Last night i finished The Woman in Black
by Susan Hill
and here is my review (contains spoliers)
The first thing that surprised me about the book was how short it is- barely 150 pages long, it is practically a short story. Good thing its such a cracking story and also a superior haunted house tale to boot. That Hill has managed to create such a terrifying and affecting ghost story in 150 pages, which stays with the reader long afterwards, is a credit to her skills at building suspense and also a kick in the teeth for any critics who say women cannot write horror as effectively as men.
The story starts with wet-round-the-ears lawyer Arthur Kipps who is sent to the small village of Crythin Gillford in east England in order to sort through the belongings of a recently deceased elderly woman, Alice Drablow, and compile a legally binding will. He arrives at the villiage a bit unused to the ways and customs of country people and also, he finds the locals very evasive on the subject of the late Alice Drablow and at the funeral, he glimpses a shadowy woman in black amongst the few mourners, an event which prompts an hysterical reaction from his partner for the day and fellow lawyer. Convinced the townsfolk are silly superstitious people, he sets off for Eel Marsh House on pony and trap. Here. Kipps is astounded by the isolation and beuaty of the place which Hill gradually describes as the journey moves from bustling villiage to empty and lonely marshland with only the low wind and occasional birds cry for company. The reader is transported to a differnt world on arrival to the big stone house with its shadowy corridors, dusty furnishings and nearby burial plotland. Kipps is unnerved by yet another sighting of the woman near a grave but puts it down to his imagination and after sepnding a few hours there, he returns to the mainland more determined to go back the following day and sift through the documents.
Which is where the real horrpr begins. Taking a dog with him for company her spends 2 days and nights at Eel Marsh Hosue and its here where the house almost begins to come alive and he discovers its tragic secret. Hill creates a world where the protagonist is literlly trapped-cut off form the mainlain by high tide and marshes- and hence the suspense and terror builds quietly but effectively. Kipps is awoken in the dead of night by strange sounds coming from the one room in the house which is locked. He catches glimpses of shadowy figures passing down the upstairs corridor and he hears an anguished cry from the misty marshes duing the day, all of which climaxes when Kipps tries to save the dog, who has been lured into the marsh, and then as he is limping back to the house, he glances to an upstairs bedroom window to find the woman in black standing there staring right at him with an expression of malevolence and bitterness. He traces her to the room which was previously locked, and it turns out to be the nursery, which is decorated as if brand new and the room is filled with such an overwhelming sense of despair and morning that Kipps isnt able to breathe and retires downstairs until he is picked up by a local townsperson.
As in the best horror stories the real truth of the village isnt revealed until the end. Kipps spends several days in shock after his experiences and is then filled in on the tragic truth behind Alice Drablow, whose sister Jeannete gave birth outside of marriage and had to give up the child to her sister, an event which she accepts at first but over time she demands more time with her natural son, something denied by Alice Drablow who gradually cuts off all contact and portrays her sister as unsound of mind. The sister grows more and more angry and bitter and vows revenge if she cant see her son. Tragically, the son is drowned in the marsh one night in rough storms and the sister vows to never forgive Alice for keeping her son from her. She remains hateful to her death and ever since, anyone who even glimpses her has had their child killed shortly after....
Its a brutal and terrifying tale filled with images and descriptions which are hard to forget and the house itself is as much of a character as everyone else. The best bit for me, and the film does this just as well, is when the hauntings are explained and the body of the young child is unearthed from the marsh and left next to the mothers' grave, the reader now thinks everything is ok, the mother is at peace and the hauntings will stop...the story flits back to the big old empty house, dusty chairs, desolate nursery...and pans in on a letter from Jeanette to Alice in which she vows to "Never, ever forgive her for killing my son"...the words Never, Ever are repeated to such chilling perfection that the reader is now under no illusions that this spirit will never stop in her pursuit of revenge, which has dire consequences for Kipps.
Its not a happy story, its not an uplfiting story. It is excatly what it says on the cover, a dark and chilling ghost story. It of course helped that i read it late in the night and the haunting left my skin covered in goosebumps, something which hasnt happened for quite some time. A highly recommended ghost story and fantastic haunted house book. My only nagging point? Hill mentiond the fog of early 1900s London a little too much for my liking, the amount of times she described the types of fog (misty, coiled etc) didnt really add to the tale. Besides that i woud give it a solid 9 out of 10. Excellent.