It takes a special sort of person to be haunted. It also takes a special sort of person to be a haunting. This is the unquiet thing looking up at me from the bottom of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black, although I’ll admit that reading is influenced by its adaptations. Hill is a modern writer with a long publishing history and much success outside horror, particularly her crime novel series starring Simon Serrallier, but The Woman in Black, published in 1983, could have been a yellowed manuscript peeled from a secret drawer in M.R. James’s desk at Eton, years before Hill herself was even born. You might call it a slow burn, but it’s more a slow chill, like the haunting it describes, all the better to shock and brutalize at the end. Quite clearly modeled on James’s Christmas ghost stories, Hill takes pains at the outset to make the reader comfortable, assuring us that the haunted narrator will emerge well on the other side of it, wealthy and surrounded by a vibrant household of loved ones at Christmas. It is like being ushered into a haunted house attraction through the warm lights and cinnamon incense of a Hallmark store. But it is well that she spends so much time showing us the pleasant life on the other end of the tale if we’re to understand not only the loss the narrator will know at the baleful design of the Woman in Black, but the response to grief that separates him from her.
In Hill’s story, Arthur Kipps is a junior solicitor with ambition to be a partner in the firm and a beloved fiancée he hopes to support when he is given the responsibility/test to represent the firm at the funeral of a reclusive client in the remote market town of Crythin Gifford. He will also have to get the late client’s affairs in order and sell her spooky estate, Eel Marsh House, which is surrounded by a treacherous marsh that cuts the house off from the mainland except during the window of low tide. As main characters go, I would love to get Kipps in a room with Dracula’s Jonathan Harker. They would be instant best friends, gabbing about train timetables and their perfect fiancées into the small hours. Kipps, however, will face a far more uncompromising evil than Dracula’s hungry wives at the funeral of Alice Drablow, as he looks up into the glare of a sickly, pallid young woman dressed all in black. Hunger is easy; hunger can be satisfied. There is an end to it, even if it you’re on the menu. What the Woman in Black represents goes on and must be lived with.
Kipps, periodically imprisoned in Eel Marsh House by a combination of tides, professional responsibility, and extreme rationalization, will eventually assemble the story of the Woman in Black through ghostly reenactments and epistolary found footage: Alice Drablow’s younger sister Jennet got with child by a father who was not her husband. Jennet was then pressured to give up the child for adoption, which she resigned herself to only at length and with the slight consolation he was going to her sister. When Mrs. Drablow adopted the boy, Nathaniel, all efforts were made to conceal that Jennet was the true mother. Eventually, to be closer to her son, Jennet came to stay at Eel Marsh House, promising never to reveal her true identity, but inwardly plotting to steal back her child. That plan came to nothing, however, as a carriage carrying Nathaniel to the house lost its way in the fog and sank in the marshes. Ghostly echoes of the tragedy replay in the night, and stranded Kipps will hear it all, just as Jennet heard it all at the time, losing her only child again, this time irretrievably. And now a witness, he must be a victim. Kipps learns from a local landowner that, years on from her own tragedy, the apparition that Jennet has become is the omen of a child’s death in the town of Crythin Gifford. Childless Kipps goes back to his life, moving on, like you do. But years after, Kipps will find there is no expiration on the Woman in Black’s pain and rage, as he sees her again, startling their horse, causing an accident that claims the life of his young child and wife.
In Hill’s story, this is the end. The older Kipps, goaded by his loving family relishing Christmas spook stories, has fully vented the horrors he kept clasped to his heart in secret for years, like spilling open a locket filled with ashes, and he declares the story told, full stop. We know, because Hill took such pains to show us to start with, he moved on again, remarried, adopted his wife’s children, knew success, knew happiness, had proper English Christmases. Unlike the Woman in Black, he never stopped living because of his loss. We also know, because of his telling, the weight of his loss never left him, whether he chose to speak of it or not. Yet a witness to Kipps’ loss will not be cursed the way Jennet’s grief curses. It is an important difference.
The Woman in Black has been adapted into a stage play, a radio play, and two film versions. The first film, adapted by Nigel Kneale, who knew a thing or two about insidious horror on a BBC budget, gave me cold sweat nightmares when I first saw it, particularly the Woman in Black’s startling appearance to the hero* as he lay in his bedsit, rescued from Eel Marsh House and supposedly out of her grasp, literally screaming him into a delirious fever. Kneale’s version nipped and tucked Hill’s novella, most notably adding a possible reason for the Woman in Black’s focus on its young solicitor when he unwittingly saves a child from being run over after spotting her and invoking her curse – a simple child maiming will not do. Vengeful specter gonna venge.
My preferred version though, even over the novel itself, is the 2012 Hammer version starring Daniel Radcliffe as Kipps. Where Hill’s story, including its glacial pace, proceeds mostly faithfully in the Kneale TV movie, Hammer rips up the floorboards and does a full remodel, resulting in a pretty perfect adaptation of Hill’s blueprint to a jump-scare-enabled medium. Among the changes, Kipps begins the story not as an upwardly mobile solicitor with great expectations, but a young father, recently widowed, about to be bounced out of his firm because the weight of his bereavement has sunk his job performance along with his bank balance. It inserts an adversarial relationship with his boss at the firm, where instead of trying to make a father figure proud and happy, he is simply trying not to get fired for his young son’s sake. His performance on the firm’s behalf at Eel Marsh House is still a test, but in this case, it’s his last chance, and it makes his insistence on seeing it through more credible, in spite of heightened hostility from the locals in Crythin Gifford – which also seems more realistic, given the stakes of some idiot nosing around Eel Marsh House for all their children. Juxtaposing a young father struggling not-terribly-successfully with grief against a woman who practically turned herself into a grief demon is a dynamic that offers dramatic tension without sacrificing the terrible cosmic arbitrariness of the Woman in Black’s curse, and shared loss underscores his relationships with characters in the town of Crythin Gifford who have already lost children to her unquenchable rage. Daniel Radcliffe is wonderful in this role, too, almost unendurable sadness and grim resolve warring in his saucer eyes. It may be partially a side effect of having grown up on multiplex screens, but at 23 when Woman in Black went out, Radcliffe’s youthful vulnerability seems that of someone even younger being forced to be so much older. Even more than his little boy, who the plot keeps mostly offscreen until the end, you want to protect him. You cannot.
The sequel to the 2012 version, Woman in Black: Angel of Death (2014), has its own take on surmounting grief, more solidly anchored in the experiences of mothers, at once forced and denied, and the unique experience of grief that movie’s heroine shares with Jennet. It is generally more interesting than scary. Sure, there are a few jump scares, but more than anything it’s a moody, character-driven mystery with a surprisingly low body count given the premises from the first film, and this informs its 23% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The story follows a young schoolteacher, Eve Parkins (Phoebe Fox), the school headmistress (Helen McCrory), and a Hogwarts House worth of charges as they shelter at Eel Marsh house during the bombings in London during World War II. On the train to Crythin Gifford, Parkins sparks with a handsome pilot (Jeremy Irvine) stationed in the area, and his wholesome RAF hero exterior belies a man scarred by war, having lost all of the men under his command when their plane went down, much as Miss Parkins’ sunny caregiver disposition masks deep grief of her own.
I do love the idea of locating the action during the Blitz. It’s an absolute genius answer to why would anyone go to, much less stay, in Eel Marsh house, much less with a pack of kids? No time to talk; there are German bombers overhead. Get down now! Bombers > local superstition every time. But there are few subjects as horrible as child death, and the film has little stomach to set such grisly dominoes in motion. That film would probably be unwatchable, and I’m not sure it would have as much point as this one does, which is also very much about accepting responsibility and transcending personal tragedies in the way the Woman in Black refused to.
Susan Hill was consulted on the story, but I see a lot more in common with Andy Muschietti’s Mama (2013) than her novel or anything else taking its name. In Mama, two little girls, orphaned by their suicidal father, are raised in the woods by a dark entity who, like every version of Jennet, was once a woman who had her child taken from her, here by nuns as she was committed to an asylum. The Woman in Black in Angel of Death seems to divine Miss Parkins’ secret, that she, too, was forced to give up a child as an unwed mother, only Parkins gave up searching for her child. This seems to really offend the Woman in Black. The specter fixates on Parkins, taunting her with scrawls on the walls and in dreams, contesting her motherly relationship with one of her young charges instead of, you know, killing him horribly like usual. This is much more Mama than Woman in Black behavior. Parkins and her RAF hero will both have to answer their own guilt and grief in fighting with the Woman in Black for the lives of the children, as in this film she seems determined be less an omen and more, well, a jealous bitch.
What really bothers me about The Woman in Black, in a good way, is how unfair it is. You chance to see this tragic, angry soul and, boom, an innocent child dies in horrible circumstances. It’s stepping on a forgotten landmine years after the war is over. It is a fatal diagnosis with no family history. It is a gunman opening fire on a kindergarten class. It’s not a horror to be reasoned with, placated, justified, or avoided. It is openly and thoroughly evil, as though tragedy punched a deep gout of rage and sorrow into the universe that will ever be the doom of anyone caught in its influence, and nothing will ever make it better. In western horror, we don’t really do unfair. You can always salt the corpse, chop off the head, or incant the bad things away, if only until the sequel. There is a reason things went wrong and that reason can always be addressed; in the 2012 film, this is the heart of Kipps’ Hail Mary plan to reunite Jennet’s body with that of her drowned son. But the reason Kipps’ plan fails is because Jennet’s rage and grief has a lot in common with Kayako in the Ju-On or The Grudge series, which posits that if a person dies in the grip of extreme anger, a curse is born, and that curse does not discriminate. It is purposefully unfair. And when confronted by an evil like this, the question is not how you satisfy it, avoid it, put it to rest. You can’t. The question is, faced with something so horrible, how do you keep from becoming a monster yourself? How do you go on?
*In this version, Arthur Kipps is renamed Arthur Kidd.
The Woman in Black (2012) is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Angela dedicates this month’s essay to the memory of her best friend and daemon, the proud chow warrior Gus Englert, who succumbed to lymphoma last week. Angela’s grief is going to manifest not as a hideous phantom, but lots of shelter volunteering and raising money for canine lymphoma. Fuck cancer. For Gus. xx
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