Not every ghost story translates well from page to screen — the 1999 movie “The Haunting,” based on Shirley Jackson’s 1959 novel, for instance — but the trailer for the upcoming film of Susan Hill’s “The Woman in Black” (Vintage: 176 pp., $15.95 paper), starring “Harry Potter’s” Daniel Radcliffe and set for U.S. release early next month, suggests we’re in store for an effective, faithful rendering of this harrowing 1983 tale.
Hill’s story of a young lawyer’s experience with a malevolent spirit — and how it casts a shadow over the rest of his life — has already resulted in a successful stage play and TV movie. It has also been praised by critics as a near-perfect example of the ghost-story genre.
Hill, an English novelist whose other books include a crime series featuring inspector Simon Serrailler, keeps a tight rein on the plot as young Arthur Kipps (Radcliffe in the new movie) travels to the seacoast town of Crythin Gifford to sort out the estate of the recently deceased Alice Drablow. Drablow was the elderly, sole inhabitant of a fantastically gothic home on a hill in the marshes that on a daily basis gets cut off from the mainland at high tide.
Drablow’s so recently deceased, in fact, that Arthur arrives in time for her funeral. Among the mourners, he spies the following lady:
“She was dressed in deepest black, in the style of full mourning that had rather gone out of fashion except, I imagined, in court circles on the most formal occasions…. [S]he was suffering from some terrible wasting disease, for not only was she extremely pale, even more than a contrast with the blackness of her garments could account for, but the skin and, it seemed, only the thinnest layer of flesh was tautly stretched and strained across her bones, so that it gleamed with a curious, blue-white sheen, and her eyes seemed sunken back into her head.…The effect of the illness made her age hard to guess, but she was quite possibly no more than thirty.”
No one else, however, can see her. Why not? Is she there or isn’t she? Who is she? Rest assured, Arthur will find those answers — and he’ll see her again. Oh, yes, he will, several times.
This is a moody, atmospheric tale of a haunting with a tragic, hidden cause, set in a treacherous landscape of “sudden fogs” and “moaning winds.” The movie trailer gives us leaden skies, sea spray and muck, and all of that feels true to Hill’s novel, which has been reissued to coincide with the movie.
The story is told by Arthur as an old man, who recalls his younger self’s innocence and determination, his belief that he could uncover the truth of this woman without any risk or harm to himself. And, as any good ghost story requires, he turns out to be wrong.
— Nick Owchar