“Whatever was about, whoever I had seen, and heard rocking, and who had passed me by just now, whoever had opened the locked door was not `real`.No. But what was `real`? At that moment I began to doubt my own reality.”
Susan Hill`s The Woman in Black is often referred to as a Gothic novel, but it bears only a superficial acquaintance with the Gothic fiction of the 18th and 19th centuries. It is not a thriller wrapped up as a horror story, it is as pure an example of a ghost story of the supernatural as you are ever likely to come across. The greatest artist of the Victorian/Edwardian story of the supernatural was probably the Cambridge don, M.R. James, The Woman In Black is a modern reincarnation of the great man`s writing style: the essential ingredients are lashings of atmosphere, a ghost, a suitable location, and moody weather to serve as a shroud to cover the story in melancholia, dread and foreboding. A great ghost story also has to have a spectral protagonist with a purpose, and boy, does the one in this book have a mission to fulfill.
She inhabits the isolated, brooding Eel Marsh House, surrounded by it`s enveloping, forbidding marsh and a fog which clings to, and burrows into every nook and cranny with long, boney arthritic fingers. This is her domain, and her opponent is gentle, quiet, loving family man, Arthur Kipps, sent by his firm of solicitors to Eel Marsh to sort out the papers of the recently deceased Mrs Drablow `a rum` un` as he`s informed by his boss, and attend her funeral, before sending the papers back to London.
There is a slow burning, unhurried scene setting at work in this short book, which lulls us into a false sense of warmth and safety as we accompany Mr Kipps on his journey towards the unspecified northern location of Eel Marsh House. It`s all a delightful Jamesian ruse to lead us gently and willingly by the hand into the jaws of Hell. And when Hell opens wide it`s creaking gates, it`s all the more striking and shocking to the system.
Mr Kipps tells us that he does not believe in ghosts, even as he sees a woman in black standing alone at the church service and the graveside. Slowly, like the creeping tentacles of mist from the marsh, his heart, mind and resolve disintegrates under the chilling presence which wraps itself around him like a smothering blanket. The house has it`s effect upon him: he hears, and then sees things; shapes and movement out of the corner of his eyes. As he works his way through the old lady`s papers a shocking, terrifying story begins to show itself to him……..She, shows herself to him.
The Woman In Black is one of the finest ghost stories ever written. It`s subtle and slow buildup of tension and atmosphere is truly inspired. It draws the reader towards it like you are an over stretched elastic band…….Then snap! There`s no escape; the lifeline has gone. You`re all alone in Eel Marsh House – almost alone.