Title: The Woman in Black.
Author: Susan Hill.
Genre: Fiction, literature, horror, mystery.
Publication Date: 1983.
Summary: Proud and solitary, Eel Marsh House surveys the windswept reaches of the salt marshes beyond Nine Lives Causeway. Arthur Kipps, a junior solicitor, is summoned to attend the funeral of the house's sole inhabitant, unaware of the tragic secrets which lie hidden behind the shuttered windows. It is not until he glimpses an emaciated young woman, dressed all in black, that a creeping sense of unease begins to take hold, a feeling deepened by the reluctance of the locals to talk of the woman in black - and her terrible purpose.
My rating: 8/10.
♥ I have always liked to take a breath of the evening, to smell the air, whether it is sweetly scented and balmy with the flowers of midsummer, pungent with the bonfires and leaf-mould of autumn, or crackling cold from frost and snow. I like to look about me at the sky above my head, whether there are moon and stars or utter blackness, and into the darkness ahead of me; I like to listen for the cries of nocturnal creatures and the moaning rise and fall of the wind, or the pattering of rain in the orchard trees, I enjoy the rush of air towards me up the hill from the flat pastures of the river valley.
♥ "You must know at least one ghost story, stepfather, everyone knows one..."
Ah, yes, yes, indeed. All the time I had been listening to their ghoulish, lurid inventions, and their howling and groans, the one thought that had been in my mind, and the only thing I could have said was, "No, no, you have none of you any idea. This is all nonsense, fantasy, it is not like this. Nothing so blood-curdling and becreepered and crude - not so... so laughable. The truth is quite other, and altogether more terrible."
♥ 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. Groping their way blindly across roads, men and women took their lives in their hands, stumbling along the pavements, they clutched at railings and at one another, for guidance.
Sounds were deadened, shapes blurred. It was a fog that had come three days before, and did not seem inclined to go away and it had, I suppose, the quality of all such fogs - 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 around, in a game of Blind Man's Buff.
..I peered from out of the cab window into the gloom, what figures I could make out, fumbling their way through the murk, were like ghost figures, their mouths and lower faces muffled in scarves and veils and handkerchiefs, but on gaining the temporary safety of some pool of light they became red-eyed and demonic.
♥ 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.
♥ 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, and I recall waking the next morning, too, opening my eyes to see shafts of wintry sunlight playing upon the sloping white ceiling, and the delightful feeling of ease and refreshment in mind and limbs. 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.
♥ Now, all around and above and way beyond there seemed to be sky, sky and only a thin strip of land. I saw this part of the world as those great landscape painters had seen Holland, or the country around Norwich. Today there were no clouds at all, but I could well imagine how magnificently the huge, brooding area of sky would look with grey, scudding rain and storm clouds lowering over the estuary, how it would be here in the floods of February time when the marshes turned to iron-grey and the sky seeped down into them, and in the high winds of March, when the light rippled, shadow chasing shadow across the ploughed fields.
Today, all was bright and clear, and there was a thin sun overall, though the light was pale now, the sky having lost the bright blue of the morning, to become almost silver. As we drove briskly across the absolutely flat countryside, I saw scarcely a tree, but the hedgerows were dark and twiggy and low, and the earth that had been ploughed was at first a rich mole-brown, in straight furrows. But, gradually, soil have way to rough grass and I began to see dykes and ditches filled with water, and then we were approaching the marshes themselves. They lay silent, still and shining under the November sky, and they seemed to stretch in every direction, as far as I could see, and to merge without a break into the waters of the estuary, and the line of the horizon.
My head reeled at the sheer and startling beauty, the wide, bare openness of it. The sense of space, the vastness of the sky above and on either side made my heart race. I would have travelled a thousand miles to see this. I had never imagined such a place.
♥ Then, as it was so bright that it hurt my eyes to go on staring at it, I looked up ahead and I saw, as if rising out of the water itself, a tall, gaunt house of grey stone with a slate roof, that now gleamed steelily in the light. It stood like some lighthouse or beacon or martello tower, facing the whole, wide expanse of marsh and estuary, the most astonishingly situated house I had ever seen or could ever conceivably have imagined, isolated, uncompromising but also, I thought, handsome. As we neared it, I saw the land on which it stood was raised up a little, surrounding it o every side for perhaps three or four hundred yards, of plain, salt-bleached grass, and then gravel.
♥ I wanted to drink in all the silence and the mysterious, shimmering beauty, to smell the strange, salt smell that was borne faintly on the wind, to listen for the slightest murmur. I was aware of a heightening of every one of my senses, and conscious that this extraordinary place was imprinting itself on my mind and deep in my imagination, too.
I thought it most likely that, if I were to stay here for any length of time, I should become quite addicted to the solitude and the quietness...
♥ In the greyness of the fading light, it had the sheen and pallor not of flesh so much as of bone itself. Earlier, when I had looked at her, although admittedly it had been scarcely more than a swift glance each time, I had not noticed any particular expression on her ravaged face, but then I had, after all, been entirely taken with the look of extreme illness. Now, however, 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, towards whoever had taken it she directed the purest evil and hatred and loathing, with all the force that was available to her. Her face, in its extreme pallor, her eyes, sunken but unnaturally bright, were burning with the concentration of passionate emotion which was within her and which streamed from her. Whether or not this hatred and malevolence was directed towards me I had no means of telling - I had no reason at all to suppose that it could possibly have been, but at that moment I was far from able to base my reactions upon reason and logic. For the combination of the peculiar, isolated place and the sudden appearance of the woman and the dreadfulness of her expression began to fill me with fear. Indeed, I had never in my life been so possessed by it, never known my knees to tremble and my flesh to creep, and then to turn cold as stone, never known my heart to give a great lurch, as if it would almost leap up into my dry mouth and then begin pounding in my chest like a hammer on an anvil, never known myself gripped and held fast by such dread and horror and apprehension of evil. It was as though I had become paralysed. I could not bear to stay there, for fear, but nor had I any strength left in my body to turn and run away, and I was as certain as I had ever been of anything that, at any second, I would drop dead on that wretched patch of ground.
♥ I wanted company, and I had none, lights and warmth and a strong drink inside me, I needed reassurance. But, more than anything else, I needed an explanation. It is remarkable how powerful a force simple curiosity can be. I had never realized that before now. In spite of my intense fear and sense of shock, I was consumed with the desire to find out exactly who it was that I had seen, and how, I could not rest until I had settled the business, for all that while out there, I had not dared to stay and make any investigations.
♥ Then I realized that the mist played tricks with sound as well as sight, for not only did the noise of the trap stay further away from me for longer than I might have expected but also it seemed to come not from directly behind me, straight down the causeway path, but instead to be away to my right, out on the marsh. I tried to work out the direction of the wind but there was none. I turned around but then the sound began to recede further away again. Baffled, I stood and waited, straining to listen through the mist. What I heard next chilled and horrified me, even though I could neither understand nor account for it. The noise of the pony trap grew fainter and then stopped abruptly and away on the marsh was a curious draining, sucking, churning sound, which went on, together with the shrill neighing and whinnying of a horse in panic, and then I heard another cry, a shout, a terrified sobbing - it was hard to decipher - but with horror I realized that it came from a child, a young child. I stood absolutely helpless in the mist that clouded me and everything from my sight, almost weeping in an agony of fear ad frustration, and I knew that I was hearing, beyond any doubt, appalling last noises of a pony and trap, carrying a child in it, as well as whatever adult - presumably Keckwick - was driving and was even now struggling desperately. It had somehow lost the causeway path and fallen into the marshes and was being dragged under by the quicksand and the pull of the incoming tide.
I began to yell until I thought my lungs would burst, and then to run forward, but then stopped, for I could see nothing and what use would that be? I could not get onto the marsh and even if I could there was no chance of my finding the pony trap or of helping its occupants, I would only, in all likelihood, risk being sucked into the marsh myself.
♥ I did not look about me, though sometimes I glanced up into the great bowl of the night sky and at the constellations scattered there and the sight was comforting and calming to me, things in the heavens seemed still to be aright and unchanged. But nothing else was, within me or all around. I knew now that I had entered some hitherto unimagined - indeed, unbelieved-in - realm of consciousness, that coming to this pace had already changed me and that there was no going back. For, today, I had seen things I had never dreamed of seeing and heard things too. That the woman by the graves had been ghostly I now - not believed, no - knew, for certainty lay deep within me, I realized that it had become fixed and immovable, perhaps during that restless, anguished sleep. But I began to suspect that the pony and trap that I had heard out on the marsh, the pony and trap with the child who had cried out so terribly and which had been sucked into the quicksands, while marsh and estuary, land and sea, had been shrouded in that sudden fog, and I lost in the midst of it - they, too, had not been real, not there, present, not substantial, but ghostly also. What I had heard, I had heard, as clearly as I now heard the roll of the cart and the drumming of the pony's hooves, and what I had seen - the woman with the pale wasted face, by the grave of Mrs Drablow and again in the old burial ground - I had seen. I would have sworn to that on oath, on any testament. Yet they had been, in some sense I did not understand, unreal, ghostly, things that were dead.
♥ I was trying to make light of something that we both knew was gravely serious, trying to dismiss as insignificant, and perhaps even non-existent, something that affected us both as deeply as any other experience we had undergone in our lives, for it took us to the very edge of the horizon where life and death meet together. "I must face it out, Mr Jerome. Such things one must face." And even as I spoke I felt a new determination arise within me.
"So I said." Mr Jerome was looking at me pityingly. "So I said... once."
♥ And there they lay, those glittering, beckoning, silver marshes with the sky pale at the horizon where it reached down to the water of the estuary. A thin breeze blew off them with salt on its breath. Even from as far away as this I could hear the mysterious silence, and once again the haunting, strange beauty of it all aroused a response deep within me. I could not run away from that place, I would have to go back to it, not now, but soon, I had fallen under some sort of spell of the kind that certain places exude and it drew me, my imaginings, my curiosity, my whole spirit, toward itself.
For a long time, I looked and looked and recognized what was happening to me. My emotions had now become so volatile and so extreme, my nervous responses so near the surface, so rapid and keen, that I was living in another dimension, my heart seemed to beat faster, my step to be quicker, everything I saw was brighter, its outlines more sharply, precisely defined. And all this since yesterday. I had wondered whether I looked different in some essential way so that, when I eventually returned home, my friends and family would notice the change. I felt older and like a man who was being put to trial, half fearful, half wondering, excited, completely in thrall.
♥ I shook my head. "I won't run away."
I felt strong, sitting there at Samuel Daily's fireside, resolute, brave and stout-hearted, and I also- and he saw it - felt proud of being so. Thus, I thought, would a man go into battle, thus armed would he fight with giants.
"You shouldn't go there."
"I'm afraid I'm going."
"You shouldn't go there alone."
"I could find no one to go with me."
"No," he said, "and you would not."
♥ That the pony and trap and the crying child were not real I had no shadow of a doubt, that their final drive across the marshes and their disappearance into the treacherous quicksands had not just taken place a hundred yards away from me in the darkness, of this I was now certain. But I was equally certain that once, who knew how long ago, but one actual day, this dreadful thing had indeed taken place, here on Eel Marsh. A pony and trap with whoever was its driver, together with a child passenger, had been swallowed up and drowned within a few moments. At the very thought of it, let alone at this awful ghostly repetition of the whole event, I was more distressed than I could bear. I stood shivering, cold from the mist and the night wind and from the sweat that was rapidly cooling on my body.
♥ Beyond it lay a room, in complete darkness, save for the first yard or two immediately at the entrance, where the dim light from the bulb on the landing outside fell onto some shining, brown floor-covering. Within, I could hear both the noise - louder now because the door was open - and the sound of the dog, pattering anxiously about and sniffing and snuffling as she went.
I do not know how long I stood there in fear and trembling and in dreadful bewilderment. I lost all sense of time and ordinary reality. Through my head went a tumbling confusion of half-thoughts and emotions, visions of spectres and of real fleshy intruders, ideas of murder and violence, and all manner of odd, distorted fears. And, all the time, the door stood wide open and the rocking continued. Rocking. Yes. I came to, because I had realized at last what the noise within the room was - or, at least, what it reminded me of closely It was the sound of the wooden runners of my nurse's rocking chair, when she had sat beside me every night while I went to sleep, as a small child, rocking, rocking. Sometimes, when I was ill and feverish or had wakened from the throes of some nightmare, she or my mother had come to me and lifted me out of my bed and sat with me in that same chair, holding me and rocking until I was soothed and sleepy again. The sound that I had been hearing was the sound that I remembered from far back, from a time before I could clearly remember anything else. It was the sound that meant comfort and safety, peace and reassurance, the regular, rhythmical sound at the end of the day, that lulled me asleep and into my dreams, the sound that meant that one of the two people in the world to whom I was closest and whom I most loved was nearby. And so, as I stood there in the dark passageway, listening, the sound began to exert the same effect upon me now until I felt hypnotized by it into a state of drowsiness and rest, my fears and the tensions in my body they had aroused began to slip away, I was breathing slowly ad more deeply and felt a warmth creeping into my limbs. I felt that nothing could come near to harm or afright me, but I had a protector and guardian close at hand. And, indeed, perhaps I had, perhaps all I had ever earned and believed in the nursery about unseen heavenly spirits surrounding, upholding and preserving us was indeed true; or perhaps it was only that my memories aroused by the rocking sound were so positive and so powerfully strong that they overcame and quite drove out all that was sinister and alarming, evil and disturbed.
Whichever might be the case, I knew that I now had courage enough to go into that room and face whatever might be there and so, before the conviction faltered, and my fears could return, I walked in, as determinedly and boldly and firmly as I could. As I did so I put my hand up to the light switch on the wall but when I pressed it no illumination came and, shining my torch onto the ceiling, I saw that the socket was bare of any bulb. But the beam from my own lamp was quite strong and bright, it gave me ample light for my purpose and now, as I went into the room, Spider gave a low whine from one corner, but did not come over me. Very slowly and cautiously I looked around the room.
It was almost the room I had just been remembering, the room to which the sound I had identified belonged. It was a child's nursery. There was the bed in one corner, the same sort of low narrow wooden bed that I myself had once slept in, and beside it and facing the open fireplace at an angle stood the rocking chair and that too was the same or very similar, a low-seated, tall, ladder-backed chair made of dark wood - elm, perhaps, and with wide, worn, curved runners. As I watched, stared until I could stare no harder, it rocked gently and with gradually decreasing speed, in the way any such chair will continue to rock for a time after someone has just got out of it.
♥ 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.
♥ My brain span all manner of wild, incoherent fantasies as I tried desperately to provide a rational explanation for the presence I had been so aware of. But then they ceased. There was no living occupant of Eel Marsh House other than myself and Samuel Daily's dog. Whatever was about, whoever I had seen, and heard rocking, and who had passed me by just now, whoever had opened the locked door was not "real". No. But what was "real"? At that moment I began to doubt my own reality.
♥ It was Spider who brought me to my senses by scratching a little at my arm and then by licking the hand I stretched out to her. We sat on the floor together and I hugged her warm body to me, glad of her, thoroughly ashamed of myself, calmer and relieved, while the wind boomed and roared without, and again and again I heard that child's terrible cry bone on the gusts towards me.
♥ I was lost to everything but my own fears, incapable of decisive, coherent thought, let alone movement. But gradually I discovered for myself the truth of the axiom that a man cannot remain indefinitely in a state of active terror. Either the emotion will increase until, at the prompting of more and more dreadful events and apprehensions, he is so overcome by it that he runs away or goes mad; or he will become by slow degrees less agitated and more in possession of himself.
♥ I had said that there were no other strange and dreadful happenings that night, nothing else to make me afraid except the sound of the wind and the completeness of the dark, and in a sense that is true, for the nursery was quite empty and the rocking chair still and silent, all, so far as I could tell, was as it had been before. I did not know then to what I could possibly attribute the feelings that swept over me from the moment I entered the room. I felt no fear, not horror, but an overwhelming grief and sadness, a sense of loss and bereavement, a distress mingled with utter despair. My parents were both alive, I had one brother, a good many friends and my fiancée, Stella. I was still a young man. Apart from the inevitable loss of elderly aunts and uncles and grandparents I had never experienced the death of anyone close to me, never truly mourned and suffered the extremes of grief. Never yet. But the feelings that must accompany the death of someone as close to my heart and bound up with my own being as it was possible to be, I knew then, in the nursery of Eel Marsh House. They all but broke me, yet I was confused and puzzled, not knowing any reason at all why I should be in the grip of such desperate anguish and misery. It was as though I had, for the time that I was in the room, become another person, or at least experienced the emotions that belong to another.
It was as alarming and strange an occurrence as any of those more outward, visible and audible that had taken place over these past few days.
When I left the room and closed the door behind me and stood in the corridor again, the feelings dropped away from me like a garment that had been put over my shoulders for a short time and then removed again. I was back within my own person, my own emotions, I was myself again.
♥ I decided that I would put on a coat and boots and go for a brisk walk across the field, to clear my head, and was turning to go back into the house when, from far out on the marshes, I heard, unmistakably clean and clear, the sound of someone whistling, as one whistles to summon a dog.
Spider stopped dead in her tracks for a split second and then, before I could restrain her, before I had fully gathered my wits, she set off, as though after a hare, running low and fast away from the house, away from the safety of the grass and out across the wet marshes. For a few moments I stood amazed and bewildered and could not move, only stare, as Spider's small form receded into that great open expanse. I could see no one out there, but the whistle had been real, not a trick of the wind. Yet I would have sworn it had not come from any human lips. Then, even as I looked, I saw the dog falter and slow down and finally stop and I realized in horror that she was floundering in mud, fighting to maintain her balance from the pull beneath her feet. I ran as I have never run before, heedless of my own safety, desperate to go to the aid of the brave, bright little creature who had given me such consolation and cheer in that desolate spot.
♥ For I had fully decided to go back: nothing on earth would have induced me to pass another hour in Eel Marsh House; I had been as bold and determined as a man could be but I had been defeated and I was not afraid to admit as much, nor did I feel any sense of shame. A man may be accused of cowardice for fleeing away from all manner of physical dangers but when things supernatural, insubstantial and inexplicable threaten not only his safety and well-being but his sanity, his innermost soul, then retreat is not a sign of weakness but the most prudent course.
♥ The only other things I knew were that the boy's mother, Jennet Humfrye, had died of a wasting disease twelve years after her son, that they were both buried in the now disused and tumbledown graveyard beyond Eel Marsh House; that the child's nursery had been preserved in that house as he had left it, with his bed, his clothes, his toys, all undisturbed, and that his mother haunted the place. Moreover, that the intensity of her grief and distress together with her pent-up hatred and desire for revenge permeated the air all around.
And it was that which so troubled me, the force of those emotions, for those were what I believed had power to harm. But to harm who? Was not everyone connected with that sad story now dead?
♥ "And whenever she has been seen," he said in a low voice, "in the graveyard, on the marsh, in the streets of the town, however briefly, and whoever by, there has been one sure and certain result."
"Yes?" I whispered.
"In some violent or dreadful circumstance, a child has died."
"What - you mean by accident?"
"Generally by accident. But once or twice it has been after an illness, which has struck them down within a day or a night or less."
"You mean any child? A child of the town?"
"Any child. Jerome's child."
I had a sudden vision of that row of small, solemn faces, with hands all gripping the railings, that surrounded the school yard, on the day of Mrs Drablow's funeral.
"But surely... well... children sometimes do die."
"And is there anything more than chance to connect these deaths with the appearance of that woman?"
"You may find it hard to believe. You may doubt it."
After a few moments, looking at his set and resolute face, I said quietly, "I do not doubt, Mr Daily."
Then, for a very long time, neither of us said anything more.
♥ She had been a poor, crazed, troubled woman, dead of grief and distress, filled with hatred and desire for revenge. Her bitterness was understandable, the wickedness that led her to take away other women's children because she had lost her own, understandable too but not forgivable.
There was nothing anyone could do to help her, except perhaps pray for her soul, I thought. Mrs Drablow, the sister she blamed for the death of her child, was dead herself and in her grave, and, now that the house was empty at last, perhaps the hauntings and their terrible consequences for the innocent would cease forever.