The Dead Marshes

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill (1983): If you’ve seen the recent film adaptation starring Daniel Radcliffe, please note that the novel’s plot bears only superficial similarities to that movie, as becomes obvious exactly one sentence into The Woman in Black.

The Woman in Black is a tremendous homage to ghost stories of the classical English type from the 19th and early 20th century. Hill’s prose is pitch-perfect: it reads like an English ghost story from that time period, the prose as controlled as the subtly building narrative of horror. This is a novel of subtle, building horror which gives the reader both a haunted house and a haunted landscape and uses both to great effect.

With something of a nod to Great Expectations, it’s the story of a callow youth told by his much older, wiser self. This ghost story owes debts to a lot of writers, perhaps M.R. James and Henry James most of all, though at points it seems closer to some of Edith Wharton’s ghost-story nightmares. There’s a chapter title that tips a hat to one of M.R. James’ two most famous ghost stories, and a rumination by the narrator on the limits of natural courage when faced by the supernatural that’s almost a direct quotation from an early 20th-century William Hope Hodgson story.

The young, early 20th-century English barrister whose older self narrates the novel is a sympathetic figure whose rationality is no match for what awaits him in a small English coastal town. Forever surrounded by salt marshes and the sea, the townspeople do not want to talk about the wealthy, elderly woman whose death has brought the narrator to them to settle the affairs of her estate. To do so, he has to spend time in Eel Marsh House (!), the woman’s now-empty mansion, situated on a spur into the sea, cut off from land transportation with every high tide. And then there’s the eponymous Woman in Black, whom the narrator first sees at his client’s funeral and whom no one will answers questions about.

I won’t say any more about the particulars of the story except to note that, like many traditional ghost stories, it’s ‘told’ (by the narrator, that is) at Christmas, that its roots lie in the strictures imposed upon woman in Victorian society, and that the malevolence of the circumstances the narrator finds himself in are masterfully constructed. This is a short gem of a novel by any measure. Highly recommended.

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