The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

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.

26 comments

    • Novellas are actually my favorite format overall, though I think many people do them poorly. A writing professor once told me never let your short story become a long story, never let your long story become a novella, and never let your novella turn into a novel.

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    • I think the dog adds the most tension with her barking at nothing and lovely loyalty. It was more so the setting that really made it for me. Hill does a great job of describing what the location feels like and how it influences people’s emotions. This is more spooky than horror, so maybe if you reread it with the mindset that it is not so much stabby as haunted, you’d like it more?

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  1. This is one of the very few traditional ghost stories that works for me. I had to watch the original movie in school and the special effects were so bad we all found it hilarious 🙂 The Daniel Radcliffe version is better. It’s also famous in Britain because of the West End stage show.

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    • Ooooh, I did not realize Hill’s story was taken to the stage, but I can see how it would work with a few simple set pieces and a good sound designer. I wanted to watch the Radcliffe version right away but did not want to confuse my review if the plots are different at all. I just looked up images from the original movie and am sad that the woman doesn’t look nearly haggard/wasted away enough for what the author describes!

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  2. Novels like this rise out of the tradition of Gothic Fiction (which Austen was inclined to ridicule). One of the earliest was Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) which I think you said you have read (I read another one of hers, The Italian). Probably the only other fiction in this vein I have read is Edgar Allan Poe.

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    • I have not yet read The Mysteries of Udolpho, but I have mentioned it because Jane Austen mentions it in Northanger Abbey, in which the heroine reads Radcliffe’s book and takes it to heart, which leads her to some pretty boring, mundane encounters. I know Austen was making fun of the Gothic novel, but Northanger Abbey fell flat for me. I do love Gothic fiction that has a good setting. I would even put Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier in there.

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  3. I have to confess that I got in trouble at school over The Woman in Black! I took GCSE Drama, and my teacher wanted to take us all to London to watch the West End show, but the plot sounded so terrifying that I never gave the permission slip to my parents. Everyone else went (and I did go to another play the next year) but my teacher was not very happy with me. Still, it does sound pretty spooky, and I think an atmospheric stage production might have been a bit much for me when I was 14. Though maybe I’m brave enough now to at least read the novella!

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    • Oh, Lou, what a sweet story! Did your parents ever find out and say anything about your refusal to include them in the conversation? I hadn’t realized there was a stage show until some of the U.K. and Canadian readers here pointed it out! I can just imagine how much or how little can be done with the set and atmosphere to make the show great. I think you can do the novella just fine. It’s more Gothic/haunting, not really scary-scary.

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