Published by Vintage in 1998 - first published in the UK in 1983
It was nine-thirty on Christma Eve. As I crossed the long entrance hall of Monk's Piece on my way from the dining room, where we had just enjoyed the first of the happy, festive meals, towards the drawing room and the fire around which my family were now assembled, I paused and then as I often do in the course of an evening, went to the front door, opened it and stepped outside.
What real reader does not yearn, somewhere in the recesses of his or her heart, for a really literate, first-class thriller: one that chills the body with foreboding of dark deeds to come, but warms the soul with perceptions and language at once astute and vivid? In other words, a ghost story by Jane Austen.
Austen we cannot, alas, give you, but Susan Hill's remarkable Woman In Black comes as close as the late twentieth century is likely to provide. Set on the obligatory English moor, on an isolated causeway, the story's hero is Arthur Kipps, an up-and-coming young solicitor who has come north to attend the funeral and settle the estate of Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. The routine formalities he anticipates give way to a tumble of events and secrets more sinister and terrifying than any nightmare: the rocking chair in the nursery of the deserted Eel Marsh House, the eerie sound of pony and trap, a child's scream in the fog, and, most dreadfully, and for Kipps most tragically, the woman in black.
The Woman In Black is both a brilliant exercise in atmosphere and controlled horror and a delicious spine-tingler-proof positive that that neglected genre, the ghost story, isn't dead after all.
Finally I got to read the book that everyone is always talking about. With the film now scaring millions around the world at the cinema, I thought it was about time I saw what all the fuss was about. Straightaway this book was everything I would have expected a Victorian ghost story to be like.
The book is only a short book but it is dripping with atmosphere. It is the type of book that plays with your mind; the details of the ghostly sightings are reserved yet leave you feeling cold as your mind begins to digest the details you have read. A lot of the horror is left to the imagination, and I felt that showed how exceptionally skillful the author's writing is.
I can see why this book is used as a study aid, as it really is a leader in the ghostly market of tales. As I read the story, I could imagine how each scene was acted out on the big screen as the writing is extremely descriptive. You could feel the fear that overcame Arthur, as he tried to deal with the situation. The heightened awareness of the little dog really added to the drama of the book. I didn't like Arthur to begin with, he appeared foolish and full of himself, but he was soon brought to his knees by the unseen. I don't think I have seen a character crumble so quickly in times of adversity, yet again heightening the effects of the ghost in the book. Unfortunately for Arthur, he had to grow up very quickly.
If I am honest, I did find the beginning a little too wordy for my liking. I was desperate to get on with the ghost story and I found it dragged a little as the story was set up; a little long winded for my liking but very typical of classic tales I have read before. I felt it had been written in the same style as tales by Henry James and Charles Dickens, which I imagine was the whole point in writing the book in the first place; to see if an equivalent could be written in modern times.
Apart from the slow start, I enjoyed reading this book and I now look forward to seeing the film version. This really was a rather frightening little book.