Tuesday Terror! The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

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!

The porpy enjoyed the marsh setting too!

Fretful Porpentine rating:  😮 😮 😮 😮

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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40 thoughts on “Tuesday Terror! The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

    • I haven’t come across Dolly but I see it’s quite a recent one too, like Printer’s Devil Court – maybe she’s just churning them out now. This one was written way back in 1983, so she must be a fair age now, I think. This one is so much better…

    • Thanks for the link – glad to hear the film’s good! I actually avoided it when it came out because I saw the play many years ago and was unimpressed, although I think that was mainly because the cast seemed so bored that the audience got bored too. 😉 But now that I enjoyed the story, I’d quite like to see Harry Potter as young Arthur…

    • Funnily enough, I saw a stage show of it too long ago and wasn’t impressed, but mainly because the cast seemed bored out of their minds and so it got boring for the audience too. But now that I’ve enjoyed the book, I’d quite like to watch the film with Harry Potter as the star (I’m sure he’s got another name, but I fear I can never remember what it is… 😉 )

      • Haha yes, Daniel Radcliffe. The film has had some excellent reviews. I can’t even remember who was in the show I saw but it was when it first came out and it was okay. I can’t remember it being very scary though.

  1. So glad to hear you liked this one, FIctionFan. I’m another who wasn’t overly impressed with Hill, but I haven’t read this one. Sounds as though I ought to try it. And, yes, marshes are such wonderfully creepy places. It’s a natural fit for a spooky story, isn’t it?

    • I thought she used the marshes and the sea-mists really well – there are a couple of really effective scenes that are nicely designed to have the reader quivering! Although she sticks to fairly well-worn ghostly tracks, she wraps an interesting story round them, which I didn’t feel she did in the later story of hers I read where she seemed to just throw in a bunch of Gothic tropes and think that was enough.

  2. Having read The Woman in White, I at first thought Wilkie Collins was doing a color series when I heard of the film adaptation. 😁 😂 (Next up, The Woman in Red. 😊) I didn’t see the movie, by the way. I’m not familiar with Susan Hill. Glad you enjoyed this story.

    • Hahaha – when it first appeared as a stage show in London many years ago, I assumed it was the Wilkie Collins one – it was ages before I remembered his Woman wore white… 😉

    • Hahaha – she’s good, isn’t she? I just assumed the pic was a still from the picture – now I’m wondering where she comes from. So many of these ghosts seem to wear black – no fashion sense! 😉

  3. Oh, this does sound good, FF. Not too terrifying, but enough scariness to delight the reader and keep him/her on the edge of their seat. Ideal for a cold, almost-wintry day, too!

    • The perfect amount of scariness for me – enough to tingle but not to leave me too scared to sleep! Yes, it’ so cold and dark here now that ghost stories seem the perfect fare… 😀

  4. I’m glad you enjoyed this one in the end, as I remember your expectations were pretty low. I haven’t read any Susan Hill myself, but judging from reviews, I have the impression this was most likely one of her best stories, so I’ll probably try it.

    • I thought there was a huge difference between this one and the much later story I’d read and been unimpressed by before. There’s nothing too original in this, but she gets a nicely spooky atmosphere going and I always like when the character in peril is someone I can like enough to worry about. Dark without being gruesome – just how I like my horror, in fact!

  5. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. The 1989 ITV adaptation is far, far better than the Daniel Radcliffe film which messes with the ending. Some genuinely spine-chilling moments.
    I saw the play last year and did enjoy it. Perhaps it was a different cast or the fact that having travelled halfway around the world to see it mean that I would enjoy anything put before me.

    • I watched the first ten minutes of the Radcliffe film last night – I didn’t have time to watch the whole thing but wanted to see if I felt it was worth watching – and was surprised by how much they’d changed even the beginning. I get the feeling they’ve tried to make it much darker in tone. I didn’t know there had been a TV adaptation so thanks for that – I’ll see if it’s available anywhere! Haha – I don’t know why the play had that effect on me, but sometimes with these long-running ones in the theatre they feel as if they need a new cast or a new director just to freshen them up a bit after a while! Maybe the cast I saw had just been doing it too long…

    • Fogs and mists are really essential for true spookiness, I feel! Lonely house, cut off with no means of escape, dodgy electricity so the lights go out at the crucial moment… 😱 Haha – no spoilers, but little Spider survives… 😀

  6. Ok that picture you included of the scary woman was quite unnvering bc I kept expecting it to be a gif that would suddenly jump and do something scary! It wasn’t though haha…or was it?

    Yes, I haven’t read the book, only seen the most recent adaptation which was quite scary, and seen it on stage, which was also very scary LOL

  7. I was scared witless by the Radcliffe film version! But then I’m easily scared. And now I’ve reminded myself of how scared I was, I’m scared all over again! 😱 But I’m inching towards reading the book now I’ve read your thoughts and the comments here. I could try reading from behind the sofa… 🤔😆

    • Hahaha! I must admit I always find horror on film much scarier than in print and the first ten minutes of the film made me think it’s much darker. I suspect the book wouldn’t make your hair stand on end, but don’t sue me if it does… 😱

  8. Once bitten by Printer’s Devil Court, twice shy over trying any more Susan Hill. But the universal acclaim for this, and now a favourable review by you, persuades me to overcome my prejudice!

    • This was so much better than Printer’s Devil Court – I reckon by the time she got to that one she must have been just going through the motions, counting on her name to make it sell. This one doesn’t have anything particularly original in it, but it’s very well-told and has a coherent story.

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