Susan Hill: The Woman in Black (1983)

Proud and solitary, Eel Marsh House surveys the windswept reaches of the salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway. Arthur Kipps, a junior solicitor, is summoned to attend the funeral Mrs Alice Drablow, the house’s sole inhabitant, unaware of the tragic secrets which lie hidden behind the shuttered windows. 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.

The Woman in Black is the second ghost story by Susan Hill I have read in a very short time. But since we are nearing the end of the R.I.P. Challenge this was the time or never.

I feel tempted to compare them as there are a lot of similarities but The Woman in Black is the creepier of the two. The settings are similar as well, although in this novel most of the horrifying events take place inside of a grand old mansion and only a few in the foggy marshes. The nature of the ghost in The Woman in Black is much more evil. It does really mean to harm those who see it.

Susan Hills writing is again very traditional, old-fashioned. This novel could have been written in the 19th century. This includes the narrative style as well as the themes and motives. Even so or maybe because of this it is beautifully written. The descriptions are detailed and atmospherical.

The story begins some thirty years after the main events. It is Christmas Eve and Arthur, our protagonist, is enjoying the company of his extended family on his beautiful estate Monks’ Piece. The family is gathered in the drawing room telling ghost stories when Arthur comes back from a short refreshing walk outside. They urge him to contribute to the fun and tell a ghost story of his own. He is not willing to do this as he is reminded of horrible events he hasexperienced as a very young man. Instead of telling what happened he decides to write it down.

As a young solicitor he was sent to Crythin Gifford. Mrs. Drablow an elderly client of the firm he is working for has died and his boss wants him to attend the funeral and spend some time sorting out the papers the old woman has left behind. It gets creepy early on as no one in the little town wants to talk about the deceased or her property. At the funeral Arthur sees a woman in black who looks very wasted as well as a group of children that no one else sees.

Later, at Eel Marsh House, the stately home of Mrs. Drablow, he sees the woman in black again. The estate is located on Nine Lives Causeway and is completely cut off from the mainland at high tide, surrounded only by the sea and marshes. The setting alone would creep out many but Arthur also  hears terrible noises, the cries of a child,  noises as if someone had an accident in the marshes. It is also spooky inside of the house. He feels he is not alone. There is one room he doesn’t have access to but there are distinct noises coming from  inside and when the door stands ajar all of a sudden he almost freaks out.

After his first stay at the house he goes back despite his fears and it gets worse. The incidents culminate.

Like in The Small Hand the story is resolved in the end. We get to hear who is the ghost and why he haunts people. The spite- and vengeful being will not stop to haunt Arthur after his departure. It strikes again.

The Woman in Black is a dark tale, darker than The Small Hand. As a whole I think I liked The Small Hand better. But the beginning of The Woman in Black, the chapter titled “Christmas Eve” is one of the most pleasant initial chapters I have ever read and stands in striking contrast to the events that are narrated later.

Apparently the novel has been adapted for the stage and been made into a TV movie.

Has anyone read both? Which one did you prefer?


Nymeth’s review

20 thoughts on “Susan Hill: The Woman in Black (1983)

  1. I’ve read The Women in Black twice and is a book I can see myself reading again at some point. It is very atmospheric and I’ve heard the play is really very scary. I had hoped to read one of her other books for this challenge, but I think I won’t end up reading as much as I had planned–at least I have read short stories every weekend.

    • I am disappointed I never finished The White Dominican by Meyrink. It is quite esoterical, multi-layered. Interesting but it is not the time for it. So you didn’t see the movie of The Woman in Black either then? I think I would like that.

  2. I think I really have to try reading her book one day. Although you say you like The Small Hand better but reading from your review…I like this one better, the darker the book the more I like it.

    • Yes, I would say, this is the one for you. Maybe it depends which one you read first. So you should start with this one. She has written more ghost stories. I might try another one in the future.

  3. I have just read this one myself – it was my first Hill, and like you I found the writing very impressive. I also loved the old fashioned feel. You’re right; it could well have been a 19th century ghost story.

    • It is incredible somehow that someone is still able to write like this. I am curious to read one of her crime novels to see, if she will write them in another style. Are you going to read others by her? If you review this one let me know, I will link it here.

  4. I haven’t read either, but I want to read both. Whenever I read reviews, especially those like yours, I realize that these are just the kind of books that inspired me to host RIP in the first place. I haven’t read any Susan Hill, but she has a nonfiction book coming out very soon that I really want to pick up, as it is all about books.

    • Exactly, you can’t get any more R.I.P. than her. I got “Howard’s End is one the Landing” and am looking forward to read it. Only heard good things about it. I think you would enjoy her ghost stories.

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  6. i absolutely adore this book its so eerie and Hill is such a talented writer im going to see the film tomorrow hope its just as good!!! x

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  8. I am a huge fan of TWIB! I’ve read the book, seen both film versions (1989 made for TV movie is far superior and much, much scarier than the more recent Daniel Radcliffe offering) and I’ve seen the stage play! Hill is a massive fan of Dickens and cites ‘The Innocents’ by Henry James as her inspiration for TWIB, hence the real 19th century feel!

    • That’s very intersting, thanks, Anne. There really is a very 19th century feel and that can certianly only be acquired via reading the classics.
      I didn’t know there was a TV movie. I’ll have to find it.
      It’s a really great and atmospherical book. I think she has a new ghost story out now.

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