Publication date: This edition 29th September 2011 (Hardback) – first published in 1983
Publisher: Profile Books
Genre(s): Fiction – Horror/Ghost Story
About the book
Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer, travels to a remote village to put the affairs of a recently deceased client, Alice Drablow in order. As he works alone in her isolated house, Kipps begins to uncover disturbing secrets – and his unease grows when he glimpses a mysterious woman dressed in black. The locals are strangely unwilling to talk about the unsettling occurrence, and Kipps is forced to uncover the true identity of the Woman in Black on his own, leading to a desperate race against time when he discovers her true intent…
* * * This review contains spoilers * * *
I’ve wanted to read The Woman in Black for such a long time — I’m surprised it’s taken me this long to get round to it. I finished reading it by lamplight this dreary November morning. Perhaps I would’ve been better off waiting until I had some company, or until a time when the daylight wasn’t so weak, my flat not shrouded in shadows. But I thought to myself: I don’t get scared by books. I’ve yet to read a book that has made the hairs on my arms stand on end. No ghost story has ever made me fearful of what spectres might be lurking in dark corners of my own home.
The book begins on Christmas Eve, over ten years after a ghostly incident has befallen the protagonist, Arthur Kipps. Arthur is with his family at his country home, Monk’s Piece, and his stepsons are telling ghost stories. They beg Arthur to tell a story of his own, which sends him into a spin. He has a real ghost story to tell, but cannot bear to recall it nor speak it aloud. So disturbed is he by the mysterious ghostly events that have befallen him, that he decides the only way to overcome his terror is to set the incidents down in writing. It is this account that forms the main story itself.
In the main story, Arthur is a 23-year-old lawyer sent by his employer, Mr Bentley, to attend the funeral and tend to the affairs of the late Mrs Alice Drablow. Her former place of residence is Eel Marsh House, a sinister house accessible only by causeway. Arthur has already seen a wraith-like woman at Mrs Drablow’s funeral, and on visiting Eel Marsh House, he sees her again, beside a grave. She is not the only terrifying thing he witnesses in that desolate place: he hears the terrible sound of a pony and trap sinking into the marshes and the screams of a child. Only, there is no pony and trap, nor is there a child. All of this was certainly creepy, and the sound of a rocking chair coming from a locked room, which at one point suddenly opens, revealing an eerily well-preserved nursery, was creepier still.
However, nothing truly frightened me until right at the end. I think perhaps because the reader is lured into a false sense of security that all is well, that Arthur has survived his encounter with the woman in black, and then suddenly she appears again — moving quickly to startle a horse, resulting in the terrible death of Arthur’s little boy, and eventually fatal injuries to his wife. In that particular scene, the way Susan Hill described the woman in black, and her malevolence, was so utterly chilling and horrifying that I had goosebumps all over, and gasped out loud.
Susan Hill has created such a rich atmosphere within these pages — her descriptions of the fog and sea mists, the keening winds, the damp smells — that it was easy to put myself in Arthur’s shoes. She’s created such tension, such a dark undercurrent of malevolence. And I think, for me, the scariest thing is that Eel Marsh House is such a fearsome, isolated place, that I’d half expected all of the malevolence to be contained within that one setting. So when the woman in black suddenly appears in London, one peaceful Sunday afternoon in the summer, it is so unexpected and horrifying.
I think that reading this book is going to be my new Halloween tradition. It’s such a wonderful, frightening little slice of Gothic.
Thank you for reading!