4.5 stars,  ghosts,  gothic

Review: ‘The Woman in Black’ by Susan Hill

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars


Proud and solitary, Eel Marsh House surveys the windswept reaches of the salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway. Arthur Kipps, a junior solicitor, is summoned to attend the funeral Mrs Alice Drablow, the house’s sole inhabitant, unaware of the tragic secrets which lie hidden behind the shuttered windows. 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.


h, young solicitors sent to great huge mansions by your apparently benevolent bosses, when will you learn?  Thankfully for the literary world, never. 

Arthur Kipps is an ambitious but worryingly naive solicitor, plodding his way through dull cases and hoping to catch the eye of his superior and be offered something more fulfilling so that he and his fiancé can buy a little house and live happily ever after.  Unfortunately, Kipps’ blind hope leads him to gallivant off to the moors to wrap up Mrs Drablow’s estate despite an abundance of warnings that he’s running into more than he knows.  As starts to novels go, it’s a classic.  But hey, it works.  There’s something disarming about being ‘introduced’ to a fresh-faced, eager man when you just know that it’s all about to change.

As a proper gothic ghost story should be, though, this is less about the characters and
more about the setting and what they experience.  Kipps, however, is as good a narrator as you could ask for. The unravelling of his objective, legally-trained mind is well-paced and realistic. I think one of my favourite things about the book was how well Hill blended those touches of realism with the paranormal.  Who hasn’t had the occasional moment in the night where something sets you on edge and, even though you know it will more likely than not be something perfectly normal in the morning, at the time, everything seems sinister? Just me?  Ok…Regardless, the way Kipp tried to hold on to his version of reality in the daylight hours was a nice touch and he was just how I like my narrators.  No running around flapping and panicking but equally no getting all gung-ho and toting exorcism equipment about the place. Just good old-fashioned rational thought and a scared man’s attempts to take charge over the situation.    

The beauty of The Woman in Black lies in its simplicity.  There are no superfluous details or incidental conversations detracting from the incisively unnerving descriptions.  Believe me, they’re enough.  This is a book that is as much about what you don’t see as what you do; the inexplicable noises behind the locked door, a glimpse of a face at the window in an empty house, distant screams in the fog.  The atmosphere is really well balanced and I often felt as though I could see the mist descending over Eel Marsh House as much as I could feel the corresponding increase in tension. 

I really liked Kipps, I couldn’t say the same for many of the other characters.  I suppose that’s unfair seeing as they aren’t really characters as much as plot devices but I find all the foreshadowing a touch too much – we already have a tormented future version of the main character and a fidgety boss who’s clearly hiding something.  I’m not sure that everybody Kipps then met needed to warn him about the bad things that were coming his way if he carried on.  It’s a small gripe, I know.  I’m clutching at straws to try and be balanced! Forgive me…

It’s impossible to write a review of this without mentioning how downright brilliant the ending is but, at the same time, I don’t want to say anything that would spoil that ending for you. Suffice to say that I would have recommended this book as an exquisitely chilling ghost story without it. With it?  Devastatingly good and a story that will follow you around long after you’ve put it down and shaken off the last of the shivers.

Overall:  Last year I read The Small Hand and was was neither charmed, intrigued nor unsettled. The Woman in Black is everything The Small Hand wasn’t and then some; a perfect example of everything that makes ghost stories great. 

Date finished:  26 November 2011
Format:  Paperback
Source:  Bought
Genre:  Ghost story; Horror
Published: My edition – by Vintage in November 2007; Originally – 1983