Book review: Susan Hill’s “The Woman In Black”

I don’t know why, but books have never been able to properly scare me.

I’ll scream my head off and cover my face at a scary movie, and I will probably be doing the same if you get me inside one of those haunted houses that they have in amusement parks.

But books have never been able to elicit that reaction from me. I’ve been moved to tears, I’ve laughed my ass off, maybe even creeped out a little, but I’ve never been scared.

Because of that, I started reading “The Woman In Black” without really expecting anything. If it didn’t scare my socks off? It’s cool. And if it did? It would be a first.

Susan Hill’s “The Woman In Black” takes us to Eel Marsh House, a solitary home found in the middle of a marsh and was most recently the home of a Mrs. Alice Drablow. At the event of her death, young solicitor Arthur Kipps is tasked with going through her papers to find anything of value and send it back to London.

But what should have been a simple task turns into a huge undertaking as Eel Marsh House — and the community around it — seems to harbor a secret that they are loath to share with Arthur Kipps. When they’re not being tight-lipped or evasive, they’re all cautioning him about staying the night at Eel Marsh House.

Soon enough, Arthur Kipps discovers that there is something very sinister going on at Eel Marsh House — sinister enough to possibly deter him from doing his job. Will the forces at work in  Eel Marsh House triumph over Kipps, or will he find a way to make it through?

“The Woman In Black” starts out moodily enough, setting the tension early on by starting during a happy Christmas celebration Kipps is having with his family. As joyous as the occasion is, there is a foreboding hanging over the ceremony, and as a reader I appreciated how Hill wasn’t going for the obvious and gory scare from the get go.

And as the novel progresses, we get all the staples you’d expect — the prickly populace, the suspicious rich gentleman, the mysterious things that go bump in the night at Eel Marsh House. There is a lot of atmosphere in this book, and you certainly can’t accuse Susan Hill of being unable to set a scene.

The final confrontation between Kipps and the woman in black is also wrenching to read, if not exactly unexpected. The way with which Kipps ends his tale — with a compact series of sentences that drive home how much the woman has scarred him — is also done very effectively.

But it didn’t really scare me. I felt a lot of things while reading it — nostalgia for the days I spent in the provinces, curiosity at what the final outcome would be, and  mounting excitement and trepidation as the book came to a close — but scared was not one of them.

It isn’t really any of Susan Hill’s fault, but more of me just being an unimaginative doorknob. Everything was already set up for me! The locked rooms, the oppressive atmosphere, the noises in the middle of the night, Susan Hill didn’t pull any punches. It’s just that it’s really hard for me to bring scary scenes to life in my head, especially when it comes to sounds.

“The Woman In Black” is a great read, and I would recommend it to anyone without any reservations. I may not have ended up being unable to sleep after reading it, but that’s more of a problem on my part than anything else.

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3 thoughts on “Book review: Susan Hill’s “The Woman In Black””

  1. I’m glad it wasn’t just me. I didn’t see the film or the play because I’m not good with scary visual media, but I don’t mind being creeped out by a book. I was quite disappointed that I felt so distant reading this. Objectively I could see all the things Susan Hill had done to make an effective gothic novel – but unfortunately it didn’t make me feel scared at all. Great review!

    1. Hi!

      Thank you so much for liking my review!

      “Distant” really is a good word to describe the reading experience when it comes to “The Woman in Black”. I could see what Susan Hill was doing, but it just wouldn’t connect for me.

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