Review: The Woman in Black by Susan Hill


February 3, 2012 by Heidi

Book cover of The Woman in Black by Susan HillTitle: The Woman in Black [Amazon|GoodReads]
Author: Susan Hill [Website|Twitter]
Illustrator: John Lawrence
Standing: Stand alone novel.
Genre: Horror, Gothic, Historical
Published: 1986 by David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc. (Originally published in the U.K. in 1983 by Hamish Hamilton Ltd.)
Format: Hardcover; 160 pages.  
Source: Borrowed from my local library.

Arthur begins his story on a Christmas Eve with his wife and stepchildren telling ghost stories around the fire.

“You must know at least one ghost story, stepfather, everyone knows one…” Ah, yes, yes, indeed.  All the time I had been listening to their ghoulish lurid inventions, and their howlings and groans, the one thought that had been in my mind, and the only thing I could have said was, ‘No, no, you have none of you any idea.  This is all nonsense, fantasy, it is not like this.  Nothing so blood-curdling and becreepered and crude–not so…so laughable.  The truth is quite other, and altogether more terrible.” 

They had chided me with being a spoilsport, tried to encourage me to tell them the one ghost story I must surely, like any other man, have it in me to tell.  And they were right.  Yes, I had a story, a true story, a story of haunting and evil, fear and confusion, horror and tragedy.  But it was not a story to be told for casual entertainment, around the fireside upon Christmas Eve.”

Arthur proceeds to write down his tale for us to read, a tale of the haunting at Eel Marsh House and the woman in black.

This book is self-described as a ghost story as Jane Austen would have written, and with its language and manner I have to say it is a fairly accurate description.  Arthur, a London solicitor (that is a lawyer for those of you non-Anglophiles) is sent to attend to the paperwork of a recently deceased client, the former resident of Eel Marsh House.  Now, I love the tradition of naming houses as much as the next self-respecting Green Gables fan, but “Eel Marsh” isn’t one that instills a feeling of warmth and welcome and comfort.  

Eel Marsh House can only be reached (or left) during low-tide, and is otherwise surrounded by water and marshlands.  The townspeople seem abnormally wary of the house, and no one will consent to helping Arthur about his task, and when he mentions the mysterious woman in black with the wasted face that attended his client’s funeral, his words are met with horror.

The Woman in Black was told beautifully, and I found Arthur to be quite refreshing as a narrator.  He’s so logical and steadfast in his belief that ghosts cannot hurt him, and that they must be confronted or things will become worse.  Like any of us would under similar circumstances, he is able to convince himself in the light of day that things were not so bad as they seemed at night, and returns to face the house.  The townspeople’s unwillingness to discuss the hauntings portends the ultimate tragedy of this novel, though the sad reality is it would make no difference.  

Not only does Susan Hill’s language transport us back in time, John Lawrence’s illustrations evoke the feeling of a novel written before the advent of television.  In my opinion, the lack of use of illustrations in young adult and adult novels these days is a disappointment–author Scott Westerfeld gave an interesting interview on the topic in regards to his illustrated Leviathan series here.  Certainly he would approve of The Woman in Black!

The Woman in Black has been adapted to the screen, and will be in theaters February 10th:

It looks totally creepy and nightmare inducing (disheveled toys are always creepy!!!), plus–it’s Daniel Radcliffe!  Yay!!

Likelihood that I’ll be back for more:  Well since I am a complete and utter wimp when it comes to horror, I can’t promise anything, but I do plan to make myself watch the movie to see Daniel Radcliffe’s first foray to the screen since Harry Potter!

Recommended for:  Anyone who enjoys horror or Gothic novels, or like me is preparing for the movie!

Real life repercussions of reading this book:  When did we dispense with the tradition of telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve? It seems the only one we get today is A Christmas Carol, but I’d love to hear others.


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  1. Alyssa says:

    I literally bought this last night! You know how I love a good horror tale! :] Great review, I want to see the movie too! (Move closer)

  2. Heidi says:

    OMG I think the movie is going to be scarier than the book and I'm going to have to sleep with a night light for weeks. It's good stuff though, and a very quick read, hope you like it!

  3. I've had this book forever, I really need to try and read it asap. (I love horror, Gothic, AND I'm also looking forward to the movie.) :)Bookish Valentine Gift Ideas at The Midnight Garden

  4. Heidi says:

    Yes! It's a really quick read honestly, should be easy to crank out before the film.

  5. Wow–How did I not know this was a book????? I really really want to see Daniel Radcliffe in this movie, but I'm a total wimp when it comes to horror. I'm wondering if reading the book first would diffuse some of the movie's tension so I might be able to watch it without covering my eyes.Thanks for the tip!

  6. Heidi says:

    That was pretty much my theory! I figured if I could handle the book, I could probably handle the movie, and at least I'd know what was coming. If I wasn't so curious to see Daniel Radcliffe I'd be having none of that.

  7. StoryLoverX says:

    Thank you for the review! I really want to read this book now. I don't think I'm gonna see this movie in theaters though. I'm not much of a horror person.

  8. Heidi says:

    I probably won't see it till it's on DVD. I'm a wimp, and I just don't go to the theater all that often. =)

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While the source for each book I review is posted within its review, please assume unless otherwise stated that books reviewed on Bunbury in the Stacks were received free from the author or publisher in exchange for an honest review.