For whatever reason, it’s rare to come across a “horror” novel that truly delivers on horror. A novel that disturbs and disquiets in equal measure, without resorting to the monsters that so many horror novelists seem to need to fall back on. Perhaps two of the best examples of this kind of psychological horror novel are Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” and Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting of Hill House”. While not quite as disturbing as these other two, Susan Hill’s “The Woman in Black” certainly follows — more, more appropriately, creeps — in their footsteps.
The story begins with a lawyer who is still haunted by events he witness years ago and feels compelled to write down and, thereby, exorcise. (It’s a charming little touch that clearly harkens to the gothic styles of “Wuthering Heights” and others of its ilk.) We learn that this lawyer, many years before, had been send far into the moors of England to see to the final affairs of a deceased client.
To go through this woman’s papers, he must travel out to her home which is connected to the outskirts of town by a road that becomes impassible when the tides come in. For most of the day, any inhabitant is trapped in this house…and with anything this house has inside of it.
Hill does a masterful job in both recreating the gothic horror style. It is a relatively short novel, a novella really, and as the reader nears the end he or she will wonder exactly how Hill can possibly tie all ends up with so few pages left. She manages to do it and, despite the novel’s slow start, ends quickly, powerfully and hauntingly.