When I pitched American Theatre my idea to write about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child as 19th-century melodrama, my editor asked if The Woman in Black would figure into my thinking. After all, it's another commercially successful British stage play with connections to popular fiction and vintage melodrama. (Not to mention a Harry Potter connection, since Daniel Radcliffe starred in the film version.)
I wasn't familiar with Susan Hill's novella or Stephen Mallatratt's stage adaptation of it, so I checked them both out of the library and read them eagerly. I'm such a Ravenclaw -- I love it when people suggest books to me and make me feel like I'm in school again.
Ultimately, my article ended up going in a different direction and I didn't have room to mention The Woman in Black, but I'm still glad to have read it. And, because I have a tradition of blogging about spooky literature during the month of October, I thought I'd post my reviews of the novella and the playscript today.
The Woman in Black - A Ghost Story by Susan Hill
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I’m a little surprised that Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black has become something of a horror classic, adapted into a long-running stage play and multiple films, because I didn’t find it to be all that remarkable. While it is smoothly written and has some effectively suspenseful scenes, it never truly creeped me out or got under my skin.
The premise is fairly standard for an old-fashioned ghost story: a young London lawyer, Arthur Kipps, is sent to a small village to look after the papers of an eccentric old woman who has recently died. There, he discovers suspicious townsfolk, eerie noises, and, finally, a vengeful ghost. The old woman's isolated mansion, on the edge of lonely marshes and accessible only by a causeway that floods twice a day, is an effective horror-story setting, but it isn't all that original. (For a much creepier story that also takes place in a seaside mansion that periodically gets cut off from the mainland — and was also written about 35 years ago by a British woman — try the title story of Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber.)
The book’s novella length may also work against it. At half the length, the story would hurtle to its frightening conclusion; at twice the length, Hill could flesh out her characters and add more terrifying events. But as it is, the story just kind of ambles along.
I also got distracted trying to figure out what time period this is supposed to take place in. As other Goodreads reviewers have noted, it starts off feeling like a Victorian ghost story, but then the narrator refers to cars and electric lights as though they are common and unremarkable. I satisfied myself by deciding that it could be the 1920s (because it has to be an era when cars were common in cities, but people in rural areas still used pony carts). Still, I wish that Susan Hill had given a clear indication of the era early on — or, even better, I wish she’d written a story that was so gripping that it shut off my rational, questioning brain and overwhelmed me with horror.
The Woman in Black: A Ghost Play by Stephen Mallatratt
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I wasn’t too impressed with the novella The Woman in Black (I gave it only two stars) but I honestly think that this play adaptation is a more effective version of the story.
First, the play uses the tools of theater to add another layer to the narrative. Its premise is that Arthur Kipps, a middle-aged lawyer, wants to tell his family about a terrifying encounter he once had with a ghost, and has hired a young actor to coach him in public speaking. However, the actor encourages Kipps to be more ambitious, and soon the two men are acting out the story, in kind of a primitive form of drama-therapy.
Then, the play eliminates the less-effective aspects of the novella. Sometimes it seems like playwright Stephen Mallattrat is slyly critiquing his source material! For instance, the novella begins with Kipps describing his country house, his second wife, and his stepchildren – all of which are irrelevant to the main story. In the play, when Kipps begins describing these things, the young actor tells him to stop rambling and cut to the chase!
I also think it might be more frightening to see the ghost stalking the theater, than it was to read about the ghost in the novella.
The Woman in Black is easy for small theaters to produce, relying on two actors, basic props, and recorded sound. And it improves on its source material, being more complex, faster-paced, and scarier. Companies seeking Halloween plays ought to consider it.