The Woman In Black

We had a half day for snow today, and likely no school tomorrow, so it’s an opportunity to catch up on reviews. I read this and another book over the weekend, which brings my January total up to five already. It’s funny, really. A year ago I was going through a reading slump, and all the time now I find myself dying to curl up with a book, even though I have a million other tasks that need doing instead.

Granted, The Woman in Black is a mere 150 pages, but Susan Hill needs little space to thoroughly haunt the reader. The story belongs to one Arthur Kipp, who will never be able to completely escape the events of many years ago. As a young lawyer he is sent to Crythin Gifford, a remote northern town bordered by dangerous marshes and the desolate sea, in order to look after the affairs of a deceased client for his firm. Whenever he mentions Mrs. Drablow, however, the gazes of the townspeople shift uneasily. The funeral is unattended save himself and a local agent, and a mysterious young woman dressed all in black who shows up only for the burial.

Mrs. Drablow’s home, Eel Marsh House, is a steadfast structure even more isolated than the town. It sits on a piece of land separated from the mainland by a narrow causeway, so that when the tide is in it is completely cut off. Even so, Arthur is impressed by the residence, and curious about what secrets it may hold. He spots the woman near the house again, and tries to approach her, but as he does her expression fills him with fear:

“It was one of what I can only describe–and the words seem hopelessly inadequate to express what I saw–as a desperate, yearning malevolence; it was as though she were searching for something she wanted, needed–must have, more than life itself, and which had been taken from her. And, towards whoever had taken it she directed the purest of evil and hatred and loathing, with all the force that was available to her.”

Arthur will need several days to sort through all of Mrs. Drablow’s papers and decides to remain at the house, though when the fog rolls in questions the decision. A locked room and mysterious sounds from the marsh nearly convince him on more than one occasion to abandon the task. He is young, however, and with foolish pride wants to show the others there is nothing to fear. When he realizes that indeed, there is, it is almost too late.

Susan Hill’s writing is very literate, as well as chillingly atmospheric. The book could just have easily been written in 1883, rather than a century later; though a car and telephone are referenced, the setting seems to be the 1920’s or 30’s. With every page she builds the bleakness of the location, and the isolation from civilization. We feel Arthur’s heightening fear along with him, the foreboding created by that dreadful otherly presence. This is not a story to read late at night.

Only one element detracts from the story’s mood–the illustrations. They are delightful little black-and-white watercolors sprinkled throughout, and look like they belong to the New Yorker or a children’s book rather than a ghost story. I should not think that a graveyard looks charming, but it John Lawrence’s hands it does. The cover art as well is incongruous, and has absolutely nothing to do with the plot. It just makes me think of Abraham Lincoln.

If you’re a fan of classic ghost stories like Edith Wharton or Le Fanu, then this is a book you’ll want to read.

Published in: on January 26, 2011 at 10:21 pm  Comments (1)  
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  1. […] in the House When I finished The Woman in Black last weekend, I was so spooked I needed to start a different book relatively soon after. Of course, […]

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