Published in 1983, Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black has become a modern classic of old-school British gothic ghost stories. Not only has it had two film adaptations (a made-for-TV English production from 1989 with a screenplay by Nigel Kneale; and a financially successful 2012 adaptation starring Daniel Radcliffe and produced by a revamped Hammer Studios), but it was also adapted for the stage in 1987, and is the second-longest-running play in the history of the West End.
Despite its ubiquity, and despite my having seen both movie versions (both of which are absolutely worth watching), I had actually never read the source novel. So of course I had to remedy that woeful gap in my horror reading repertoire. If you love old-fashioned ghost stories and gothic fiction, you really owe it to yourself to read it; it’s not very long (only about 160 pages), and it’s wonderfully eerie and evocative.
This discussion may have some spoilers; I figured that since the book is decades old and has been adapted to different mediums, most people would probably have at least a passing familiarity with the story. But if you don’t want to know the twists and turns, then maybe read the book first and come back here later on.
Like many classic ghost tales, The Woman in Black is told as a frame story on Christmas Eve. A lawyer named Arthur Kipps is sitting with his family, who are all trying to creep each other out with the scariest stories; he becomes annoyed with their shenanigans and leaves the room, though he won’t tell them what upset him. So the rest of the novel is his written account, reluctantly telling his family about a terrifying and tragic series of events that happened to him many years before. He makes the stipulation that his family should not read this memoir until after he’s dead.
He relates that when he was starting out as a young lawyer, his first major assignment was to travel out to this small town called Crythin Gifford in order to organize the affairs of a woman who recently died, a reclusive widow by the name of Alice Drablow. She lived in this enormous, rambling old mansion called Eel Marsh House, that stood all by itself on a slip of land in the middle of a massive marsh. The house is only accessible at low tide, since the only road leading to it—dubbed Nine Lives Causeway—becomes completely submerged when the tide is high.
Arthur is eager to do well on this first assignment, hoping he’ll get a promotion so that he’ll be able to marry his fiancée Stella. He doesn’t think the job will be all that complicated or take a particularly long time, and to be honest, he’s looking forward to spending a few days out in the country to get away from the noise and grime of turn-of-the-century London.
We get our first inkling that something mysterious might be going on before Arthur even arrives in Crythin Gifford. On the train there, he meets and befriends a man named Samuel Daly, who is familiar with Eel Marsh House and its strange former occupant, but seems reluctant to share any information. And indeed, Arthur finds a similar reticence among the townsfolk whenever he brings up the topic of Alice Drablow or her creepy old house.
He attends the woman’s funeral, and while there, spots a woman in mourning clothes lurking around the periphery of the cemetery. Arthur doesn’t believe she’s a ghost at first; she appears solid enough, though pale and somewhat skeletal, with a tendency to quickly vanish from the scene with no hint of where she might have gone. He asks another solicitor in town, Mr. Jerome, who the woman in black is, but Mr. Jerome says he doesn’t know, even though it’s pretty clear he does.
The next day, Arthur is taken out to the house on a pony and trap and left there, and when he goes inside to survey the work ahead of him, he realizes that this assignment is going to take far longer than he anticipated; there are papers and documents everywhere, and he is obliged to go through all of them to make certain nothing important is missed.
Because having to come back and forth to the house is such a hassle, he decides he would save time by staying at the house until all of the work is done. It’s certainly not the ideal situation, as the place is drafty and spooky as hell, but Arthur tries to make it work. His friend Samuel Daly even loans him a sweet little terrier named Spider to keep him company. The dog’s presence helps, but it’s still an unsettling proposition, especially since, once the tide comes up, you’re essentially trapped at the house for hours at a time. Not only that, but the land the house is situated on is always windy and foggy, so it basically looks as though you’re living on the very edge of the world with absolutely no one else around.
Not too long after Arthur starts going through Alice Drablow’s things, your standard haunting stuff starts to happen around the house: weird creaks, stuff moving around when he isn’t looking, a mysterious room whose door he can’t open and from behind which odd thumps can be heard. He also sees the woman in black out in the gardens, although he can’t imagine how she might have gotten there. And the longer he’s in the house, the more he begins to have feelings of unexplained hatred and rage.
One night, he clearly hears what sounds like a pony and trap sinking into the marsh, complete with the sound of the horse whinnying in terror, and what sounds like a child screaming. This freaks him out a great deal, as you can imagine, because at first he believes that the guy who comes back and forth to fetch him has had a horrible accident. But nope; when he looks out, nothing is there.
After this happens a couple of times, he confides in Samuel Daly, who at last tells him about the tragedy that befell Eel Marsh House. Turns out that Alice Drablow had a sister named Jennet who had a baby out of wedlock. Due to the scandal, Alice and her then husband took the child, Nathaniel, to raise as their own, and didn’t allow Jennet to see him. After a while, Alice started to feel bad, and allowed Jennet to come see the boy, but admonished her to never tell him that she was his real mother.
Sadly, one particularly foggy night, Nathaniel was being driven back to Eel Marsh House in the pony and trap, and the whole kit and kaboodle sank in the swamp: horse, driver, kid, and all. Jennet saw the whole thing happen from an upstairs window and went completely crazy with rage and grief, understandably. She got some wasting disease and eventually died, so the woman in black that Arthur has been seeing is actually Jennet’s ghost. The reason that no one will mention her is because the townsfolk all believe that whenever you see the woman in black, it means a child in the town is going to die. Mr. Jerome, the town solicitor who evaded Arthur’s questions about the woman in black earlier, had his daughter die after a sighting of her, hence why he didn’t want to talk about it. The idea is that because Jennet blamed the entire town for taking away her child, her rage manifested itself as a curse on the residents of Crythin Gifford.
I won’t spoil the tragedy that happens next, but suffice it to say that Arthur becomes personally acquainted with the ill omen surrounding the woman in black, and the reason that he’s writing this horrific story for his wife and children many years later is precisely because they were making such a lark about telling ghost stories around Christmas time, not taking ghosts very seriously. He’s basically trying to tell them that ghosts aren’t funny or simply for amusement; the ghost of the woman in black ruined his entire life.
I can’t remember if the 1989 film version ended the same way as the book did, but I will say that the 2012 adaptation with Daniel Radcliffe ended somewhat differently (more bleakly, actually), and because of the way it ends, the whole “frame story” narrative device has been removed. What happens to Arthur’s eventual wife Stella in the movie also differs from the book; like, the same kinda thing happens to her, just at a different point in the timeline. Also, the role of the woman in black as a portent of child death is leaned into way harder in the movie, and a bunch of kids die in the town that didn’t die in the book; the novel was a lot more low-key in that respect. There was actually a sequel to the 2012 film called The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death that came out in 2015; I saw it, but I don’t think it was all that memorable.
The fact that this novel was written in 1983 and yet still evokes that wonderfully eerie vibe of turn-of-the-century English ghost stories is really remarkable, and I can see why this book has been so popular since its original publication. It’s delightfully creepy and evocative, and though it’s much more subtle and restrained than a more modern horror fan might wish, I loved it unreservedly. Seriously, brew yourself some Earl Gray tea, wrap up in a blanket in front of a roaring fire on a cold, rainy day, and lose yourself in the ghostly goodness.