David R. Godine, 138 pages
I do a writing assignment with my students called “Which is Better—the Book or the Movie?” Doesn’t matter if it’s a black-and-white classic or a Technicolor blockbuster, my students invariably plant themselves on the side of the book. (I don’t know if the knowledge that I’m a writer enters into their logic, so we should probably factor in the suck-up component.)
I bring this up because, having just finished reading The Woman in Black, I think this will make a fine movie (perhaps even better than the book).
Woman in Black opens with an oft-used device–narrator relaxing at a genial fireside gathering when someone suggests passing the time with ghost stories. Naturally, the narrator knows the best and scariest supernatural tale, and the next chapter begins with his or her manuscript. I was reminded of The Turn of the Screw.
In Susan Hill’s novella, narrator/solicitor Arthur Kipps travels north of London to settle the estate of Alice Drablow, one of the last Victorians. Eel Marsh House sits on the edge of a shifting marsh worthy of Hound of the Baskervilles. Enter the ghost, a grief-racked, wacked-out woman appropriately attired in black Victorian garb. As Arthur delves into the deceased’s personal effects and letters, he uncovers family secrets and quiet treachery. At the same time, the black-clad presence wields her not inconsiderable powers to creak a nursery rocking chair, evoke a child’s piercing cry and re-enact a tragic accident.
As I perused Woman in Black, I realized I had read the book many years before. This was a good thing because I knew not to expect plot twists (although there is one at the end) and could instead immerse myself in the narrative. For this is a quiet book, much of it interior to a narrator knocking around an empty house (and, as you can imagine, some navel-gazing), more Charlotte Bronte than Dean Koontz. Indeed, the style, syntax and structure was quite reminiscent of 19th century writing even though the events take place in the 20th. And that pulled me out of the story a little bit. What brought me back in is the careful characterization of Arthur and his maturation.
So, if you like your fog thick, your winds howling, your marshes amorphous, your pauses pregnant; in short, your atmosphere atmospheric, you will enjoy this novella.
Now I ask you: Which is better, the movie or the book? Guess we’ll have to wait until 2012. Look for me in the theater!