Title: The Woman in Black
Author: Susan Hill
Genre: Horror, Gothic, Historical
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday (originally published by Hamish Hamilton, UK)
Publication Date: September 2011 (originally October 1983)
Paperback: 176 pages
A classic ghost story: the chilling tale of a menacing specter haunting a small English town. Arthur Kipps is an up-and-coming London solicitor who is sent to Crythin Gifford–a faraway town in the windswept salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway–to attend the funeral and settle the affairs of a client, Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. Mrs. Drablow’s house stands at the end of the causeway, wreathed in fog and mystery, but Kipps is unaware of the tragic secrets that lie hidden behind its sheltered windows. The routine business trip he anticipated quickly takes a horrifying turn when he finds himself haunted by a series of mysterious sounds and images–a rocking chair in a deserted nursery, the eerie sound of a pony and trap, a child’s scream in the fog, and, most terrifying of all, a ghostly woman dressed all in black.
Stand alone or series: Stand alone novel
How did I get this book: Bought
Why did I read this book: I’ve been in the mood for something creepy – and when I learned that the upcoming film starring Daniel Radcliffe, The Woman In Black, was in fact a book (written before I was born, even!) – and that it opens on Christmas Eve, how could I possibly resist?
On a crisp Christmas eve, the elderly Arthur Kipps rests contentedly in front of a roaring fire, surrounded by his stepchildren and loving wife Esme. All is at peace with Arthur’s world; all is as it should be. But when the young men start to tell ghost stories, Arthur’s idyllic night is ruined. It is only now, after so many years, that Arthur puts his pen to paper and tells the story that haunts him – the story that keeps him up at night shaking with terror, the reason for his distress this Christmas night.
Arthur writes of a time, many years earlier when he was a young man, engaged to a lovely young woman, and only starting to make his way in the world as a solicitor. Assigned the task of sorting out the affairs of recently deceased client, the reclusive widow Alice Drablow, Arthur is sent to the small farming town of Crythin Gifford. From the start of his trip, something seems off – every time he attempts to speak with townspeople about the deceased Mrs. Drablow, he is met with deflection, blank faced fear, or completely ignored. Frustrated but eager to do his job, Arthur dismisses the cryptic warnings of the townspeople as superstitious nonsense and makes his way to the desolate and secluded Eel Marsh House. Situated on the marshes at the edge of the town, a place where sea and land are nigh indistinguishable, Eel Marsh House sits quietly, waiting for Arthur. Travel to the house is treacherous and can only be reached by pony and trap on the Nine Lives Causeway – a road that is completely submerged and impossible to traverse once the tide comes in each night. Despite the desolation of the home, despite the words of caution from the town, Arthur takes to the house and decides to stay there – no use making a cab come back and forth for him every day – until he has concluded his business.
That is before he realizes that there is something more to Eel Marsh House and Alice Drablow’s legacy; before he hears the dying cries from the marsh, night after night; before he spies the wasted woman, dressed in black, with pure malevolence radiating from every fiber of her being.
The Woman in Black is Arthur’s story – the first and only time he is brave enough to tell it. And dear readers, it is perfect. An atmospheric ghost story of the gothic persuasion, The Woman in Black is spine-chilling, traditional horror at its best. I am so very glad I read this book.
A slim volume at under 200 pages, The Woman in Black packs quite the punch and is an exercise in restraint – part of the reason I personally feel that many horror novels fail is because of a desire to pack in as much possible descriptive language as possible, as well as a tendency towards unnecessary (lengthy) explanation. Ms. Hill’s novel, however sparse with page count, is dense in the development of its ideas and the execution of atmosphere. And, like the best storytellers, this author knows when her tale is done, and that the most horrific and frightening things are best left stated sparsely (as the end of the novel proves). There are no tawdry descriptions of cobwebbed halls or specters bathed in blood, wailing pathetically as they roam the halls of a haunted manor – rather, Ms. Hill’s work relies on the creation of atmosphere, of setting and the unsettling feeling of terror that awakens and quickens in our narrator’s heart, slowly, gradually, and subtly.
The success of The Woman in Black hinges entirely on description – but instead of describing the spectacle of ghosts, Susan Hill focuses on description of setting. Eel Marsh House is a place that holds its own with some of the finest iconic places of horror and the macabre; desolate as it is, Eel Marsh House stands with Hill House, the House of Usher, Amityville, and Hell House. I loved the palpable sense of hopelessness and isolation as Arthur recounts the still beauty – and malevolence – of the solid stone manor at the edge of the world. What better place to lay a story of despair and hate, of unfulfilled vengeance and desire for death?
For, even as the adroitly detailed setting is what makes the novel succeed, at its heart, The Woman in Black is a ghost story about a specter with unfinished business, and Arthur, our unfortunate narrator, the man who catches her attention. I don’t want to spoil the story, but I will simply say that it works. As straightforward and traditional a tale as this is, it works.
In terms of writing, I would be remiss if I did not mention Ms. Hill’s command of language and style, fitting in perfectly with this post-Victorian/early-Edwardian narration. Like Eel Marsh House, caught between land and sea, so too is narrator Arthur Kipps torn between an age of rationality and the Victorian superstitions and ghost stories of the past. This struggle expertly characterizes Arthur and his narrative throughout, and it makes him more than just a talking head for a ghost story by humanizing his flawed, unfortunate character.
Ultimately, The Woman In Black does exactly what it should – it creeps, it unsettles, it horrifies. I loved this smart, gothic horror novel and eagerly await the film in 2012 (even if the film is terrible, you’ll have this amazing little book to fall back on). Absolutely recommended – and I am making Ana read it immediately.
Notable Quotes/Parts: Check it out – Daniel Radcliffe reads an excerpt from The Woman In Black:
Notable Quotes/Parts: As you may know, Daniel Radcliffe is starring as Arthur Kipps in the new film adaptation of this book. If you haven’t seen the trailer yet, check it out:
(Yes, the trailer looks like it takes many liberties with the story – including a puzzling preoccupation with dolls? – but I think they capture the colors and isolation of Eel Marsh House brilliantly!)
Rating: 8 – Excellent
Reading Next: Nightspell by Leah Cypess
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