The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
Young solicitor Arthur Kipps is sent by his firm to a rather secluded English village in order to tie up the affairs of the late Mrs. Alice Drablow, a recently deceased elderly client. The villagers don’t seem inclined to discuss Mrs. Drablow, or anything else for that matter, though they do make Arthur welcome. At the funeral service, Arthur catches a glimpse of a woman in black lurking around the churchyard, but his inquiries are brushed aside. Resolutely, he prepares to go to Eel Marsh House, Mrs. Drablow’s residence, which is in a marshy area accessible only at certain times due to the tides. Once there, he will be cut off from the outside world until such a time as the pony cart can cross the causeway to fetch him.
He’s going to wish he had taken a tide chart with him.
The subtitle of the book is “A Ghost Story” and that’s exactly what this is, in the best sense of the phrase. The old fashioned setting, the formal narration, even the nature of the story itself harkens back to those wonderful early ghost tales where the chills and thrills came from the mind and not blood spatter. Hill has perfectly captured the flavor of these Victorian tales . It’s beautifully written; Arthur, the narrator, is looking back at an event which shaped his life and he tells his tale without hyperbole or exaggeration. It has the ring of authenticity.
The book is just so wonderfully atmospheric. I could practically smell the sea air and shivered a bit in the dampness. While there were definitely warning signs, the book wasn’t over laden with signs and portents. The villagers may not have been over communicative, but there was nary a pitchfork nor cackling crone in sight. Arthur enjoys a hearty meal at the inn, a warm fire and a comfortable bed. The skies are blue and largely clear but cold. No air of menace hangs overhead.
The haunted aspects come later.
The ending is abrupt and I was taken aback at first, but it is the perfect ending. He has told his tale; there’s no analyzing or rationalization that this might have been just his imagination. This is what happened and, like the villagers, he has no wish to discuss it further.
There is a theatrical production of the book and there has been at least two movie versions but I don’t think either could ever capture the book, especially not the ending.