Arthur Kipps is a well-to-do lawyer living in the English countryside. After Christmas Eve dinner, Arthur joins his family in the drawing room, where they are trading ghost stories—an “ancient” tradition. The children urge Arthur to contribute, but Arthur becomes agitated and upset, proclaims that he has no story to tell, and abruptly leaves the room. Alone, Arthur reflects on the very real story of horror and tragedy that took place in his youth. Realizing that these memories keep him from feeling lighthearted even at Christmastime, Arthur decides to write his story down once and for all, hoping that doing so will exorcise the demons he has been struggling with all his adult life.
Arthur’s story begins on a dreary November afternoon. London is ensconced in an oddly thick, sulfurous-smelling fog, and has been for days. Arthur does not have any sense of fear or foreboding, though, as he heads for King’s Cross station to catch a train north. He has been instructed by his boss at his law firm, Mr. Bentley, to travel to the town of Crythin Gifford, where one of the firm’s oldest clients—an odd, reclusive woman named Mrs. Drablow—has recently passed away. The owner of the Eel Marsh House estate—isolated from town by a long, narrow causeway that is completely impassible at high tide—Mrs. Drablow has left behind many papers and important documents in her manor, which Arthur must sort through and send back to London.
The long trip to Crythin Gifford requires Arthur to transfer twice, and by the home stretch of the journey he finds himself feeling cold and weary, alone in a drafty train but for one older, finely dressed man. Arthur and the man—Mr. Samuel Daily—begin making conversation, and Arthur finds that Samuel, a longtime resident of Crythin Gifford, knows a good deal about Mrs. Drablow and her manor, yet seems reluctant to discuss her. As the train nears town, Samuel offers to drive Arthur to the inn where he’ll be staying. Arthur enjoys a cozy night at the inn, and finds good company in the landlord. Arthur tells the landlord that he is in town for Mrs. Drablow’s funeral—at the mention of the woman’s name, the landlord hastily bids Arthur good night. Having now solicited odd reactions from two people at the mention of Drablow’s name, Arthur begins to wonder what the deceased woman’s story truly is. Arthur sleeps soundly—the last truly undisturbed night’s sleep, he reflects from the future, he would ever have.
In the morning, Mr. Jerome, who is to be Arthur’s guide in Crythin Gifford and his companion at the funeral, collects him from the inn. The sit quietly through the melancholy funeral service. Near the end, Arthur hears a rustling behind him, and notices that a woman in black has entered the church. She wears old, outdated mourning garb, including a tall bonnet that largely obscures her face. Arthur can nevertheless see that the woman, not much older than thirty, is sickly, pale, and alarmingly thin. The woman attends Mrs. Drablow’s burial in the churchyard, but she disappears while Arthur has his eyes closed in prayer. After the service, Arthur mentions the woman to Mr. Jerome, who is terrified. At Jerome’s behest, the men hurriedly make their way back into town, where Jerome tells Arthur that a driver named Keckwick will arrive shortly to bring him across the causeway to Eel Marsh House, and then back again each night. When Arthur suggests he stay at Eel Marsh a night or two, Mr. Jerome suggests that Arthur will be much more comfortable at the inn.
Keckwick arrives driving a pony trap—a small, two-person, horse-drawn carriage—and takes Arthur across the causeway. The strange, ghostly allure of the marsh is mesmerizing, and Arthur finds the manor itself to be “rare and beautiful.” Exploring the grounds, Arthur comes upon a graveyard that has fallen into disrepair—he assumes this must be the Drablow family plot. At the edge of the yard, Arthur sees the woman from the funeral one again, still dressed in mourning garb. Arthur feels a “desperate, yearning malevolence” coming from her. Frightened, Arthur runs for the safety of the house and bolts himself inside. He has never believed in ghosts, but now admits that the woman he encountered must be a spirit. Arthur begins combing through the house and discovers that Mrs. Drablow has an enormous amount of papers, many dating back several decades. Still shaken by his encounter with the woman, Arthur decides to start walking down the causeway and meet Keckwick there. As he does so, he hears the sound of a pony trap approaching, but the noise seems to be everywhere and nowhere at once—a thick mist has rolled in, and Arthur can’t see a thing. He hears the sound of the pony trap being sucked into the marsh, along with the desperate whinnying of a horse and the horrible cries of a child. Arthur doubles back to the house, where he falls asleep in the drawing room, exhausted and frightened. The doorbell jolts him awake—Keckwick is there, alive and unharmed. Arthur hurries into the carriage, relieved to return to town.
The next day, Arthur explains to Mr. Jerome that he will need an assistant to help sort through all of the papers. Mr. Jerome says that there is no one in town who will consent to cross the causeway to the manor, and Arthur understands how seriously Jerome himself is affected by any mention of Eel Marsh or the woman in black. Arthur returns to the inn and writes to Mr. Bentley, letting him know that he will be in town longer than expected. That afternoon, Arthur takes a bicycle ride to the next town over and feels himself growing refreshed and rejuvenated. He is determined to return to Eel Marsh and confront whatever lies within it—and to finish sorting Mrs. Drablow’s papers. On his way back into town, Arthur runs into Samuel Daily, who invites him to dinner. After their meal, Samuel warns Arthur that he would be a fool to return to Eel Marsh House. Realizing he cannot change Arthur’s mind, Samuel offers Arthur the company of his terrier named Spider, and Arthur returns to the inn with the little dog in tow.
The next morning, Arthur returns to Eel Marsh. After an unremarkable day sorting papers, Arthur goes to bed, feeling calm and unexcitable. In the middle of the night, however, he is awakened by Spider’s low growls—a bumping noise is coming from a room nearby. Arthur creeps down the hall, where he encounters a locked door with no keyhole. Unable to open it, Arthur talks himself down from fear and returns to bed.
The next morning, Arthur cycles back to town for food and supplies, then returns to the manor and continues sorting papers. He comes upon a packet of letters, which are addressed to Alice Drablow from someone named Jennet—clearly a blood relative of Mrs. Drablow. The letters convey the story of Jennet’s illegitimate conception of a son, whom she was forced to give over for adoption to Mrs. Drablow and her husband. The letters are passionate and affectionate, but there is a dark undercurrent—Jennet warns Alice that the boy will never truly be hers. Soon Arthur hears Spider’s low growl again, and the bumping noise upstairs. Arthur goes to a shed out back to fetch an axe with which to knock down the locked door, and while he is outside, hears the terrible sounds of the pony trap accident again. He realizes that these noises, like the woman in black, are ghostly apparitions. He returns inside to knock down the door, but finds that it is ajar. He enters and sees a rocking chair in the corner gently swaying back and forth, as if someone has just gotten up out of it. The room is a nursery, immaculately preserved and filled with beautiful toys, clothes, and books. The room has a sad, desolate atmosphere, and Arthur steps back out into the hall, immediately feeling like himself again.
The next morning, Arthur takes Spider out for a walk around the grounds. The sound of a whistle arises from the marsh, and Spider bolts toward it. She becomes stuck in the marsh, and Arthur just barely saves her from sinking forever into the muck. As he carries the frightened dog back up towards the house, he sees the woman in black watching him from the nursery window. Arthur collapses and loses consciousness just as the sounds of a pony trap start up once again. Arthur wakes to find Samuel Daily standing over him. Samuel, unable to stop worrying about Arthur, came to check on him (in his own pony trap) and found him unconscious on the lawn. Samuel tells Arthur to gather his things and prepare to go. Arthur returns to his bedroom, and packs his belongings—but before he heads back downstairs, he cannot resist looking down the passageway towards the nursery. The door is ajar, and when Arthur peers into the room, he sees that someone—or something—has ransacked it entirely, leaving toys and clothes strewn everywhere, and placing the rocking chair at the center of the room. Arthur rushes downstairs, and Samuel drives him and Spider back to his house on the mainland.
Feeling safe in the Dailys’ home, Arthur turns back to the packet of letters from Jennet. Three death certificates are attached—one for Nathaniel Drablow, dead at age six of drowning; one for his nanny, dead on the same day of the same cause; and at last one for Jennet Humfrye, who died a spinster in her thirties of heart failure. Arthur realizes that Jennet was Nathaniel’s mother, who became ill and possibly mad after the death of her child during a pony trap accident in the marsh. Arthur confesses to Samuel that he feels relieved to be in the “calm after the storm.” Samuel, however, remains troubled, and reveals that the story of Jennet is common knowledge. Ever since Jennet’s death from a wasting disease, her ghost has haunted the town; what’s worse, every time she appears, a child in town dies of a violent accident or sudden illness. Fearful that the woman in black’s cycle of violence will never end, Arthur falls ill with fever; for five days he suffers acute pain and nightmares of the woman in black.
After nearly two weeks, just as he has begun to recover, Arthur’s spirits are lifted when his fiancée, Stella, arrives to bring him home to London. Before the two leave, he asks Samuel if any child in town has suffered or died; Samuel replies that none has, and Arthur believes the curse has at last been broken. Stella and Arthur return to London and marry hastily; Arthur has learned to seize upon joy whenever and however he can.
Within a year, they welcome a child, and make Samuel its godfather. A little over a year after their son’s birth, Arthur and Stella bring their child to a fair on the outskirts of London, where Stella and the baby take a pony trap ride around the fairgrounds. As Arthur watches them gaily trot around, he spots something lurking behind a tree—the woman in black. Arthur locks eyes with the ghostly figure and feels a horrible malevolence emanating from her. As Stella and the baby make their way back in the pony trap, the woman in black steps out in front of the horse, causing it to rear and run wild; the carriage crashes into a tree, paralyzing Stella and killing the child. Ten months later, Stella, dies of her injuries. The woman in black has gotten her revenge.