How does Hill use Gothic conventions to build tension and atmosphere at the start of The Woman in Black?

The title of the chapter ‘Christmas Eve’ suggests a time of celebration, family and joy, of anticipation. The mood at the start is ‘festive’, ‘happy’ and
the main character has just enjoyed a good meal in the company of his wife and her children. From the first, there is a slighly unsettling mood as he has lost a wife in tragic circumstances and it feels as if this family is laid over the ghost of something dark.

Gothic novels frequently use pathetic fallacy where weather symbolises characters’ emotional states. The narrator describes his love of all weather, starting with ‘sweet’ scents of summer, moving through autumn to winter, as if the writer is turning up the cold. Words like ‘chilling’ and ‘mist’ evoke emotional iciness and claustrophobia as Kipps says he can only see a few yards. In the gothic claustrophobia is a key theme, as well as building tension when the main character is trapped either with ghosts of his own fears. His home takes on a melancholy and unfortunate air as the ‘cellar oozed damp’ smelled ‘sour’ and the fires ‘sputtered and smoked’. The narrator himself draws attention to the link between weather and mood, almost deliberately casting himself as a typical gothic protagonist where he says that weather often affects his moods. This knowingness, almost suggests that Hill is playing with gothic conventions.

The family start to tell ghost stories, which Hill has the narrator describe as typical eighteenth century melodramas: of ‘monastery ruins’ and ‘hooded monks’, evoking Matthew Lewis’ ‘The Monk’. The castle of ‘shriekings, groanings and scuttlings’ is described in an almost farcical way – similar to the Victorians’ negative attitude to over the top novels like ‘The Castle of Ontranto’. Dickens uses the convention of the ghost story also on Christmas Eve in ‘A Christmas Carol’ where the link between the darkest day of the year – the cusp of Christmas day – and being haunted by the past, and revenge is made clear. It becomes clear that Kipps is similarly haunted. Words like ‘unease’ ‘trouble’ ‘bitter’ and ‘nervous’ suggests a dark, underlying tension. Hill alludes to a terrible event which has haunted him for many years.

Hill uses juxtaposition between the warm family atmosphere, the mock-horror at the ghost stories and the real agitation caused in Kipps to build tension. Words such as ‘banshee’, ‘ash’, and ‘collapsed’, suggest death and corpses, which is juxtaposed to the christmas themed idea with words such as ‘cheerfully’, ‘sparkle’, and ‘glitter’, to create the feeling of suspense. The contrast emphasises the dark undertone, specifically the idea of ghosts – ‘ghoulish’ and ‘banshee’ are not ordinary ghosts, they are a particularly malevolent and destructive kind. The ominous mood centres on the past – which is still shrouded in mystery. The fact that Kipps can’t bring himself to talk about it exaggerates how horrible it must be, and allows the reader’s imagination disturbing space in which to fill the gap with all manner of horrors.

The use of time in the chapter follows gothic conventions of novels like Frankenstein where the framing narrative sets up a contrast between now: a ruined man, and the past where a young, whole, hearty man rushes towards a terrible fate. The first person style colours the events black – as we experience them through the eyes of his terror and agitation – while bringing us claustrophoically close to them. The novel is told from Kipps’ point of view which, in the second chapter goes into the events of the past that have caused his nervous breakdown.