Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black is saturated with references to popular Gothic horror novels. Though written in the mid-1980s rather than the late eighteenth century, The Woman in Black is in many ways a classic Gothic novel—and a love letter to the genre, which spawned emotionally and atmospherically evocative classics such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Through her reliance upon Gothic horror tropes throughout protagonist Arthur Kipps’s story, Hill is able to fulfill and subvert her readers’ expectations at alternating turns, and ultimately uses the narrative to suggest that though an audience familiar with the genre may be able to intuit what is coming next, true horror often comes from having one’s worst fears confirmed.
Even in moments of happiness throughout the novel, Susan Hill creates an atmosphere of intense foreboding. Such atmospheric dread is a staple of literary horror—and especially of Victorian Gothic literature—and Hill uses it to create an intensifying sense of terror as the story unfolds. At the start of the novel, Arthur is a well-to-do lawyer who lives in a stately country home with his large, happy family. It is Christmas Eve, a time of joy and good tidings; as Arthur celebrates with his wife and stepchildren, though, it becomes clear that he is a man haunted by a painful past. Arthur’s family asks him to share a ghost story, and the full force of Arthur’s dormant trauma suddenly rears its head. Arthur is rattled by the simple, innocent request for a story; as he removes himself from his family and takes a walk outside, memories of the true ghost story he suffered through as a younger man assault him, and he laments that even at Christmastime he cannot escape his pain. This darkness that looms over Arthur in the beginning of the tale—and the retrospective sense of foreboding his reflections create—echoes the beginnings of novels such as The Picture of Dorian Gray, which start off sunnily but disguise a deeper, creeping dread.
Arthur was not always so afflicted by pain and grief—as he recounts the sad tale of the “horror” that assailed him in his youth, he reflects on how naïve, cheerful, and positive he was. After arriving in the insular northeast England town of Crythin Gifford to attend the funeral of a recently deceased client of his law firm, even rumors of the deceased woman’s involvement in a shadowy and horrific slice of local lore do not deter Arthur from his confident, sunny outlook on life. After all, Arthur has a beautiful fiancée, a steady job, and an exciting future awaiting him back in London—he is blind to the turmoil lurking just out of sight, and thus becomes an active participant in inviting grief and pain into his life. The beginning of Arthur’s recollection of his younger self is a nod to the opening pages of Bram Stoker’s Dracula—an 1897 Gothic horror novel considered by many critics to be the epitome of the genre—in which a young English solicitor travels to the home of the ancient, dangerous Count Dracula under the supposition that he will be handling boring legal documents. The young lawyer of course finds himself deep in over his head, pulled into a dark and frightening world of horror and hauntings—very much like a certain Arthur Kipps.
Architecture is an important motif in Gothic horror—from Dracula’s castle to the decaying abode in Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” mansions, estates, family graveyards, and even crumbling ruins serve as physical symbols of the emotional or atmospheric conditions within. In The Woman in Black, Susan Hill uses this technique to suffuse Eel Marsh House with an eerie, claustrophobic, isolated sensibility. Cut off from the town of Crythin Gifford by a long causeway traversing a dangerous marsh that floods daily at high tide and is often obscured by sudden fogs and sea mists, Eel Marsh House is emblematic of the isolation Mrs. Drablow—and her sister Jennet—suffered during their lives. Jennet was isolated by the shame of bearing an illegitimate child, and having to relinquish that child to her sister’s care. Alice Drablow was isolated not just by the physical aspects of her home, but by the knowledge that she had caused her sister such great pain—and had been in charge of Nathaniel when he was killed in a terrible accident. When Arthur comes to Eel Marsh House, he finds it in mild disrepair. However, the nursery, the site of Jennet’s most concentrated haunting, is immaculate, suggesting either that Alice Drablow kept the room neat for fear of what her sister’s spirit would do should it be disturbed, or that the veil between worlds is thin enough to allow Jennet to influence the physical layout of the room as well as its psychological, emotional atmosphere.
Some of the most frightening scenes of the novel relate directly to the physical layout of Eel Marsh House. A bump in the night, a door suddenly ajar as if of its own volition, an empty rocking chair swaying to and fro, a mysterious presence on the staircase—these moments are predictable but nonetheless hair-raising. When Arthur creeps down the hallway in the middle of the night to the haunted nursery, readers must stand by and watch as he offers himself up to whatever lies within it; the reader’s knowledge of horror tropes, especially those related to Gothic novels set in sprawling mansions and haunted houses, heightens the terror of this moment.
In employing Gothic horror tropes throughout her contemporary novel The Woman in Black, Susan Hill creates an air of familiarity even for readers who are not avid consumers of Gothic literature. The tropes she employs are familiar to many—a foggy November day in London; an isolated mansion at the edge of the civilization; a slew of frightened townspeople; a silent, haggard cabbie who ferries the protagonist back and forth seemingly between worlds. Through reliance on these staples of genre, Hill shows how tropes can provide a shorthand for readers and thus actually allow for easier, even effortless engagement with a work—and for an even more total emotional immersion in the moments of pure horror it has to offer.
Gothic Horror ThemeTracker
Gothic Horror Quotes in The Woman in Black
Fog was outdoors, hanging over the river, creeping in and out of alleyways and passages, swirling thickly between the bare trees of all the parks and gardens of the city and indoors, too, seething through cracks and crannies like sour breath, gaining a sly entrance at every opening of a door. It was a yellow fog, a filthy, evil-smelling fog, a fog that choked and blinded, smeared and stained. […]
Sounds were deadened, shapes blurred. […] it was menacing and sinister, disguising the familiar world and confusing the people in it, as they were confused by having their eyes covered and being turned about, in a game of Blind Man's Buff.
The business was beginning to sound like something from a Victorian novel, with a reclusive old woman having hidden a lot of ancient documents somewhere in the depths of her cluttered house. I was scarcely taking Mr. Bentley seriously.
It was true that neither Mr. Daily nor the landlord of the inn seemed anything but sturdy men of good common-sense, just as I had to admit that neither of them had done more than fall silent and look at me hard and a little oddly, when the subject of Mrs. Drablow had arisen. Nonetheless, I had been left in no doubt that there was some significance in what had been left unsaid.
I can recall it still, that sensation of slipping down, down into the welcoming arms of sleep, surrounded by warmth and softness, happy and secure as a small child in the nursery […] Perhaps I recall those sensations the more vividly because of the contrast that presented with what was to come after. Had I known that my untroubled night of good sleep was to be the last such that I was to enjoy for so many terrifying, racked and weary nights to come, perhaps I should not have jumped out of bed with such alacrity, eager to be down and have breakfast, and then to go out and begin the day.
[…] I do not believe I have ever again slept so well as I did that night in the inn at Crythin Gifford. For I see that then I was still all in a state of innocence, but that innocence, once lost, is lost forever.
"Well," I said, "if he's buying up half the county I suppose I may be doing business with him myself before the year is out. I am a solicitor looking after the affairs of the late Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. It is quite possible that her estate will come up for sale in due course."
For a moment, my companion still said nothing, only buttered a thick slice of bread and laid his chunks of cheese along it carefully. I saw by the clock on the opposite wall that it was half past one, and I wanted to change my clothes before the arrival of Mr. Keckwick, so that I was about to make my excuses and go, when my neighbor spoke. "l doubt," he said, in a measured tone, "whether even Samuel Daily would go so far."
No car appeared. Instead, there drew up outside the Gifford Arms a rather worn and shabby pony and trap. It was not at all out of place in the market square—I had noticed a number of such vehicles that morning and, assuming that this one belonged to some farmer or stockman, I took no notice, but continued to look around me, for a motor. Then I heard my name called.
The pony was a small, shaggy-looking creature, wearing blinkers, and the driver with a large cap pulled down low over his brow, and a long, hairy brown coat, looked not unlike it, and blended with the whole equipage.
Suddenly conscious of the cold and the extreme bleakness and eeriness of the spot and of the gathering dusk of the November afternoon, and not wanting my spirits to become so depressed that I might begin to be affected by all sorts of morbid fancies, I was about to leave […] But, as I turned away, I glanced once again round the burial ground and then I saw again the woman with the wasted face, who had been at Mrs. Drablow's funeral. […] As I stared at her, stared until my eyes ached in their sockets, stared in surprise and bewilderment at her presence, now I saw that her face did wear an expression. It was one of what I can only describe—and the words seem hopelessly inadequate to express what I saw—as a desperate, yearning malevolence; it was as though she were searching for something she wanted, needed—must have, more than life itself, and which had been taken from her. And, toward whoever had taken it she directed the purest evil and hatred and loathing, with all the force that was available to her.
So I thought that night, as I laid my head on the soft pillow and fell eventually into a restless, shadowy sleep, across which figures came and went, troubling me, so that once or twice I half-woke myself, as I cried out or spoke a few incoherent words, I sweated, I turned and turned about, trying to free myself from the nightmares, to escape from my own semi-conscious sense of dread and foreboding, and all the time, piercing through the surface of my dreams, came the terrified whinnying of the pony and the crying and calling of that child over and over, while I stood, helpless in the mist, my feet held fast, my body pulled back, and while behind me, though I could not see, only sense her dark presence, hovered the woman.
"It seems to me, Mr. Daily," I said, "that I have seen whatever ghost haunts Eel Marsh and that burial ground. A woman in black with a wasted face. Because I have no doubt at all that she was whatever people call a ghost, that she was not a real, living, breathing human being. Well, she did me no harm. She neither spoke nor came near me. I did not like her look and I liked the… the power that seemed to emanate from her toward me even less, but I have convinced myself that it is a power that cannot do more than make me feel afraid. If I go there and see her again, I am prepared."
"And the pony and trap?"
I could not answer because, yes, that had been worse, far worse, more terrifying because it had been only heard not seen and because the cry of that child would never, I was sure, leave me for the rest of my life.
I shook my head. "I won't run away."
As soon as I awoke, a little before seven, I felt that the air had a dampness in it and that it was rather colder and, when I looked out of the window, I could hardly see the division between land and water, water and sky, all was a uniform gray, with thick cloud lying low over the marsh and a drizzle. It was not a day calculated to raise the spirits and I felt unrefreshed and nervous after the previous night. But Spider trotted down the stairs eagerly and cheerfully enough and I soon built up the fires again and stoked the boiler, had a bath and breakfast and began to feel more like my everyday self.
In Scotland, a son was born to her and she wrote of him at once with a desperate, clinging affection. For a few months the letters ceased, but when they began again it was at first in passionate outrage and protest, later, in quiet, resigned bitterness. […]
"He is mine. Why should I not have what is mine? He shall not go to strangers. I shall kill us both before I let him go."
Then the tone changed. "'What else can I do? I am quite helpless. If you and M are to have him I shall mind it less." And again, "I suppose it must be."
But at the end of the last letter of all was written in a very small, cramped hand: "Love him, take care of him as your own. But he is mine, mine, he can never be yours. Oh, forgive me. I think my heart will break. J."
I picked things up, stroked them, even smelled them. They must have been here for half a century, yet they might have been played with this afternoon and tidied away tonight. I was not afraid now. I was puzzled. I felt strange, unlike myself, I moved as if in a dream. But for the moment at least there was nothing here to frighten or harm me, there was only emptiness, an open door, a neatly made bed and a curious air of sadness, of something lost, missing, so that I myself felt a desolation, a grief in my own heart. How can I explain? I cannot. But I remember it, as I felt it.
But she was alive and so was I and, gradually, a little warmth from each of our bodies and the pause revived us and, cradling Spider like a child in my arms, I began to stumble back across the marshes toward the house. As I did so and within a few yards of it, I glanced up. At one of the upper windows, the only window with bars across it, the window of the nursery, I caught a glimpse of someone standing. A woman. That woman. She was looking directly toward me. Spider was whimpering in my arms and making occasional little retching coughs. We were both trembling violently. How I reached the grass in front of the house I shall never know but, as I did so, I heard a sound. It was coming from the far end of the causeway path which was just beginning to be visible as the tide began to recede. It was the sound of a pony trap.
[…] I had been growing more and more determined to find out what restless soul it was who wanted to cause these disturbances and why, why. If I could uncover the truth, perhaps I might in some way put an end to it all forever.
But what I couldn't endure more was the atmosphere surrounding the events: the sense of oppressive hatred and malevolence, of someone's evil and also of terrible grief and distress. […] But I was worried, not wanting to leave the mystery unexplained and knowing, too, that at the same time someone would have to finish, at some point, the necessary work of sorting out and packing up Mrs. Drablow's papers.
The door was ajar. I stood, feeling the anxiety that lay only just below the surface begin to rise up within me, making my heart beat fast. Below, I heard Mr. Daily's footsteps and the pitter-patter of the dog as it followed him about. And, reassured by their presence, I summoned up my courage and made my way cautiously toward that half-open door. When I reached it I hesitated. She had been there. I had seen her. Whoever she was, this was the focus of her search or her attention or her grief—I could not tell which. This was the very heart of the haunting. […] It was in a state of disarray as might have been caused by a gang of robbers, bent on mad, senseless destruction.
I began to run crazily and then I heard it, the sickening crack and thud as the pony and its cart collided with one of the huge tree trunks. […]
They lifted Stella gently from the cart. Her body was broken, her neck and legs fractured, though she was still conscious. […]
Our baby son had been thrown clear, clear against another tree. He lay crumpled on the grass below it, dead. This time, there was no merciful loss of consciousness, I was forced to live through it all, every minute and then every day thereafter, for ten long months, until Stella, too, died from her terrible injuries.
I had seen the ghost of Jennet Humfrye and she had had
They asked for my story. I have told it. Enough.