The Woman in Black
by Susan Hill
Hamish Hamilton, 1983, Vintage Books, 2011
reviewed by Seana Graham
You may be more familiar with this title than I was. I was just trying to find a good book to read for Halloween that wasn’t a modern-day slasher or gore fest when I happened on a recommendation for this book. It was only when a copy arrived at my house that I saw that the cover stated, “Soon to be a major motion picture starring Daniel Radcliffe.” Well, it turns out that “soon to be” meant in 2012. Not only that, but a play adapted from the novel has been running in London’s West End theatre district since 1989, and is the second longest running non-musical there, surpassed only by The Mousetrap. So yeah, you may have heard a little something about it. But for whatever reason all of this has escaped my notice.
The book is not long. It begins with its middle-aged narrator, Andrew Kipps, fleeing the house when his family asks him to contribute to their Christmas tradition of telling ghost stories. Oh, he has a ghost story all right—one that he thought he had successfully laid to rest. But rather than let it loose in all its force upon his family, he resolves to write it down, leaving it to be discovered only after his death.
The story he tells begins when he is still a young, unmarried man. His employer asks him to leave foggy London to attend a funeral and look after the affairs of a recently deceased client, a Mrs. Drablow. Eager for the adventure, Kipps sets out to the small, remote town of Crythin Gifford, from which he will visit the dead woman’s residence, Eel Marsh House.
The closer he gets to his destination, though, the more he is dissuaded from going there. The town people, though hospitable, all close up about Mrs. Drablow and her estate, and none of them attend her funeral. It’s at this funeral that Kipps gets his first glimpse of the Woman in Black. Unfortunately, it won’t be his last.
Kipps subsequent adventures are a mix of being dazzled and bewitched by the marshland surroundings, which he feels an affinity with, and being outright terrified by some of his experiences out at Eel Marsh House, a place made even more eerie by the fact that it is only accessible at certain low tides but is otherwise cut off.
I was curious to see if the story would rattle me and I have to say that it didn’t. I think the movie version might, as I am more susceptible to horror in that medium. But looking at Good Reads, I saw that quite a few people, though jaded by modern movie forms of horror, found themselves quite shaken by this tale. So be aware that this might be your experience too.
In any case, the writing is very deft and sure. One example of this is the description of the little dog who is briefly Kipps companion, and Hill gets her sweet, doggy nature exactly right. Another detail that I found masterful was that the odd behavior of the villagers is in the end explained. At first, I thought that the cold response of the townspeople to his mention of Drablow and Eel Marsh House was just a ploy to build up atmosphere. But they have our entire sympathy by the end. In this, it reminds me a bit of Adrian McKinty’s recent masterful suspense novel The Chain (which you should read if you like your thrillers very dark) in that the people here too are constrained by absolute necessity. And that, it turns out, is at the same time both chilling and satisfying.
Oh, and Happy Halloween!
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She has also reviewed for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. The recent anthology, Annihilation Radiation from Storgy Press, includes one of her stories. Santa Cruz Noir, a title from Akashic Press, features a story of hers about the city in which she currently resides.