Surely, it was popular when it first came out in 1983, but The Woman in Black by Susan Hill generated lots of attention when it was made into a movie starring Daniel Radcliffe.
The premise is simple: Arthur, a young lawyer, is assigned the task of handling the will of the recently deceased Mrs Drablow. The elderly woman lived in Eel Marsh House, unremarkable save for its location: a boggy island that is only accessible when the tide is out. A sturdy young man not taken in by the occult, Arthur kisses his fiance goodbye and heads first to the town a few miles from his destination in order to procure transportation. The townspeople are friendly until Arthur mentions why he’s there; then, they ignore him.
Upon his arrival to Eel Marsh House, which is perfectly timed with when the tide goes out, Arthur sees a woman who looks as though she’s suffering from a wasting disease. Also, he hears the sound of a carriage crash and child crying incessantly for help. Yet, a thick fog rolls in, and Arthur finds himself almost lost in his pursuit of the child, wondering if he’ll be stuck on the small land connection between the house and the town when the tide rolls in, or if he’ll drown in the wet, unstable ground that sucks at his feet and could swallow a man whole.
Susan Hill has crafted a novella that echoes Victorian novels, but reads a bit more smoothly, slightly more modern. She captures the atmosphere of each setting, no matter where Arthur is. For instance, before leaving for Eel Marsh House, he must brave the London weather:
Fog was outdoors, hanging over the river, creeping in and out of alleyways and passages, swirling thickly between the bare trees of all the parks and gardens of the city, and indoors, too, seething through cracks and crannies like sour breath, gaining a slight entrance at every opening of a door.
Arthur, though facing a serious job and the possibility of a ghost preventing him from doing his work, is a funny narrator. When he arrives at Eel Marsh House, he assumes the place to have gone to rack and ruin because Mrs Drablow lived alone. He admits he half expected the place to either be a shrine to a dead husband Mrs Drablow has mourned for years, or ” . . . to be simply cobwebbed and filthy, with old newspapers, rags and rubbish piled in corners, all the debris of a recluse — together with some half-starved cat or dog.” Now, perhaps my sense of humor has gotten too dark, but I found that description funny because it felt sadly spot on. There’s another moment when Arthur describes a clerk as having “the complexion of a tallow candle, and a permanent cold, which caused him to sniff every twenty seconds . . .” Can’t you just picture this fellow and feel simultaneously sad, grossed out, and like you’ve met him?
In a stroke of genius, Hill uses all the old Victorian tropes in haunted stories: the harbinger, the isolated setting, a dead woman with piles of paper that could contain secrets, creepy noises, even a dog that growls and barks when it seems like nothing is there. The Woman in Black is yet another novel that is not scary, but more spooky. If you enjoyed the plot of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House or perhaps older novels like Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen, you’ll enjoy Susan Hill’s novella. I had great fun reading it and enjoyed such a stubbornly realistic narrator even when he was faced with the occult.