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Literature / The Woman in Black

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"They have asked for my story. I have told it. Enough."

The Woman in Black is a 1983 English horror novel by Susan Hill.

The story centers on Arthur Kipps, a young London solicitor who is sent by his employer to the small market town of Crythin Gifford on the northeastern coast of England to settle the estate of the recently-departed Mrs Alice Drablow. The deceased was an elderly and reclusive widow who lived alone in Eel Marsh House, situated on a desolate island that is inaccessible for most of the day as the rising tide floods the causeway connecting it to the mainland.

Oh, and as Kipps soon learns, the place is haunted by the ghost of one Jennet Humfrye, Mrs Drablow's sister and the mother of her adopted son (both of whom had perished in a horrible accident on the marshes years earlier). Whenever her apparition is seen, a child dies.

There have been several adaptations, including a (still-running) 1989 stage adaptation, a 1989 ITV television version, two different Radio Drama versions by The BBC, and a 2012 feature film from Hammer Films.

The stage play has a different slant: in order to keep the budget low and to be able to do it as a two-hander play, it is instead portrayed as an elderly Kipps employing an actor to help him get the story across to his family. Emphasis on two.

The play has been running for more than 20 years at the Fortune Theatre, making it the longest-running thriller in London's West End (at, co-incidentally, the West End's smallest theatre), as well as the second longest-running play in all of the West End, after The Mousetrap. This play is a favourite of school drama trips, making sure the audience usually has a group of easily startled kids who will scream in all the right places...

The 2012 film stars Daniel Radcliffe. Coincidentally, the 1989 telefilm starred Radcliffe's onscreen Harry Potter father Adrian Rawlins.

Tropes common to all the versions:

  • Apocalyptic Log: Jennet Humfrye's letters to Alice Drablow, which conclude on a note of dire Foreshadowing.
  • Corpse Land: The town of Crythin Gifford and surroundings is a minor version; a haunted house, swamp, and town all in close proximity to each other.
  • Death Glare: The ghost has this expression on her face at all times.
  • Demonic Possession: At the climax of the book, Jennet forces Arthur to feel all the negative emotions she did when her son died.
  • Downer Ending: Arthur and his first wife Stella return to London after his ordeal and end up having a child, Joseph. A year later, they attend a fair and Jospeh points to a pony trap, indicating he wants to take a ride on it. He and Stella get on the trap while Arthur watches on. However, as they return, he notices the Woman in Black hiding behind a tree. Unable to warn the trap in time, Arthur watches as it veers off the path and smashes into a tree. Stella is badly injured, but little Joseph dies instantly when he's flung into the tree. Stella dies from her injuries months later. Talk about a downer!
  • Evil-Detecting Dog: Spider.
  • Facial Horror: Arthur finds the Woman in Black's face creepier and creepier each time he sees it; at best, it looks near-skeletal. Then he notices the expression of boundless malevolence on her face...
  • Foregone Conclusion: After all, we know at the beginning of the novel that Arthur was widowed in his early twenties.
  • Ghostly Goals: Type B.
  • Ghost Story: Obviously, but the novel's Framing Device has Arthur's family sharing ghost stories on Christmas Eve. When they press upon Arthur to tell one, he refuses and leaves them in agitation, then resolves to write down his own horrific past experience in the hopes of "exorcising" it from his memory.
  • Hammer Horror: The story bears all the moodiness and foreboding of a Hammer film. Appropriately, the studio produced the 2012 film, which takes the atmosphere up to eleven.
  • Haunted House: Eel Marsh.
  • I See Dead People: In the novel, the ghost is visible only to Arthur. Curiously, the pony at the end of the book also seems to see the Woman and Spider definitely hears her.
  • Jump Scare:
    • All over the place in the stage play. Audiences regularly shriek out loud, and that's kind of the point.
    • Used frequently and very effectively in the film version.
  • Just Eat Gilligan: Kipps has to review all of Alice Drablow's documents, a task that will take several days at least. This apparently necessitates him staying in the creepy haunted house over several nights to do so... instead of, for example, reviewing said documents in the relative safety of the town.
  • My Card: Samuel Daily gives his to Arthur after their first meeting, telling him to call should he need any assistance while in town.
  • Nightmare Fuel Station Attendant: The WIB; the face alone qualifies her for the post. She kills children whenever she appears, and takes a fiendish delight in using the deaths for revenge.
    • In the theatre version, she appears to the actor, who reveals that he has a wife and son, similarly to Kipps before they died, and asks Kipps who the young woman playing the ghost was. Kipps saw no young woman. The play ends as the actor claps his hand to his mouth in horror, then runs offstage...
  • Nostalgic Narrator: Well, perhaps "nostalgic" isn't the best word, but the novel's main narrative is told by an older Arthur Kipps looking back on events from years earlier.
  • Ominous Fog: The "sea frets", sudden thick mists that roll in around the marshes and limit visibility.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: Mrs Drablow's death is why Kipps is sent to Crythin Gifford in the first place.
  • Quicksand Sucks: Played straight. In the novel, it makes a "horrid sucking, draining sound"; Arthur goes for a dip in an attempt to rescue Mr. Daily's dog Spider and attributes a malevolent dragging sensation to it. In the film, he goes in to Recover Nathaniel Drablow's body. In all versions, it's the cause of Nathaniel Drablow's death and what precipitates Jennet to haunt the town.
  • Shout-Out: "Arthur Kipps" was the name of the protagonist in H. G. Wells' novel Kipps.
  • Stellar Name: Kipps' fiancée.
  • Swamps Are Evil: a marsh, actually (for those unclear of the difference, a swamp is a wet-land in a forest while a marsh is a wet-land on the border of a lake or ocean, with lots of grass and salty soil), but it is haunted and directly caused two deaths (three if you count the horse) and indirectly caused a whole bunch of others (because of the ghosts unliving there).

Alternative Title(s): The Woman In Black