A chilling, traditional ghost story, with a strong Victorian feel: a lone lawyer goes to a spooky house on the marshes, plagued by stories of madness and death. No great surprises, but shocking none-the-less. It is skilfully written, so that most of the scary stuff happens in your head, rather than being explicit on the page.
Arthur Kipps, the main character and the narrator is very pragmatic and always tries to dismiss his fears and find a rational explanation, which serves to make his story more believable – and thus more alarming. All the way through, his greatest need is to uncover the truth, however unpalatable it may be. However, it’s not what he sees or hears that really scares him, but what he FEELS, and the power of the Woman in Black’s emotion. His feelings towards her change from concern through fear to anger. However, despite his pragmatism, right at the beginning Kipps does have a strong conviction that a particular house is part of his destiny (which implies some openness to the supernatural), and when he first arrives at the town he says he felt like “a spectre at some cheerful feast”.
The weather (mist, rain, wind and sun) is a major character in the book; sometimes it parallels the situation and mood of the characters (mists and disappearances) and sometimes it is in total contrast (sun at a funeral). It could be clichéd, but, perhaps because it doesn't always match the plot, it has more dramatic weight.
One feature I didn’t notice on first reading was the birds. Kipps himself is a bit of a birdwatcher, and different birds make fleeting appearances: a menacing “snake-necked bird”, the woman in black looking like a carrion bird, a nice happy robin later on.
Hill does seem to have a bit of a problem with time. The first chapter jumps around in a confusing way, which doesn’t really matter plot-wise, but is disconcerting. The bigger mystery is when it is set. Everything about it feels Victorian (foggy London, pony and trap, steam trains), but she mentions telephones, electric lights (even in a remote house on the marshes), cars, cycling as a (not particularly wealthy) boy, a grave stone from “years back” is inscribed “190...”, and Kipps makes reference to Dickens and the treatment of Victorian servants 60 years earlier. Each time I’ve read this book, I’ve been more puzzled and irritated by this, though it's still a very good book.
If you like it, The Turn of the Screw is in a similar vein.
And don’t believe those who say it is like a ghost story written by Jane Austen!