Pauline Moran as the title character in the 1989 adaptation of The Woman in Black. (Photograph: ITV/Rex Shutterstock)

The legacy of The Woman in Black

Susan Hill’s story remains one of the most pervasively unsettling tales in the English ghost story tradition

Artillery Row

Although Halloween is now past, there is something enduring about the tradition of the ghost story. As the nights draw in and Christmas approaches, the idea of a chilling tale told by the fireside is as much of a seasonal prerequisite as rich food, drinking too much and revelatory family arguments. And just as literary and social presentations of the festive season owe something to Dickens and A Christmas Carol, so most British ghost stories seem to be related to the Victorian era, whether written then or set in that period. One thinks of MR James, Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw and many more, including, inevitably, Susan Hill’s 1983 novel, The Woman in Black.

The Woman in Black’s power lies in its simplicity and ability to provoke giddy terror

Hill began her writing career in 1961, publishing her debut book The Enclosure while still a student at King’s College, London. She was already well-known as a novelist by the Eighties, having won the Somerset Maugham Award in 1971 for I’m The King of the Castle and the 1972 Whitbread award for The Bird of Night, but it was her ninth novel, and her first ghost story, that remains her most famous book today, perhaps unjustly overshadowing a distinguished career that has seen her write dozens of fiction, non-fiction and children’s titles, to say nothing of short stories and drama.

The reason for the extraordinary and lasting success of The Woman in Black is twofold. It has been adapted for TV, stage, radio and cinema, meaning that its story has become familiar to millions over the years, but its power lies in its simplicity and ability to provoke giddy terror. Like many of MR James’s short stories, which derive their frightening effects from something as simple as a book in a dusty library or a whistle with an inscription upon it, Hill’s novel is the ghost story at its most elemental. There is an apparition, and it is malevolent, and the protagonist will find himself at its mercy, and the grim setting is laden with mystery and hopelessness. It is not a work that contains much in the way of comic relief or subplots, but instead concentrates on doing one thing, which it does superbly well: frightening its reader.

It is set in Victorian times, thereby allowing Hill to play with the traditional tropes of the Gothic novel, and revolves around the young solicitor Arthur Kipps, who, through no particular agency of his own, is sent by his firm to the bleak eastern town of Crythin Gifford to resolve the estate of a reclusive widow, Alice Drablow. He finds himself visiting her isolated home, Eel Marsh House, where he is beset by strange and unfathomable supernatural occurrences, including the repeated sounds of a horrific accident and the occasional, fleeting appearances of the titular woman, visions of whom legend has it have come to signify the inevitable death of a child. It is slowly explained why Drablow ended up a misanthropic loner, and what her curse denotes, as Kipps will eventually discover to horrific effect.

It is a superbly accomplished novel, bleaker and more uncompromising than most stories of this nature, and with an unhappy resolution that implies that Kipps’ torment will go on forever, even as the book ends with him stating that, “They have asked for my story. I have told it. Enough.” Yet its publication proved to be anything but the end of the saga of the woman in black.

In 1987, the playwright and occasional actor Stephen Mallatratt adapted the novel for the stage, and it was initially performed at the Stephen Joseph theatre in Scarborough, intended purely as a “Christmas ghost story” that would entertain and chill its audience. Mallatratt, faced with the obvious difficulties of turning the novel into a satisfying theatrical entertainment, hit upon an ingenious solution that would simultaneously add a new level of meta-theatricality to the story while maintaining its terrifying twists and revelations.

In the play, most of the action and all of the dialogue is shared between two characters, an elderly man and a younger one. The older of the two is Arthur Kipps, who is attempting to dramatize the story of what happened to him when he was younger, and the other man is an actor who Kipps has hired to make the narrative seem more engaging and lifelike. Thus, the actor plays Kipps, and Kipps himself takes on the role of narrator, as well as the many minor parts that have to be filled, apart from the usually uncredited role of a mysterious black-clad woman who appears at occasional pivotal points in the action.

The 1989 TV adaptation remains a pervasive exercise in clammy fear, executed with panache

It sounds almost Pirandellian in its complexity, but Mallatratt’s brisk, straightforward and largely faithful adaptation means that the audience quickly accepts the intrinsically unlikely premise – why on earth would someone attempt to exorcise a traumatic event by having it performed on a stage? – and transforms it into a superbly orchestrated fairground ride of sorts, complete with jump-out-of-seat scares and brilliant sound design. It went onto a long afterlife in the West End, where it can still be seen (or would be, if Covid-19 had not put a temporary stop to all live performance) and is now the second longest-running non-musical in London history, after The Mousetrap. Testament, surely, to the durability and the effectiveness of the original novel.

For many, though, the most terrifying incarnation of the story was not the play, or even the book, but the 1989 TV adaptation, which has recently been released on DVD for the first time. It has seldom been available for home viewing since it was first shown on ITV on Christmas Eve in 1989, with a VHS release in 1991 soon disappearing from view, and one further screening on Channel 4 being its only appearance on terrestrial television. Like the similarly controversial Ghostwatch, it seemed destined to be an almost legendary exercise in fear, but while Ghostwatch’s gimmick – an apparently live documentary television show about a haunted house was in fact a scripted drama – was soon exposed after a terrified nation believed it to be real, the adaptation of The Woman in Black was never presented as anything other than fiction, but was no less frightening as a result.

It was adapted by the legendary Nigel Kneale, who was responsible for such shows as Quartermass and the Pit. Kneale made several changes to the storyline that displeased Hill, such as altering the names of the characters, and he made the ending simultaneously more dramatic and even bleaker than it is in the original novel. It also features one of the most terrifying scenes in any horror adaptation, which has been known to make grown men leap out of their seats and start gibbering with fear, and Nancy Banks-Smith, then TV critic of the Guardian, said of it that “it created a genuine physical reaction, as if one layer of your skin had shifted over another.” League of Gentlemen actor and writer Reece Shearsmith and Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro cite it as one of their favourite films, and it remains a pervasive exercise in clammy fear, executed with panache.

Which is a great deal more than can be said for the 2012 James Watkins film of the novel, starring Daniel Radcliffe as Kipps. Whatever one makes of Radcliffe as an actor or as a public figure, casting the then-22 year old as a solicitor who is supposed to be both a widower and a father to a four-year old son is an unfair burden upon him, given that he looks little older than a teenager himself. (Jude Law was apparently the first choice for the role and would have been infinitely better casting.)

The 2012 film adaptation ends up far less scary than the other iterations of the story

The screenplay, by Jane Goldman, also makes a crucial change, which works less well than the earlier versions: rather than the appearance of the woman in black denoting the imminent death of a child as a harbinger, her very presence now leads to children trying to kill themselves. Unfortunately, the desired 12A certificate led to numerous changes and edits to this plot point – films about supernaturally influenced children trying to kill themselves not being traditionally the most family-friendly of entertainment – meaning that much of the supposedly terrifying effect was muffled, and the film ends up far less scary than the other iterations of the story. It did well at the box office, however, and even led to an unsuccessful sequel, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, without Radcliffe and with Hill’s involvement limited to a “story by” credit.

It is very likely, even without the option of a family outing to the theatre this Christmas, that many will be encountering The Woman in Black in some form, whether as film, TV adaptation or book. For some, it will be their first exposure to this perennially frightening story, while others may settle in for a cosy evening of fear with all the happy expectation of a festive treat.

As someone who has always found horror far more insidious when half imagined than when shown in all of its gory glory, I have always found Hill’s story to be one of the most pervasively unsettling tales in the English ghost story tradition. Judging by its continuing and still-terrifying reputation, I am far from alone in this particular desire to be scared witless, in the most atmospheric and accomplished of ways.

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