Across the Snow

1987 Shakespeare Country

1986 The Lighting of the Lamps

1986 Mother’s Magic

1985 The Ramshackle Company

1984 One Night at a Time

1983 People: Essays and Poems

1983 The Woman in Black

1983 Ghost Stories

1982 The Magic Apple Tree: A Country Year

1980 New Stories

1979 The Distracted Preacher and Other Stories by Thomas Hardy

 Awards

2006 Theakston’s Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year

1988 Nestlé Smarties Book Prize (Gold Award)

1972 Mail on Sunday/John Llewellyn Rhys Prize

1972 Whitbread Novel Award

1971 Somerset Maugham Award

 

References

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Retrieved 7/16/2019 from https://writing.upenn.edu/~taransky/Barthes.pdf

British Council of Literature. Retrieved 7/25/2019 from https://literature.britishcouncil.org/writer/susan-hill

Kean, Danuta. Interview. “Susan Hill: I am Not Pro-Trump! Really? Do People Think That of Me?” The Guardian. March 4, 2017. Retrieved 7/15/2019 from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/mar/04/susan-hill-i-am-not-pro-trump-really-do-people-think-that-of-me

Mullan, John. Book Club Books. “The Woman in Black by Susan Hill.” The Guardian. Feb 17, 2012. Retrieved 7/15/2019 from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/feb/17/woman-in-black-book-club-susan-hill

Advertisements

10 thoughts on “That Woman In Black: Susan Hill — a Gothic Writer for the Canon

  1. You nailed it: the slasher/trashier sloppiness of the published writings drove away a lot more people. I love ghost stories! And I would read more if I knew where to find them. KC, you amaze me with your brilliance writing on this topic… p.s. I never heard of Susan Hill but know of the movie The Woman in Black and watched it. What the ___?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Where we used to be able to point at a bookstore or library for the book behind the movie, this is getting progressively harder… so much of the historic backlist of the genre is becoming unavailable and/or if you don’t KNOW to look for them, you will never trip over their names…I don’t want to see Hill lost… I DO want to see Gothic reassume its proper place in the genre! (And thank you for the compliment!)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Excellent piece, and thanks again for alerting me to new names in the horror genre and for yur insights as to why so many good writers are unknown. I must check out Susan Hill’s work and the other unknown names you mentioned. For a long time, I was turned off by the whole slasher horror movie thing, but I’m returning to the genre because you’ve made me aware that there’s so much more great writing happening in this genre than most of us know about.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s