Not unexpectedly, Hillís ghost tale takes place in the murky setting of Crythim Gifford, a town in the salt marshes far removed from London society and the comfort of chattering voices and daily activities of busy lives. Selected to settle the estate of the deceased Mrs. Alice Drablow, young, ambitious solicitor Arthur Kripps pays no attention to the reticence of townsfolk to discuss his destination, though clearly they know much about Eel Marsh House and its dark history.
Delivered to the door of the estate before tidal access to Nine Lives Causeway becomes impassable, the solicitor explores the gloomy house filled with the detritus of disuse and decay, mountains of old correspondence and years of neglect creating an ominous atmosphere. Unsettled but eventually in control of himself, he spies a solitary figure, a mysterious woman in black lurking in the cemetery after a graveside ceremony. Kripps refuses to acknowledge the creeping menace that permeates his surroundings, the sudden disappearance of everyone from the chapel, the enigmatic black-robed figure, the silence. Mind over matter, he applies his mind to the task at hand, even when inexplicable noises fill him with dread. Isolated from human companionship, Kripps is flooded with pride and curiosity despite a natural inclination toward caution, firmly believing self-control will prevail over fear.
The unearthly tale unfolds as Kripps writes of his travails from memory years later, the result of insistent demands of enthusiastic family members for his contribution to horror stories on Christmas holiday. Kripps at first refuses, but later decides to tell allóbut one time only and with an air of doomed resignation. Weighted with tragedy, his words carry a particular sense of fatality as time slips away and Eel Marsh House is once again as real and painful as the devastating consequences of the experience.
Once more, a modern young man finds himself on a collision course with a nightmare, conjuring again the haunting figure of the woman in black, the sound of a trap sinking into a watery grave in the marsh, a childís screams, and the presence of another in the creaking house at night, cut off from civilization and helpless with terror. Though the structure of the novel is predictable gothic horror, it is the gradual realization of the protagonist that reason counts for little in this eerie landscape that leaves an impression. Here life, death and loss intersect, and the price of his visions is both tragic and inevitable, all purpose and joy sucked from a bright future by contact with the unfathomable grief of a woman caught between worlds and privy to neither.