Turn on all the lights and crank up some cheerful music, because you're going to need it with this one. (Or, hey, light a candle and put on the haunted house soundtrack, if being scared is more your thing.) Because our hero, young solicitor—that's "lawyer" for the Americans in the audience—Arthur Kipps, ends up being involved in a little more than he bargained for.
Although Susan Hill's Woman in Black was published in 1983, you won't find shoulder pads or frizzy hair. Instead, it's full of steam trains and newfangled contraptions called "horseless carriages." And we start off with Arthur Kipps, the solicitor in question, enjoying the holidays with his family. His second family.
Can you guess where this is going yet?
When the kids start to tell ghost stories, Arthur gets upset and flustered and abruptly leaves the house without explaining why. (How British of him!) It turns out that he has his own ghost story, and we hear it in flashback:
As a young solicitor fairly new into his career, he's sent to a small town to settle the affairs of an old woman who's recently died. When Kipps arrives he finds that the locals are decidedly unfriendly. And then the creepy things start happening—like repeated sighting of a frighteningly ill woman dressed all in black. Thus begins his descent into true heart-pounding horror as he tries to figure out the story behind the mysterious woman in black.
Does this sound like the perfect set up for a movie? You're not the only one to think so. It was adapted for TV in 1989, and then became a radio show in both 1993 and 2004. In 2012, it was adapted again, starring Mr. Harry Potter himself. And if there's one thing we've learned from horror movies, it's that the dead are never really gone.
Everyone loves a good ghost story, right? And book has all the right elements: a big, creepy house; spooky kids; a mysterious woman; and a slow and almost excruciating build-up to the horrifying end.
And the cool thing about The Woman in Black is that it's a tribute to where the genre all started: the gothic literature of the late eighteenth century. We're not talking splatter films or torture porn. We're talking about the good stuff: the kind of story that doesn't need to shed a single drop of blood to keep you gripping the edge of your seat and leaving the lights on all night.
Not that we did that after reading this, or anything.
In a Land Far, Far Away… But Probably At the Beginning of the 20th Century in England
The whole story of The Woman in Black is set in some indeterminate historical setting. Though it seems like historical fiction because of the pony and trap and the steam train, we never get a clear sense of the date.
This could be a deliberate choice because of the pull between the past and the present that is pervasive throughout the book. Arthur is just a modern young man when he comes to Crythin Gifford, doing fancy modern things like using telephones and expecting cars to come pick him up. How silly of him!
On the flip side, the woman in black represents the past—she's all about the pony and trap times and rotting away in a big old house in outdated funeral attire. The fact that we can't quite pinpoint the setting also makes the whole story a little more unsettling, and maybe makes us think about how the story's themes might play out in our own time.
Sam Daily gives a charming description of Crythin Gifford to Arthur as they sit on the train together:
"… There's the drowned churches and the swallowed-up village," he chuckled. "Those are particularly fine examples of 'nothing to see.' And we've a good wild run of an abbey with a handsome graveyard—you can get to it at low tide." (3.37)
And that's about it. Crythin Gifford is a dreary, bleak town filled with secrets, somewhere on the coast of England. The surrounding wilderness all but swallows up the town—and literally swallows some things, like the pony and trap. Humans and human buildings are overshadowed by the sheer force of nature, and by the sheer force of the past.
Frankly, we're just surprised anyone is still living there.
Eel Marsh House
Come on. Eel Marsh House, the large, forbidding house where Alice Drablow lived out the last of her days, is obviously haunted. It's big, unoccupied, filled with mysterious papers, and cut off from the mainland. That's kind of a recipe for heart-pounding unfortunate encounters.
Arthur describes it thus when he first happens upon it:
Then, as it was so bright that it hurt my eyes to go on staring at it, I looked up ahead and saw, as if rising out of the water itself, a tall, gaunt house of gray stone with a slate roof, that now gleamed steelily in the light. (5.6)
Check out how the house is described: it does actions, like "rising" and "gleaming"; and it even looks "gaunt," exactly like a person. These descriptive words give the house a presence and a personality. Like nature, and like the past itself, the house appears to have a malevolent kind of presence. You know, like a vengeful ghost.
The novel opens in Monk Piece, although we hardly get to spend any time there at all. It's the place where Arthur Kipps—now all grown up—currently resides with his new family, and it's about as opposite Eel Marsh House and Crythin Gifford as you can imagine. In fact, it's a "tiny hamlet... tucked snugly into a bend of the river below, white walls basking in the afternoon sunshine" (1.8).
We want to go to there.
Arthur lives a pleasant, safe family life in this pleasant, safe village and in the warm, busy cottage. He's clearly come a long way since his journey to Eel Marsh House both metaphorically and literally… and he'd like to keep it that way.