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.
The story begins with Arthur Kipps, a retired solicitor who formerly worked for Mr. Bentley. One night he is at home with his wife Esme and four stepchildren, who are telling ghost stories. When he is asked to tell a story, he becomes irritated and leaves the room, and begins to write of his horrific experiences several years in the past.
Many years earlier, whilst still a junior solicitor for Bentley, Kipps was summoned to Crythin Gifford, a small market town on the north east coast of England, to attend the funeral of Mrs. Alice Drablow.
When he arrives, he finds a mostly deserted coastal town and the people who lived there appeared filled with superstitions and different customs to what he was used to.
For I must confess I had the Londoner’s sense of superiority in those days, the half-formed belief that countrymen, and particularly those who inhabited the remoter corners of our island, were more superstitious, more gullible, more slow-witted, unsophisticated and primitive, than we cosmopolitans. Doubtless, in such a place as this, with its eerie marshes, sudden fogs, moaning winds and lonely houses, any poor old woman might be looked at askance; once upon a time, after all, she would have been branded as a witch and local legends and tales were still abroad and some extravagant folklore still half-believed in.
As he moves into Mrs. Drablow’s house, Eel Marsh House, he starts experiencing the beginnings of a haunting. There is something that goes “bump” in the night. Creaky doors, fleeting shadows, eerie sounds.
My throat felt constricted and dry and I had begun to shiver. There was something in that room and I could not get to it, nor would I dare to, if I were able. I told myself it was a rat or a trapped bird, fallen down the chimney into the hearth and unable to get out again. But the sound was not that of some small, panic-stricken creature. Bump bump. Pause. Bump bump. Pause. Bump bump. Bump bump. Bump bump.
Most of the people in Crythin Gifford are reluctant to reveal information about Mrs Drablow and the mysterious woman in black. Any attempts by Kipps to find out the truth causes pained and fearful reactions. From various sources, Kipps learns that Mrs Drablow’s sister, Jennet Humfrye, gave birth to a child, Nathaniel. Because she was unmarried, she was forced to give the child to her sister. Mrs Drablow and her husband adopted the boy, and insisted that he should never know that Jennet was his mother.
One of the locals gives him a very smart dog called “Spider” to keep him company and indeed, the dog proves useful more than once.
Spider was at the door, growling the same, low growl of the previous night. I looked round at her and saw that her hackles were up. For a moment I sat, too terrified to move. Then I recalled my decision to seek out the ghosts of Eel Marsh House and confront them, for I was sure – or I had disturb me. And so, I laid down the papers, got to my feet and went quietly to open the door of the small parlour in which I had been sitting.
Emboldened by the new and brave dog, Kipps decides to get to the root of the mystery and after finding a series of letters and three death certificates, he knows what happened in the dangerous marshes outside of the property. The young boy and his nanny got pulled into the quicksand along with their carriage and died screaming as the marsh enveloped them. They were later retrieved from the bog but Nathaniel’s birth mother went crazy with grief and when she died several years later, she started haunting the place where her boy died. Mrs. Drablow was probably aware of the ghost inhabiting her house but she never told a soul about it and now Mr. Kipps is the one that has to deal with her haunts.
But, if I had been afraid at what had happened in this house so far, when I reached the end of the short corridor and saw what I did see now, my fear reached a new height, until for a minute I thought I would die of it, was dying, for I could not conceive of a man’s being able to endure such shocks and starts and remain alive, let alone in his right senses.
According to local tales, a sighting of the Woman in Black presaged the death of a child.
After sorting through the papers, he returns to London where he marries his fiancee and they have a baby boy together. A year after that, he is shocked to recognise the ghost of the Woman in Black again in the middle of London and shortly after her sighting, his wife and their boy are seriously injured in a carriage crash.. The boy dies and the woman in black has claimed yet another victim.
The worst of it all was not the physical illness, the aching, the tiredness, the fever, but the mental turmoil I passed through.
The book has had a movie adaptation starring Daniel Radcliffe in 2012. For a Gothic horror novel, the pacing is quite good and the build-up is well made.
While the book is horror, the movie is 3x horror, tragic past combined with morbidly saturated cinematography sprinkled with heart-stopping pop-outs galore. The balance between cheerful normality and burgeoning dread was well developed one, but ended up sacrificing the more poignant extremes of the movie horrors for its focus on stability.