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8 Jan 2012

Review: The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

Arthur Kipps. a junior solicitor, is summoned to attend the funeral of Mrs Alice Drablow, the sole inhabitant of Eel Marsh House, unaware of the tragic secrets which lie hidden behind the sheltered windows.  The house stands at the end of a causeway, wreathed in fog and mystery, but it is not until he glimpses a wasted young woman, dressed all in black, at the funeral, that a creeping sense of unease begins to take hold, a feeling deepened by the reluctance of the locals to talk of the woman in black - and her terrible purpose...

I've been interested in this novel since my friends in high school took drama for GSCEs.  They had to go see The Woman in Black for a drama trip and told me everything about the play.  Everyone insisted it was the scariest story they had heard and with me being a total horror fanatic I wanted to find out more about it.  Now that my English degree is finished with I've managed to find more time to read the books on my shelf that have been gathering dust, having temporarily been replaced by the books on my required reading lists and textbooks.

Immediately I knew that I had picked up a good book.  I guess it was a feeling I had but I knew it was going to be a good buy.  I began reading it straight away that night, slowly reading the first chapter that was building up to the beginning of Arthur Kipps' terrifying story.  It's not until chapter four where we get the first glimpse of the supernatural antagonist but Hill can still suck you into the story as you anxiously wait for the horror to begin.  The author can still get her characters and the main location introduced quickly without dawdling and the build up to the first appearance of the woman in black flows well without feeling like the story is going purposely slow for the sake of increasing the tension.  Arthur Kipps moves the story well without becoming passive and letting the story move him.  While there were times I wanted him to just leave things alone and get out of that house I understood his decision to stay and explore with the intent of facing the spectre and not let it frighten him.  If I had been in that house I probably would have fled but I know I would also be reluctant to as well.  I'd still be curious and want to see more.  This situation is all new to Arthur who is quite a logical man, so when he experiences these supernatural events that contrasts against his beliefs I can see why he would be so fascinated.  And for a man his age to be spooked by it and left bewildered I can also understand why he grew angry and had the determination to face it.  Arthur is a professional man who refuses to let ghosts stop him from doing his work.  I really would have said "screw this" and hopped on the next train home.  I confess I can be a scaredy-cat at times. So I admire his determination.  He's quite a focused character.

The ghostly experiences themselves are few and mainly unseen.  Just your familiar bumps and creaks in the night with an unseen pony and trap going through a loop in the afterlife.  There are a couple of times when Arthur is in the middle of a thick fog and all he can hear is a mysterious horse trotting nearby but it never appears.  Then it stops and Arthur describes hearing a 'curious draining, sucking, churning sound'.  The horse is panicking and a child starts weeping.  And it's never seen.  The woman in black is always seen in the background, never saying anything.  Just standing silently, drawn and ill-looking and waiting to inflict her curse.  I felt it made her a strong villain because you never knew when she would be ready to strike and what she was going to do.  Just when Arthur Kipps thinks he has escaped she's back and prepared to destroy lives.  There could be no reasoning with this ghost; no way to help it move on.  She's there for good and she doesn't want peace.  She only wants to carry out her one purpose. 

Hill's writing reminded me of a nineteenth century novel.  University gave me a love for 19th century stories and narration so I appreciated her style and felt it fit perfectly for the tone of the tale.  It was Gothic, sombre, and very atmospheric.  The constant mist around Eel Marsh House gave me chills.  While the story is set in November, I could feel winter creeping closer.  Days becoming darker earlier and the constant chilly fogs.  This was my favourite description from the book:
"It was a yellow fog, a filthy, evil-smelling fog, a fog that choked and blinded, smeared and stained."
It makes London sound absolutely horrid, suffocating and blinding its residents with thick, stained fog.  Wonderful description.  Susan Hill has an eye for setting.

The length of the story is just right, under 200 pages.  Short and sweet, getting the story told without having any chapters or scenes that just feel like fillers to keep the story long.  I like a book that stays straight to the point without any waffle in between so I wouldn't have asked for more in the tale.  The book's ending was sad but satisfying, closing off the battle between Arthur Kipps and the woman in black.  It's tragic but I found it realistic for Arthur to be helpless against the spectre.  He's a human being terrorised by a spirit who is hardly seen and lurking in the shadows.  He's never dealt with ghosts before so he has no idea how to stop it.  In the end, running away from it and going back home seems like the only way to escape her.  And even that doesn't work. 

If you're searching for a good ghost story The Woman in Black will be a perfect buy.  It gives you the chills you want and the scares are few and short.  They're not over-the-top with gore and extreme possessions.  The terror is subtle and lurking.  I'd love to see more books like this one in the horror genre, especially for YA.  I think it's time for ghost stories to haunt the book shelves again. 


  1. Random comment - that is such a different cover to my copy!

    I *love* this book. There's a scene set in the middle of the night (which I won't go into detail because I wouldn't want to spoil anyone) that gives me the biggest chills. Every time I read it, I wait for the Woman in Black to jump out at me. The tension just grows and grows.

    One of the best ghost stories available.

  2. Very different from mine as well. Mine's blue with the ghost on and there's a white moon behind her.

    The nursery scenes were quite spooky. Gave me the shivers! I wouldn't have dared left my room. I would have stayed locked in and hidden under the covers with plenty of light!

  3. Me too! The whole time I read it, I kept thinking "no WAY would I leave my bed! I would stay under the covers and cry until morning!"

    ...and what a dull story it would be :P

    Do you think you'll see the film?

  4. I'd love to go see it. I'm really looking forward to the film. It looks like they've put in more shock scares, ready to make the audience jump.

  5. This isn't a genre I would normally read, but I'm interested to see how this author evokes the atmosphere and sense of fear and dread you describe. I'm putting it on my TBR list. Thanks!