The Woman in Black: A classic ghost story

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill horror novel reviewsThe Woman in Black by Susan Hill

So what does a young actor do after starring in one of the most lucrative franchises in cinema history? That was the precise dilemma facing the 22-year-old Daniel Radcliffe in 2011, upon the completion of his 8th and final Harry Potter film. The Potter series had brought in a whopping $7.7 billion worldwide over its 10-year run, firmly establishing Radcliffe as an international star. And so, the question: What next? Wisely, the young actor’s follow-up project was another in the supernatural/fantasy vein, and one that was also based on an already well-loved source. The film was 2012’s The Woman In Black, another successful film for Radcliffe, having been produced for $15 million and bringing in almost $130 million at the box office. The film was based on English author Susan Hill’s 1983 novel of the same name; a novel that had already been adapted in England as a stage play in 1987, as a TV film in 1989, and as a BBC Radio presentation in 1993. To be perfectly honest, I will confess that I have not seen the 2012 Radcliffe version (which apparently differs considerably from the author’s source novel), with which Hill herself did not participate, or its 2014 sequel, The Woman In Black: Angel of Death, which does feature a story written by Hill. But now that I have finally read Ms. Hill’s 1983 original, I am somewhat tempted to seek both films out. Simply stated, it is one of the finest, scariest, most chilling horror novels that this reader has ever shivered through; a modern-day classic for the ages, and one that I cannot imagine a film adaptation excelling.

In The Woman in Black, the reader makes the acquaintance of a middle-aged solicitor named Arthur Kipps (yes, the same name as had figured in H.G. Wells’ 1905 novel Kipps, and hardly the sole English literary reference to be found here, as will be seen), who is celebrating Christmas Eve with his second wife and stepchildren. Pressed to tell them a good ghost story around the fire, Arthur, suddenly shaken, excuses himself to walk outside, alone. The mere mention of ghost stories has revived some very unpleasant memories for him, which he resolves to purge by finally putting them down on paper. And what a story he has to tell!

Around 30 years earlier, Kipps, then in his early 20s, had been sent by his law firm to represent it at the funeral of one of its clients, one Mrs. Alice Drablow, in the village of Crythin Gifford (wisely, Kipps does not reveal which English shire this town resides in, but Norfolk, Lincoln or York is strongly suggested), and to then sort out the deceased recluse’s paperwork at her lonely home, Eel Marsh House. This abode rests between the sea and a marshland, and is inaccessible half the time, when the causeway leading up to it is washed over by high tides. However, a seemingly easy assignment in the country turns quite nightmarish for Kipps when he sees the mysterious, black-garbed lady of the title at Mrs. Drablow’s funeral, and later at Eel Marsh House’s private cemetery. None of the locals can be pressed to discuss her, to Kipps’ frustration. And then author Hill turns the screw, as it were, as Kipps begins hearing the ghostly sounds of a drowning pony and trap — along with its passengers — on the marshland, as well as … something bumping around in the locked room down the hall from his own in Mrs. Drablow’s supposedly unoccupied house. And this is just the beginning of an experience that will go far to wreck not only young Kipps’ health and sanity, but also his later life…

Let me just say here that Ms. Hill does a wondrous job at pastiching the style of the late-Victorian ghost story; one could easily be fooled into believing that The Woman in Black was not a product of the late 20th century, but rather of 100 years earlier. How has the author — a latter-day Mrs. J.H. Riddell, of sorts — managed this trick? Well, in part, to begin with, she naturally employs English spellings, as well as single quotation marks to surround dialogue, as opposed to the Americanized double quotation marks. The title of the book itself brings to mind Wilkie Collins’ classic mystery thriller The Woman in White (1859); one of the chapter headings, “Whistle And I’ll Come to You,” automatically hearkens the reader back to M.R. James’ classic ghost story “Oh, Whistle, And I’ll Come to You, My Lad” (1904); and Kipps himself, to relieve his nerves and fright, picks up and tries to peruse Sir Walter Scott’s historical novel The Heart of Midlothian (1818), as well as the works of Victorian poet John Clare. Oh … there are Shakespearean and Dickensian allusions scattered throughout, as well.

The time setting of The Woman in Black is indeterminate; I’d like to call it late Victorian, but telephones and automobiles are to be found, as well as those pony and traps, so perhaps early Edwardian would be more accurate. Still, letters and documents that go far in explaining the provenance of the ghostly Woman In Black do tell of a period squarely in the mid-19th century. At times, the book almost feels like a children’s ghost story meant to be told at holiday gatherings — the charming illustrations by John Lawrence go far in abetting this notion — although no children’s ghost story ever featured such dreadful happenings as transpire in Susan Hill’s book.

As for the Woman in Black herself, she is indeed an extremely intimidating entity, and every one of her appearances manages to frighten, whether she is seen in a church pew, a graveyard or at the window of Eel Marsh House. Garbed in outdated funeral black and bonnet, and with a disease-ravaged, pale and luminous face betokening what the author describes as “desperate, yearning malevolence,” the ghost of Jennet Humfrye is surely one guaranteed to evoke shudders. And her final appearance in the book, attendant as it is on a double tragedy, and with its suggestion that this ghost is hardly confined to the vicinity of Crythin Gifford and Eel Marsh House, might very well be the most horrible and chilling of all.

And speaking of Eel Marsh House, this deliciously scary and well-named abode, where Kipps spends a few nerve-shattering nights, must automatically be placed in the pantheon of great haunted homes in horror literature; abodes that include Shirley Jackson’s Hill House and Richard Matheson’s Hell House. And not just because of the uber-creepy things that transpire in it, either. Eel Marsh House, set atop its swampish surroundings, prone to sudden mists and storms, adjacent to a crumbling monastery and graveyard, is a wonderfully atmospheric place, as is Crythin Gifford itself. Hill, who was born and who spent her childhood in the seacoast town of Scarborough, Yorkshire, says of her birthplace on her website, “…So many of my novels and short stories feature it, though always in disguise…” The author makes us feel and see the small town and hear and smell the atmosphere of the Eel Marsh estuary; it was an environment she knew well. Despite a tendency to employ run-on sentences and an occasional ungrammatical turn of phrase — such as “a person who hid themselves” — she is a wonderful writer, and one whom I hope to get to know better. I read Hill’s book over the course of a few gloomy and rainy October days, and found it to be a perfect accompaniment to the season.The Woman in Black: A Ghost Story

I should add that The Woman in Black was chosen for inclusion in Jones & Newman’s excellent overview volume Horror: Another 100 Best Books, and I have no problem whatsoever with its inclusion. Writing of the novel therein, author David Stuart Davies tells us that it is “one of the greatest chillers of all time,” and I for one wholeheartedly concur. Not many books are capable of sending that ice-water sensation down my spine, but this one did, and repeatedly. Allow me to be plain here: This is a great horror novel.

~Sandy Ferber


The Woman in Black by Susan Hill horror novel reviewsKnowing that Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black is considered one of the classics in the ghost story genre, I have to say I was a little surprised at how straightforward it is. That’s not to say it isn’t spooky or atmospheric, but it’s also totally predictable in the unfolding of its plot.

The book is best described as a novella, which could easily be read in one sitting by a determined reader, told in first-person narration by its protagonist Arthur Kipps. In his own words he recounts his youth as an ambitious lawyer, sent by his employer to the remote village of Crythin Gifford to attend the funeral of Mrs Alice Drablow, a long-time client of the firm.

While there, he’s tasked with collecting any relevant documents from her home of Eel Marsh House, a place surrounded by treacherous salt marshes and accessible only by a causeway at low tide. He’s eager enough to leave the smog and bustle of London, but is a little unnerved by the reactions of those in the village once they learn where he’s headed.

To say anymore might well give the whole book away — as I’ve said, it’s not very long! But Hill packs her story full of almost every ghostly cliché known to man: the remote house, the silent spectre, the fearful villagers, the strange noises in the night… Arthur also proves to be a typical ghost story protagonist, choosing to spend the night alone in a frightening location despite already having experienced supernatural phenomena.

Yet Hill writes with a deft hand, not only capturing the voice of an early nineteenth century man, but also the eerie beauty of the world around him. In her hands, all the clichés feel fresh.

But knowing that the book has been adapted into a stage play and a film, I’m still a little bemused by how such a slight story became so popular. The Woman in Black is a fun, spooky read, but not a hugely original or memorable one.

~Rebecca Fisher


The Woman in Black: A Ghost Story by Susan Hill The Woman in Black by Susan Hill horror novel reviewsThere is a tradition in Japan to tell ghost stories during hot summer evenings so that listeners will get chills as a respite from the heat. Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black would be the perfect tale for such an evening. Written in the style of a Gothic novel, The Woman in Black possesses all the classic tropes of a traditional ghost story, but far from feeling like a cliché, Hill presents us with a timeless horror.

The story begins with a surprisingly comforting scene: Arthur Kipps is enjoying a warm and festive evening with his family around the fire. However, when his stepchildren begin to tell ghost stories, Arthur quickly becomes agitated and has to remove himself from the room. Thus ensues his retelling of the unsettling events of decades ago.

A young Arthur Kipps, then still a trainee solicitor, is sent by his firm to attend the funeral of Mrs Drablow, a widow whose papers he must get in order. Her home, Eel Marsh House, lies in the north of England in a small market town named Crythin Gifford, whose inhabitants are reluctant to speak to Arthur about Eel Marsh House and its former owner. Upon attending the funeral of Mrs Drablow, Arthur sees a woman dressed in black. When he enquires fellow funeral-goers (and there aren’t many) about the mysterious woman, the reaction is one of fear and denial. Arthur, young, brash and overconfident, resolves to spend a night at the house to sort Mrs Drablow’s papers and be done with the business so he can return home to his fiancée.

And so begins an increasingly chilling tale of the woman in black and her presence at Eel Marsh House. Hill infuses every aspect of the story with unsettling elements. The claustrophobic setting is stifling and the agitated characters, from mistrustful townsfolk to the unknown figure haunting Arthur’s every move, all serve to create an uncomfortable reading experience. Then there is Arthur’s own self-confidence, which readers cannot help but feel apprehensive over as it leads him deeper and deeper into the horrific events of Eel Marsh House.

The novel is short and, of course, tightly plotted, as any good ghost story must be, its prose simple and unadorned. The Woman in Black is a timeless story of the horror of the past, which the many adaptations both on stage and screen testify to. One needn’t be a fan of horror to enjoy the book, for Arthur Kipps’ descent into delirium will have readers racing to learn of his terrible fate.

~Ray McKenzie

Published in 1983. 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.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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RACHAEL "RAY" MCKENZIE, with us since December 2014, was weaned onto fantasy from a young age. She grew up watching Studio Ghibli movies and devoured C.S. Lewis’ CHRONICLES OF NARNIA not long after that (it was a great edition as well -- a humongous picture-filled volume). She then moved on to the likes of Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy and adored The Hobbit (this one she had on cassette -- those were the days). A couple of decades on, she is still a firm believer that YA and fantasy for children can be just as relevant and didactic as adult fantasy. Her firm favourites are the British greats: Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Neil Gaiman, and she’s recently discovered Ben Aaronovitch too. Her tastes generally lean towards Urban Fantasy but basically anything with compelling characters has her vote.

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6 comments

  1. Hill plays upon one of my absolute favorite genres of fiction. The original film adaptation for TV is hands down the scariest film I have ever seen, out of literally thousands of titles, and the Hammer remake made my top ten list for reimagined films. This is an excellent tradition to be pointing out, especially as the weather turns (and hopefully stays!) colder.

  2. sandy ferber /

    Would you happen to know, Kathryn, if that BBC TV version is available for watching on DVD or some other format? It sure does sound terrific; I’d love to see it sometime….

  3. sandy ferber /

    OK, I just answered my own question, Kathryn, by looking for the DVD on Amazon. It IS available for $200 (!!!) for a used DVD, and for $290 (!!!) for a new DVD. Those are not typos. Guess I will just have to make a mental note of this one and wait for it to pop up somewhere else at 1/20th the price….

  4. I believe a DVD form is rather rare. You can get a VHS version on Amazon if you’re willing to pay through your teeth. I have a dvd copy, I think from when I used to show it in my horror cinema classes at Stony Brook University. I might try Ebay if I were you.

  5. sandy ferber /

    A horror cinema class?!?! Would I have loved to attend one of THOSE!!! Anyway, thanks again, Kathryn!

  6. I agree with Rebecca about the book. I thought it was really cliched, and actually not very frightening (perhaps because of this). It’s amazing how we all like different things! I haven’t seen a play, TV series or film, and I do know that very slight stories (often short stories) can end up as the best scripts, so it is probably well worth watching.

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