Probably because it was published just before Halloween and because I’d had the living daylights scared out of me three times by The Woman In Black – once by the book, secondly by a TV adaptation many years ago and then again at the theatre by which time you’d think I knew what to expect – I had it in my head that Susan Hill’s new novella was a ghost story. Then, on reading the first paragraph it seemed it might be an allegory but in the end it turns out to be a tragic tale told simply and powerfully – The Guardian calls it a parable.
It’s set in the village of Mount of Zeal, a mine at its centre surrounded by terraces ranged from Lower up to Paradise. John Howker works in the pit and expects all his sons to follow him but Ted, the youngest of five, finds himself a job as a shepherd just a few miles away. Rose, the only daughter, yearns for broader horizons but finds herself married and tied to the village. Theirs is a family which endures more misfortunes than many, the worst of which results from a flouting of convention with tragic results, all played out against the constant drone of grandfather Reuben’s Biblical recitations, made heedless of the misery around him. Hill unfolds the Howkers’ story in understated sometimes stark, occasionally poetic language, making it all the more moving. Not a ghost story then, but its ending is equally chilling.