‘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 knew of the film, ‘The Woman in Black’, before the book. I attempted to watch the original but didn’t get very far – my overactive imagination took over way before the woman herself had appeared on screen! Yes, I’m a scaredy cat and the first to admit it!
Recently, I read a blog post by Lydia Schoch where she mentioned the book, and my interest was piqued. Would I be able to manage the book, I wondered, after failing so miserably with the film, even the remake?
With encouragement from Lydia, I decided to be brave. My local library had a copy and when I went to borrow it, I couldn’t find it. The librarian checked the online records, which showed all the paperback copies had been borrowed by a local book club, but the one large print, hard back was available to be borrowed. Yet, she couldn’t find it either. We both agreed that was just a little bit spooky.
Too impatient to wait for the other copies to be returned, I went ahead and bought one for myself. I was a little surprised to find it’s only a little book, 160 pages.
The story is told in first person, in the voice of Arthur Kipps. Instead of beginning with him as a junior solicitor, we find him in his later years, happily married and stepfather to his wife’s children from her first marriage.
This was my first experience of Susan Hill, and by the second paragraph, I’d decided I liked her style. Her descriptions drew me in straightaway.
‘I have always liked to take a breath of the evening, to smell the air, whether it is sweetly scented and balmy with the flowers of midsummer, pungent with the bonfires and leaf-mould of autumn, or crackling cold from frost and snow. I like to look about me at the sky above my head, whether there are moon and stars or utter blackness, and into the darkness ahead of me; I like to listen for the cries of nocturnal creatures and the moaning rise and fall of the wind, or the pattering of rain in the orchard trees, I enjoy the rush of air towards me up the hill from the flat pastures of the river valley.’
It is the seemingly innocent telling of ghost stories on Christmas Eve, and the gentle teasing of Arthur’s family to tell one of his own, that sets the stage for the story, ‘the true story, a story of haunting and evil, fear and confusion, horror and tragedy… woven into my very fibres, an inextricable part of my past…’
We are taken back to that past, when Arthur was ‘barely twenty-three years old’, and living in fog-bound London. Hill’s description of the way heavy fog affects light blew me away.
‘Pools of sulphurous yellow light, as from random corners of some circle of the Inferno, flared from shops and the upper windows of houses, and from the basements they rose like flares from the pit below…’
Arthur is given the job of attending the funeral of an old client, Mrs Alice Drablow, and sorting through her papers at her home, Eel Marsh House. Eager to get out of London, he views his journey and task with a sense of adventure.
The only indication we have of the location of Eel Marsh House is when Arthur changes trains at Crewe (north west England) and he notes ‘the track began to veer towards the east, as well as heading north…’
The story progresses at a slow, deliberate pace, giving us time to settle with Arthur, and to experience the quaintly named little market town of Crythin Gifford through his eyes. Hill’s evocative, atmospheric descriptions transported me to a region of England I’ve never been to but one I could easily picture with its flat landscape, the air ‘fresh, crisp and clear and the sky as blue as a blackbird’s egg’, but which could transform to a ‘grey and bleak’ place, ‘beaten and battered at for days on end by those gales that come sweeping across’ the open country. And not to forget the sea-frets, what the locals name the sea-mists; ‘they roll up in a minute from the sea to land across the marshes… One minute it’s as clear as a June day, the next…’
After Mrs Drablow’s funeral, Arthur begins to suspect the locals know more about Mrs Drablow and the pale woman ‘dressed in deepest black’, but they blatantly refuse to answer his questions.
I kept forgetting the story is set in the 20th century; I kept imagining it in Victorian times. Especially when Arthur is taken to Mrs Drablow’s house in a pony and trap. The only way to get to Eel Marsh House is to cross Nine Lives Causeway at low tide; once the tide comes in, the House is cut off from the mainland.
A little aside here – nowhere in the story does Hill give us any dates. The only clue is Arthur remembering the name of the engine that pulled the train from Kings Cross station – Sir Bedivere. I asked Gordon, who’s inherited his dad’s love of steam trains, if Sir Bedivere was a real steam engine. It certainly was. Sir Bedivere was part of the King Arthur class of steam trains, which were built between 1919 and 1926. Sir Bedivere itself was built in April 1925, which helps put a date setting to the story.
The moment Arthur sees Eel Marsh House is when, for me, the tension slowly begins to build. I found his attempts to logically explain and make sense of the inexplicable things he sees, hears and experiences believable. He’s a modern young man, not given to odd country beliefs.
The horrors that gradually unfold don’t rely on ‘jump-scares’ or cheap shocks. The encroaching evil that slowly permeates the story left me dreading turning the page even as I couldn’t read fast enough. Like Arthur, I wanted to find out the reasons behind what he kept hearing, yet I didn’t want him to open the door or look out the window.
The ending. I can honestly say, I did not see it coming at all.
Of all the characters in the story, my favourite was the dog, Spider. Even though she didn’t belong to Arthur, he couldn’t have found a truer companion.
All these years of believing ‘The Woman in Black’ to be a frightening horror story, I found it creepy instead of outright scary, if that makes sense. And yet, the sense of unease stayed with me for days afterwards.
I enjoyed Susan Hill’s writing style very much. Her deft manner in using simple, everyday English elevated this story, in my opinion, showing there’s no need to use over the top, flowery prose to tell a great story. That she gave the woman in black enough character not to be dismissed as a cliché evil ghost is, in my opinion, testament to her skill as a storyteller.
I plan to read more of her books. And this particular book is one I know I’ll return to many times.