The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

The Woman in Black - Susan Hill The Woman in Black begins on Christmas Eve, when Arthur Kipps’ family gather round the fire to tell ghost stories. To the surprise and disappointment of his wife and stepchildren, Arthur refuses to join in and leaves the room, not wanting to explain that the only ghost story he knows is a true story that’s too terrifying to be told. Standing outside in the cold, Arthur decides to write his story down instead. The rest of the novel consists of Arthur’s account of something that happened to him many years earlier.

As a young lawyer, Arthur was sent to attend the funeral of a client, Mrs Alice Drablow, in the town of Crythin Gifford. Before her death, the elderly Mrs Drablow lived alone in lonely Eel Marsh House, which can only be reached from the mainland by the Nine Lives Causeway which becomes flooded at high tide. At the funeral Arthur sees a woman dressed in black but when he tries to find out who she is he discovers that nobody will answer his questions. Arthur’s work takes him to Eel Marsh House where he decides to stay for a few days sorting through Mrs Drablow’s papers – and alone in the isolated house, cut off by the tide from the rest of Crythin Gifford, Arthur has a series of encounters with the mysterious woman in black, each one more frightening than the one before.

The Woman in Black is a book I’ve wanted to read for a long time. I put it on my list for the RIP challenge last year but didn’t have time for it, so added it again to this year’s list, determined to read it this time. I’m glad I’ve read it at last and I did enjoy it, but I didn’t love it as much as I hoped to. I didn’t find the book as scary as I thought it would be either. There were a few scenes that sent a shiver down my spine, but it wasn’t quite the terrifying story I’d been expecting. I wonder whether the fact that I had to read the book in two sittings with a break in the middle made it have less impact; my advice to anyone else reading this book for the first time is to make sure you give yourself enough time to read it in one sitting if possible (it’s only a short book so it would be quite manageable).

Although this book didn’t really succeed in scaring me, it does still have everything you would expect from a traditional ghost story: there’s a creepy old house in a remote and lonely setting, lots of bad weather including storms and thick fog, a sense of mystery created by the villagers’ reluctance to talk to Arthur or to go anywhere near Eel Marsh House, and of course the ghostly manifestations of the woman in black herself. I am starting to get impatient with characters who insist on staying in houses that they know are haunted, though – Kate in Midnight is a Lonely Place which I read recently was exactly the same. I know it would spoil the story if they ran away at the first sign of trouble but I think I would have more sympathy if they weren’t voluntarily choosing to spend the night in a haunted house!

There’s not really much more I can say about this book without starting to give too much away. It’s written in a Victorian style, which I loved, but I kept wondering when the story was supposed to be set. It was obviously not the Victorian period as there were mentions of cars and electric lights, so I’m assuming it was set in the early decades of the twentieth century. I loved Spider the dog – she was my favourite character! And I thought the ending of the book worked perfectly – it wasn’t entirely unexpected but I was still shocked by it!

12 thoughts on “The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

  1. Luke Marr says:

    I don’t know – I found the style too forced for my liking (thought I would offer up an opinion).

    As an English Literature graduate it pains me to say but…I preferred the film 😛

  2. Lisa says:

    I read the book almost in one sitting, and I was disappointed with it. This was before the film came out, but I’d still read enough about the book that my expectations were pretty high. Have you seen the film – I haven’t.

  3. vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas) says:

    It can be distracting not to know when a book is set (at least I think so!), unless that is part of the necessary atmospherics. I haven’t read this one yet, but will bear your one-sitting advice in mind.

  4. BookerTalk says:

    This was also a disappointing read for me. The writing style was quite cumbersome I thought – almost every noun had to have an adjective to accompany it which became tedious. Stage version is vastly superior.

  5. Charlie says:

    I sort of want to read this, but everyone I speak to says they wished they happened seen the film! What you’ve said and what Anbolyn’s said above put it in context, the book’s different. I’m surprised it’s quite short.

  6. Claire Duffy says:

    I read this for GCSE English and didn’t sleep for weeks! I was a bit of a dramatic teenager, it has to be said – it would be interesting to read again and see if it frightens me as much… but I’m too scared 😉

  7. lynnsbooks says:

    Well, I seem to be going against the majority opinion here (except Claire) but I thought this was really good and quite scary although I can’t compare it to the film because I haven’t seen it. I admit there seems to be an abundance of people willing to stay in scary houses (in novels that is). That’s definitely not me! I’m totally wimpy about things like that – watching horror films where the young woman walks into the forest by herself because she hears a twig break – I’m always shouting ‘no, go back, run away’ and yet they never do – who behaves like that really! tsk tsk.
    Lynn 😀

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