There was a great television film of The Woman in Black produced in 1989, and it was the most terrifying thing on the small screen.  Although I hadn’t heard of Susan Hill then, my main concern wasn’t reading her books, but getting the image of the ghost appearing in the night out of my mind.  It was simply awful, and made worse by the hideous sound that the Granada Television production played over that fast approaching, screaming white form.  If you’re interested, see The (other) Woman in Black at IMDB here.

When it came to reading Susan Hill, my constant affection for her was tripped by the novel Strange Meeting (1971) which came my way about thirty years after its publication.  Well that’s literary fame for you, and the staying power of a good writer, whom I’ve noticed, you can even stay in touch with these days via her Facebook page and it has been pleasant watching her gentle surprise at the success of The Woman in Black movie, which grossed a mere $126 million before it went to DVD. 

Pleasant as that must have been, the film wasn’t nearly as frightening as its 1989 predecessor, and Daniel Radcliffe still acts with all the poise and conviction of a baguette.  I could have chosen any tall thin inanimate object.

But as I say, for me it started with the opening lines of Strange Meeting, which I found compelling from the off; magical, evocative and mysterious, the first page of this novel somehow grabbed me as it displays everything that I feel is good about the writer’s art.  By that I don’t mean the mysterious flashbacking, the wafting descriptions of the smell of roses, but the fact of being drawn in to the visions and feelings of the two poetic leads.

There’s an interesting question of the homosexuality between Hilliard and Barton, which goes unanswered for very good reasons.  Certainly, I’m sure there wasn’t a lot of time, opportunity or desire for consummation during early 20th Century trench warfare, but more importantly, homosexuality didn’t exist in the openly understood way in which we may talk about it today.  What is well captured in Strange Meeting, is not so much the love that dare not speak its name, but two men who are very close, and even in love, but don’t have or need social referents for it.

There’s a technique that I enjoy later in Strange Meeting, which involves dropping excerpts from the character Barton’s letters straight in to the prose.  It works not just because they break things up with an inner perspective, but because they aren’t introduced, we merely fly into them, and are sometimes offered some narrative anchor after them.

There’s a passage near the end in which Barton isn’t writing a letter, but copying some passages out of his green-bound edition of Sir Thomas Browne.  Hillard reads the copied handwriting, which is quite well described, and finds that Barton has copied Browne as an exercise in making a pattern, in making sense of something.
I think that Susan Hill may have heard a lot about the First World War the way she describes it in Strange Meeting, it all seems to be in head already, and in so much detail.  There are obvious details, like the crash of a German monoplane, but what makes Strange Meetings so successful at capturing the Great War, as it was called, is the inner detail, and the inevitable gap between the minds of the observers and that which is observed — a horrible war.

I expect poets would make sense of the world at war like this, although it hardly describes today’s attitude to death and war, not even one of 1945.

‘Tis all one to lie in St Innocent’s churchyard as in the sands of Egypt.  Ready to be anything in the ecstasie of being forever, and as content with six foot of earth as the glorious sepulchre of Adrainus.