Frets on the marshes…
Young solicitor Arthur Kipps is sent to the small town of Crythin Gifford to attend the funeral of a client of his firm, the elderly Mrs Drablow of Eel Marsh House. The town is set on the edge of salt marshes which have encroached over the years, leaving Eel Marsh House on a kind of islet, accessible only by crossing a causeway when the tide is out. The marshes are vast and lonely, and Arthur soon picks up from the reaction of the locals that Mrs Drablow lived an isolated life, in a house surrounded by superstition and dread. Sensible young Arthur doesn’t believe in ghosts, though, so after the funeral he sets off quite happily to sort through Mrs Drablow’s papers. It won’t be long before he begins to wonder if the old tales are true…
A man may be accused of cowardice for fleeing away from all manner of physical dangers but when things supernatural, insubstantial and inexplicable threaten not only his safety and well-being but his sanity, his innermost soul, then retreat is not a sign of weakness but the most prudent course.
I’ve only read one of Hill’s ghost stories before, Printer’s Devil Court, and was rather unimpressed by it, so I went into this with fairly low expectations despite its reputation as a modern classic of the ghost story. I’m delighted to say I was wrong – this is a deliciously chilling story with plenty of spookiness and tension, and a narrator who is easy to care about.
It’s written in the style of classic ghost stories of the likes of MR James, and indeed Hill nods to one or two of the greats along the way. There’s nothing terribly original about it, but I’d say that’s true of many ghost stories – the effectiveness all comes from the story-telling. It’s set in the early part of the twentieth century, just as pony traps were giving way to cars, and Hill captures the period well, with Arthur having a modern outlook appropriate to the time and his age, but the history of the house and the origin of the haunting dating back into the darker days of the Victorian era. She also makes excellent use of her settings with some fine descriptive writing, first of the London fogs and then of the empty marshes, where sudden “frets” – sea mists – come rolling in, cutting off visibility and access to the mainland, and creating the perfect conditions for all kinds of vague eerieness to occur.
For a long time, I did not move from the dark, wood-panelled hall. I wanted company, and I had none, lights and warmth and a strong drink inside me, I needed reassurance. But, more than anything else, I needed an explanation. It is remarkable how powerful a force simple curiosity can be. I had never realized that before now. In spite of my intense fear and sense of shock, I was consumed with the desire to find out exactly who it was that I had seen, and how, I could not rest until I had settled the business, for all that, while out there, I had not dared to stay and make any investigations.
The main eerieness is, of course, the appearance of the mysterious woman in black, but she’s only part of the story – the scariest bits involve dark happenings out on the marshes, which I won’t reveal more about. The style means the scares all come from spookiness and dread – it’s happily gore-free and works much better because of it. It’s not terrifying, but it has a couple of excellent heart-in-the-mouth moments, and creates a nicely spine-tingling atmosphere of approaching doom.
Following his first scary night in the house, a kindly acquaintance from the town lends Arthur a dog to stay with him, and Spider quickly becomes an important character in her own right, providing warmth to the story as she provides comfort and companionship to Arthur. She also adds a further layer of tension, since now the reader has to worry about Spider as much as about Arthur (or, in my case, more…).
It was true that the ghastly sounds I had heard through the fog had greatly upset me but far worse was what emanated from and surrounded these things and arose to unsteady me, an atmosphere, a force – I do not exactly know what to call it – of evil and uncleanness, of terror and suffering, of malevolence and bitter anger.
The pacing is very good – it starts off slow and then builds, never becoming frantic but never dragging. And while the end is foreshadowed to a degree, it’s still done well enough to surprise and shock. Novella-length, it can be read in two or three hours, so perfect for a long winter evening, when the wind is howling around the house, and the cats are making strange noises in the room above, and somewhere outside is the sound of… is it a fox barking? Or is it a child, crying out through the fog…?
Not so scary as to give the reader nightmares, but definitely one that will tingle the spine and chill the blood. Highly recommended!