I discovered this really disturbing, truly scary ghost story just in time for Halloween. Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House" is probably the only other novel that terrified me as much as "The Woman In Black" by Susan Hill. Set in Victorian England, this atmospheric, supernatural tale of evil, terror and revenge sent chills down my spine on more than one occasion.
Ms. Hill begins her well-written narrative happily enough in the home of Arthur Kipps, who is surrounded by his loving wife and family for the Christmas holidays at their country home, Monk's Piece. Kipps is a full partner at a prestigious London law firm. Esme is his second wife. He lost his first love as a very young man. It is Christmas Eve and the grandchildren are all in bed. Their young parents, the Kipps' grown children, gather around the fire for a cozy ghost story session. At one point Kipps, obviously agitated, gets up, leaves the room and goes outside. He has hidden something significant about his past from his wife and family for years now - a tragically real ghost story of "haunting and evil, fear, confusion and horror" - of which he was a part. These events will certainly effect him all the days of his life. Kipps realizes that for his own peace of mind it is time to write his experience down and exorcise the demons, at last. He had hoped this inextricable part of his life would never have to be consciously recollected...but it is time. He decides that, at least during his lifetime, the tale will remain for his eyes only, and so he begins to write. He is our narrator.
At the very beginning of his career, many years before, Arthur Kipps, an energetic, idealistic junior solicitor was sent by his employer to attend the funeral of an elderly widow woman, Mrs. Drablow, one of the firms former clients. As the deceased owned property, including her home on the salt marshes near the town of Crythin Gifford, and had no heirs, no children or extended family, Kipps was asked to go and sort through her papers, and generally tidy-up the old woman's affairs. The Drablow manse, called Eel Marsh House, is quite isolated, situated in the middle of an estuary, connected to the mainland only by the Nine Lives Causeway, a small pathway barely visible through the marshes and quicksand, and only navigable a few hours a day. The road is underwater the rest of the time due to the strong tides.
It was at the funeral that Arthur Kipps first saw the tall, emaciated woman dressed in black. Despite his many questions to the locals, they refused to discuss the woman or address his concerns surrounding the Drabnow house, although they were extremely amiable and ready to speak out on every other topic. Suffice it to say/write that at the funeral, Kipps was the only one to see the woman in black. No one else even glimpsed what was so apparent to him. Obviously, as his work led him to spend time at Eel Marsh house, (What a creepy name!), there were to be be many more surreal episodes, each more frightening and dangerous in nature. Although these encounters are really scary, there is a mystery here also. Who is this mysterious woman...and if she is a ghost, why can she find no peace? The puzzle and ultimate denouement really left my mouth hanging open - after I let out a small scream! Good stuff, if you like to be scared...REALLY scared!
The author packs this novel with twists, turns and the unexpected at almost every turn of the page. The description of the brooding countryside, the house and surrounding marshes is at times beautiful, but always spooky. There were a few occasions when I wanted to shut my eyes - but unlike a scary movie, if one shuts one's eyes while reading, well it gets too dark to continue.
Arthur Kipps is an intelligent, level-headed man, not much given to drama or a belief in the supernatural. Thus the outright terror he experiences causes more consternation than it would coming from another character. At one point he reflects back, "It was true that the ghastly sounds I had heard through the fog had greatly upset me but far worse was what emanated from and surrounded these things and arose to unsteady me, an atmosphere, a force - I do not know exactly what to call it - of evil and uncleanness, of terror and suffering, of malevolence and bitter anger."
An excellent ghost story - little blood and gore, lots of fright. Highly recommended!