The Woman in Black

After my family pouring over this chilling novel at Christmas (not prompted by the recent blockbuster, I might add), in characteristically Relish fashion I was desperate to save The Woman in Black as a little treat for myself once the hoo hah died down. After diving for the TV/Radio on several occasions to save the entire experience from being ruined by Daniel Radcliffe’s fizog, I have been beaten into submission and, as recommended by the marvellous Susan Hill herself, managed to devour all 216 pages all in one go one blustery Sunday afternoon in February.

To state the obvious for all of you who have no doubt heard the rumours if you haven’t already read it yourselves, this book is bloody terrifying. So scary that I actually had to take myself off to sit with the boyfriend just to have someone else in the room with me!

I have been drawn to Susan Hill ever since reading the disturbing I’m the King of the Castle a few years ago. The Small Hand, a chilling ghost story built around the same mould as The Woman in Black, appeared on my wishlist almost as soon as it was published and has been sat on my bookshelf unread (who knows why!) ever since…

This particular story begins with Arthur Kipps; a man in the autumn of his life who, despite his loving family and creature comforts, has clearly been marked by some harrowing experience lurking in his past, an experience that we are prompted to revisit after a night telling seemingly harmless ghost stories with his family. Travelling back in time to his life as a young solicitor, we follow Arthur as he is sent by his firm to handle the estate of the deceased Alice Drablow, former inhabitant of Eel Marsh House, a bleak building that stands across ‘Nine Lives Causeway’ on the edge of the remote village of Crythin Gifford.

Following the appearance of a gaunt looking woman at Alice’s funeral and his local guide’s baffling reaction to enquiries after the worrying figure, Kipps is very quickly dragged into a cycle of inescapable horror, pulled to and from Eel Marsh House and the vengeful, tormented spirits within….


I really am a bit of a wuss myself but everyone I know who has read this book, from English literature students to work colleagues to wise Mummy Relish herself have delighted at the terror lurking within this book. As Susan Hill herself very astutely points out in this interview with Professor John Mullen, the true enjoyment with scary stories of any kind lies in the ability to be afraid whilst being within a safe environment yourself. She quite rightly points out that, whilst there is little joy to be had for most people in truly dangerous and terrifying situations, there is nothing like the anxiety we regularly indulge in witnessing unspeakable terrors whilst safely ensconced in your armchair with a cup of tea and a biscuit.

Hill’s description of Jennet Humfrye’s (The ‘Woman in Black’) malevolent, wasted appearance is just phenomenally chilling and really starts the book off on the right note, mainly because you simply do not (and yet do at the same time – how teasing) want to stumble across her again. This is, I think, what you would call a classic ghost story. We are set up from the beginning to travel into Arthur’s past and encounter this spirit, who we just know can mean nothing but ill for the poor chap and, because of the framework and devices used (e.g. when it gets foggy/stormy, you just know something bad is going to happen) some readers I know, including Daddy Relish, although appreciating Susan Hill’s undeniable talent as a writer, found everything just a little too obvious…

I have to admit that none of this made any difference for me. In fact, the ‘obvious’ elements of this book are there for good reason; to build up the tension!  Due to the causeway, Arthur is at times completely cut-off from civilisation and all lifelines should he need them. Thank God for little Spider; a dog lent to Arthur by one of the villagers, who after repeated, unheeded warnings about the house and its history, proves to be reassuring company both Arthur and the intrepid reader him/herself.

Do not be mistaken for thinking this to be your bog standard ghost tale – M R James style. This is no ghost story of the antiquary; this is harrowing tale with real flesh and bones, not some mere shadowy floating around your bedroom. As with many great stories; love, loss and revenge feature heavily in The Woman in Black and our fear is satisfyingly amplified by the well-thought out history of the characters, both living and dead.

All I can say is, like I did, be brave, read this wonderful book and acquaint yourself with Susan Hill before someone ruins it for you…

*I hate dolls. *Shudder*

13 thoughts on “The Woman in Black

  1. Great review. I read this after seeing the stage version in London three times.If you ever get the chance to go, grab it. I absolutely recommend the stage version to scare you ssssssss…stiff. πŸ˜€


  2. Trailers for the recent film adaptation first caught my attention and I have to admit that the trailers make the film look like lots of other scary films out there. But I have since been told that the book is very good and absolutely terrifying!So I think I will skip the film and read the book! (Maybe watch the film afterwards – just to see how Daniel Radcliffe does…)


  3. *Shudder* πŸ˜€ Well, funny you should mention it – we're off to London at some point next month to see some bits and bobs and, since I read the book, the stage play is a definite on my calender πŸ™‚ Thanks for the recommendation!


  4. Hi Annalisa.I'm sooo glad you've decided to read the book first. Although I love films I am an advocate of seeing where the inspiration came from before encountering Daniel Radcliffe/Leo Dicaprio/Johnny Depp. I promise you will NOT be disappointed.


  5. Hi ElizabethThanks very much πŸ™‚ They're from a second hand book shop in New Delhi. Love the photo on your website btw. Reminds me of Cornwall in the UK…


  6. Great review! This has been sitting on my TBR pile for ages and I really want to get to it. If the weather weren't so nice I'd be tempted to read it this weekend, but it sounds like one to save for a more wintery day.


  7. Hi Relish, Great review of an incredible book! I first came across it in film form back in 1989. I remember watching with my family, all of us chilled to the bone – even my Dad who is certainly of the man's man ilk! You rightly point out the need to encounter her again and again. We taped (on VHS – how 80s!) the film that night, and time and again I'd watch, just to see her, knowing I wouldn't sleep at all well that night. I've read the book, own the original film and seen the stage show twice…having seen the trailer for the new version, I son't want to see it – all seems a bit Hollywood. It is an amazing book which I have mentioned in a post of my own – hope you don't mind but I linked to this very page. Keep it up!!Neil.


  8. Thanks for the link Neil! I really really loved this book and am so glad I got it read before anyone spoilt it for me! The stage show is definitely on our London visit list. Will have to keep an eye out for the 80s film. Any good? TouchΓ© on the Daniel Radcliffe extravaganza!


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