I love a good ghost story in the Fall, and have just discovered Susan Hill, who wrote this gem back in 1983.
Though it’s unspecified, the story seems to take place in the early 1900’s, based on clues like cars and pony and traps coexisting, and the telephone being a relatively new technology. The story begins with Arthur Kipps in middle age, enjoying the holidays in England with his family at his home, Monk’s Piece. It’s a scene of domestic happiness, but for Arthur it’s a hard-won joy, for he’s still haunted by an event that took place in his youth. When his stepchildren begin telling ghost stories and demand that he tell one of his own, he storms out of the house, upset and disturbed.
He decides to tell his own ghost story, not out loud, but to write it down in hopes of exorcising his past trauma. He tells of when he was twenty-six and a clerk in a law office. His boss, Mr. Bentley, sends him on a business trip to the northern town of Crythin Gifford, to settle the estate of an old woman named Mrs. Drablow, who had died and had lived in an estate called Eel Marsh House, located in an isolated spot in the marshes.
As he enters town and interacts with the natives, it becomes clear the townsfolk are uneasy and unwilling to talk about Mrs. Drablow and Eel Marsh House, almost to the point of rudeness. Arthur chalks it up to country superstitions; but when he attends the funeral of Mrs. Drablow, he sees a mysterious woman in black skirting the edge of the cemetery. Once at the estate, he explores the ruins of a monastery and graveyard nearby, and again sees the woman in black, and experiences an intense sensation of malevolence and evil emanating from her. She quickly disappears, and it occurs to him that, even though he’s normally a rational, well-educated individual, he’s seen a ghost.
Thus begins Arthur’s harrowing experience at Eel Marsh House, replete with strange sounds behind a locked door, a ghostly drowning in the marsh, and periods of terror and psychological torment. The unbearable tension and fear of nighttime is alternated with the daytime conviction on Arthur’s part that it wasn’t quite as bad as he thought and could face whatever else the house threw at him; only to suffer another night of horrifying dread and fear. Through letters he finds in Mrs. Drablow’s papers and the reluctant information he gleans from Mr. Daily, a businessman from town, he pieces together a tragedy from the past that begins to explain the ghostly hauntings. However, the damage is done, and Arthur is forever changed, not only by the traumatic events at Eel Marsh House, but what comes after. Arthur Kipps ends up losing much more than his innocence after his stay here.
Hill paints a creepy, atmospheric tale of grief and revenge, and ratchets up the suspense with every creak and ghostly howl of wind. All the trappings of a classic ghost story are here: the isolated house, the bleak, cold landscape of winter, the uncooperative and surly townsfolk who distrust the unbelieving city boy, and all manner of things that go bump in the night. But I loved it anyway. My only complaint is that, at 170 pages, it’s too short; I feel this could have been a great spooky novel-length tale. I wanted to know more, about everything. As it is, it’s a wonderful nugget of Halloween-inspired scariness. I’ll be watching the 2011 movie with Daniel Radcliffe soon, and will report on how well it measures up to the book.