The best ghost stories were written by Victorian writers, who knew that the most effective way to scare people was to leave something to the imagination: unsettling figures are glimpsed, noises are heard but not accounted for. Susan Hill picks up this tradition, using some of the conventions of the Victorian ghost stories: the first-person narration with the narrator looking back on his experiences. The language she uses echoes the cadences of the writing of that period. And although this novella, The Woman in Black, doesn’t specify when it was set, I’d guess that it’s in the late 1800s/very early 1900s, towards the end of the Victorian era.
It starts, as many good ghost stories do, at Christmas. The narrator, Arthur Kipps, is sitting by the fire with his wife and stepchildren, when they ask him to tell them a ghost story. This upsets him so much that he has to leave the room: the only ghost story he can tell is not one he can share over a cosy fire. Instead, he decides to write it down and lay the ghost to rest, so to speak.
As a young solicitor, Kipps is sent to Eel Marsh House to look over the papers of the late Mrs. Alice Drablow. It seems like everyone he meets in Crythin Gifford, the village near the house, knows something about Mrs. Drablow that they’re not telling him. At her funeral, he hears a rustle of skirts and sees a woman in black, stricken with what he thinks is a “horrible, wasting disease”. She isn’t there when they leave the church but he glimpses her again at the graveyard.
When he goes out to the house, which can only be reached by a causeway at low tide, he finds Mrs. Drablow’s papers in a mess. Going out for a walk to clear his head, he sees the woman again by a little graveyard in the grounds. He is repulsed by a sense of “desperate, yearning malevolence” that emanates from her. One night when Kipps stays there against his better judgement, he is woken by an odd sound. The sound leads him to a locked room—a nursery—now open with a gently rocking chair. The next morning he goes out for a walk. Turning back, he finds the woman watching him from the nursery window. Eel Marsh House is haunted by the spirit of this dark vengeful woman, and she will not rest until she has what she wants.
The story is rooted in the landscape, which is a character in its own right. The “moving, shifting mist”, “damping, clinging cobwebby”, is as disorienting as the ghost. Driving up to the house for the first time, through the estuary, Kipps is struck by his surroundings. “Here and there were clumps of reeds, bleached bone-pale, and now and again the faintest of winds caused them to rattle drily. The sun at our backs reflected the water all around so that everything shone and glistened like the surface of a mirror…. Then…I looked up ahead and saw, as if rising out of the water itself, a tall gaunt house of grey stone with a slate roof that gleamed steelily in the light.”
Susan Hill builds a sense of menace and foreboding. Her writing is vivid and unhurried, almost lyrical when describing the landscape. In a nod to M.R. James—the best of the Victorian ghost story writers—one of her chapters is titled Whistle and I’ll Come To You, one of James’s best-known stories. And like James, her story will haunt your nightmares for a while to come.
Read my review of M.R. James’s Ghost Stories, including Whistle and I’ll Come To You.