I read this book on the lead-up to Halloween, and it was perfect for the time of year. This dark, gothic little ghost story is wonderfully atmospheric with a Victorian feel.
Set in an unknown time, The Woman In Black is narrated by Arthur Kipps, now a comfortable middle-aged man spending the festive season with his family. As the group swap ghost stories around the fire, Arthur reflects quietly on his own encounter with the paranormal.
“Yes, I had a story, a true story, a story of haunting and evil, fear and confusion, horror and tragedy. But it was not a story to be told for casual entertainment, around the fireside upon Christmas Eve.”
And so Arthur shares his story with the reader; the story of how he was summoned as a young lawyer to Crythin Gifford, to attend the funeral of Alice Drablow and clear out her isolated home on the sea, Eel Marsh House. As soon as he arrives there’s a sense of something a little off about the area; it’s a small town and as an outsider he is instantly recognised as such. And why do so many of the local folk clam up at any mention of Alice Drablow and Eel Marsh House?
When he attends her funeral he gets his first glimpse of a mysterious woman in black who slips in quietly and sits at the back of the church, disappearing as quickly as she entered, but not before he sees her face, which is chillingly described. “Only the thinnest layer of flesh was tautly strained across her bones, so that it gleamed with a curious, blue-white sheen, and her eyes seems sunken back into her head.”
The imagery throughout this novel is brilliant; Hill sets the scene with lengthy descriptions of the gloomy November weather and the journey North from London to the small coastal town. Using considered, traditional prose she immerses the reader in another time period not just through the setting, but in the writing style too. It all feels distinctly British – from the bleak winter weather to Arthur’s consistently cheerful, rational, stiff-upper-lip attitude towards the events which begin to unfold, and I love that.
Eel Marsh House itself is situated on a small island, only accessible when the tide is down, so Arthur decides to spend the night to get his work done. Completely isolated and cut off from the world, it’s the perfect location for a ghost story and that feeling of confinement adds to the atmosphere as Arthur begins to hear strange noises and becomes convinced that he is not alone.
This is a short book at only 160 pages but it never feels rushed, Hill takes her time building up the atmosphere with elegant, descriptive and traditional prose. It’s not until almost halfway through that the ghostly shenanigans really begin, but by that point I was already captivated and completely invested in finding out what happened to Arthur on that island.
I wouldn’t say it scared me more than any other novel I’ve read, but what this book does do wonderfully is capture the atmosphere of a time and a place, and the development of its protagonist from a cheerful and hopeful young man, to someone forever changed by his dark experience. A twist very near the end of story reveals the woman in black’s truly evil intentions, and the lengths she will go to to fulfil them, giving the story an altogether more sinister feel. A perfect short read for this time of year, and I can see why this book is considered a modern classic.