Even though time has taught me that Hollywood likes to sell more sizzle than steak, I'm not immune to a well-crafted trailer for an upcoming feature. I'll admit to feeling a stir of interest upon seeing the preview for CBS Films' The Woman in Black, a horror movie that also happens to be the first starring role for Daniel Radcliffe after his turn in Harry Potter. Imagine my pleasure upon learning that the upcoming film had originally been a short novel written by one Susan Hill. What's a bibliophile to do except log off YouTube and hunt down a copy?
Arthur Kipps has a loving wife, a large family and a secret that's haunted his midnight hours for years. He'd planned to keep the painful past buried, but an innocent exchange of ghost stories among his children on Christmas Eve brought old agonies to the surface. Now Arthur plans to banish it by putting pen to paper. The terror began at the start of his nascent solicitor's career. His boss, Mr. Bentley, sent him from the London office to settle an estate in the tiny town of Crythin Gifford. Situated near salt marshes, Crythin Gifford was simultaneously a desolate and beautiful place, a world of gray and silver and silence broken only by the lonely cries of sea birds. It became evident to Arthur that the client whose affairs must wrap up, a solitary widow named Alice Drablow, wasn't much loved by the town's inhabitants. Her dilapidated manor house squatted out on the marshes, sundered daily from the mainland by rising tides, abandoned and unvisited. Or maybe not. Because as Arthur sorted through the crumbling edifice, he began to sense a brooding evil hovering about the place, a malignant wrath that fixed upon any living being who dared broach the mansion's doors.
If The Woman in Black proves anything, it's that marketers rarely mind twisting the truth into pretzel-like contortions to sell their products. The back-cover copy of the edition I read promises a book akin to "a ghost story written by Jane Austen." True, Hill imitates a pre-Victorian style fairly well, but there the similarities end. With its fear-transfixed protagonist and sense of looming doom, the novel has much more in common with M.R. James. (Indeed, Hill names a chapter after one of his most famous tales.) Yet because so much of today's supernatural horror springs from the stump of James' stories, few readers will find surprises in the plot. Hill manages a few spine-tingling moments, but it often feels as though she has simply penned an homage to the classic ghost story -- at least until the end. Suffice it to say that the final few pages hit like a sledgehammer and reveal that Hill hasn't written a ghost story at all. No, the titular spirit has more in common with ancient, blood-thirsty revenants than sad spooks, and I can't imagine that the novel's grim conclusion will make it to the big screen. Effective? Certainly. But the ending is so dour you might yourself that this Woman has thrown you into a black funk.
(Picture: CC 2006 by Big Fat Rat)