Whilst on holiday in Frankfurt this week, and in-between eating a lot of Schnitzel (think, breaded meat slab…), I kicked off my Halloween Reading List Bonanza with The Woman in Black by Susan Hill.
An elderly Arthur Kipps is sat contentedly around the fire on Christmas Eve with his stepchildren and his beloved wife Esme. When the young men of the family start to tell ghost stories, Arthur decides to put pen to paper, revealing the terrifying events that have haunted him throughout his adult life…
…as a young man, Arthur, an up-and-coming lawyer with a prestigious firm in London, is sent to the rural village of Crythin Gifford to sort out the affairs of the deceased Alice Drablow. Faced with a wall of silence by the local residents who appear to be frightened at the mere mention of her name and anxious to get the job done so he can return to London to be with his fiancée Stella, Arthur starts to feel rather frustrated and declares that he will spend at least a few nights at her estate, Eel Marsh House, in order to get the necessary business done.
Whilst at Mrs Drablow’s funeral, Arthur notices a mysterious woman, shrouded in black, hiding amongst the gravestones. She appears ill; sunken and drawn with her skin pulled tightly from her face as though she is suffering from some kind of ‘wasting disease’.
Not heeding the cryptic warnings from the local residents, Arthur heads for Mrs Drablow’s estate (which, incidently, lies on Nine Lives Causeway; completely cut off from the mainland during high tide).
Attempting to organise papers at the Drablow house over a series of days, Arthur experiences a terrifying sequence of rude awakenings, creepy noises, ghostly screams from the marshes at night and the soft bump bump bump of a rocking chair from behind a locked door to which he does not have the key…who, or what, is haunting Eel Marsh House?
…and I’m not going to divulge any more information than that, I am afraid; you’ll have to buy the book and find out for yourself!
All in all, I found The Woman in Black to be excellent. Susan Hill’s faultless description of Eel Marsh House and the surrounding countryside is as bleak as you’d expect it to be and the reader can really get a feel of the sense of isolation, and desolation, that the various inhabitants of Eel Marsh House must have felt at some time or other. The reader also gets a very real taste of the palpable fear that Arthur feels whilst he is cooped up in the house with only a glass of whiskey and Spider the dog to keep him company on the long, drawn-out nights.
Susan Hill’s command of the language used in traditional Gothic horror novels is expertly used and perfectly captures the mood of an era (and a community, no less) torn between the misery of the past and the uncertainties of the future.
At just under 200 pages, The Woman in Black is perfectly for a short, sharp shock, preferably to be read in front of an open fire, or failing that, snuggled up in bed.
Whilst researching the book for this review, I inevitably stumbled across the Wiki article of the 2012 film version with Daniel Radcliffe as Arthur Kipps. Whilst I have heard good things about the film itself, I invariably noticed that the plot diverges significantly from the original text.
This is something to be expected in film adaptations, I suppose, in order to make certain stories seem more palatable to different audiences but I have to say that in general, this irks me a LOT (obviously, I haven’t seen the film yet so I can’t really judge on any basis than that of my own prejudices, though I am not saying that I am unwilling to give the film a chance…).
I think the beauty of horror as a genre is that often stories leave a lot of room for the reader to draw their own conclusions and sometimes this can be quite frustrating, especially when you’ve invested a lot of emotional energy in a character. You want more, but you just don’t get it.
One particular example that springs immediately to mind is the film adaptation of Apt Pupil by Stephen King; a beautifully crafted novella that dissects notions of nature versus nurture and the inherent evil that could lie at the heart of any one of us. Todd Bowden, an all-American boy, obsessed with the Holocaust, tracks down an elderly Nazi war criminal, Kurt Dussander, living in his neighbourhood.
Todd, influenced by his ‘friendship’ with Dussander, sees his perfect life fall down around him; his grades are plummeting, he is having increasingly disturbing dreams caused by the stories that he forces Dussander to tell him (in exchange for not informing the authorities of Dussander’s true identity) and develops a murderous…apathy (if such a term exists) for those around him, concealing his crimes with a precision and thoughtfulness you’d only really expect an adult to demonstrate. In other words, as he gets older, Todd goes batshit crazy. One thing is for certain however, Todd, despite being a young boy at the beginning of Apt Pupil, is the one firmly in charge of the fragile relationship that exists between him and the old Nazi; from forcing Dussander to tell him about ‘all the gooshy stuff’ regarding his role as a KZ Commandant to making him don a Nazi uniform Todd buys from a fancy dress shop. Don’t get me wrong, Dussander is an evil, evil man and his role should not be underplayed, but the onus here is on Todd and how beneath his veneer of middle class, suburban respectability, he is in fact, severely unhinged, this being exacerbated by his relationship with Dussander, though, important to point out, not necessarily caused by it.
After murdering his guidance counsellor, Todd loads up his rucksack with ammunition, grabs his gun and goes down to the highway, scales a tree, and starts shooting motorists at random.
The ending of Apt Pupil novella is excellent:
‘It was five hours later and almost dark before they took him down’.
You don’t need any more than that!
And in the film? Todd crushes a bird under the wheel of his bike, helps Dussander bury a tramp in his basement and then blags his way out of trouble with his guidance counsellor (played by David Schwimmer with a scary moustache, possibly the most unsettling part of the entire film…) and lives happily ever after. No murdering or nuttin’. What a fucking cop-out!
And the same, I feel, will apply to the film version of The Women in Black, which has such potential to leave viewers hanging by the thread of their very last nerve.
Both films could truly be excellent examinations of the human psyche, something horror does so well, but where would we be without our happy endings, eh?
As Arthur Kipps states in the very last line of The Woman in Black:
Here is a video of Daniel Radcliffe reading from the original book anyway, enjoy!