A sun-squelched Greek beach is an unlikely environment to appreciate the haunted mists of east coast England. But it was on holiday that playwright Stephen Mallatratt was absorbed by Susan Hill's short ghost novel The Woman in Black, and decided to dramatise it. Since seeing the dark of night on the tiny stage of Scarborough's old Stephen Joseph Theatre, the play has been produced around Britain and across the world, as well as becoming a West End long-runner. Now it returns home for a tenth anniversary revival.
What attracted Mallatratt was "the idea of the ghost living in the here and now". He soon hit upon the idea of the solicitor at its centre hiring an actor to relive the supernatural events surrounding his visits years before to settle an estate in a remote north-easterly spot.
The book's present day is the 1950s, says Mallatratt, with a reference to clothes in the style of 60 years before, suggesting that the incidents being recalled took place in the 1890s. Before writing it, Susan Hill read every Victorian ghost story she could, and the book, though not a pastiche, is written "with deference to" that tradition. A chapter title is taken from the ghost story writer MR James's tale O Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad, and while the novel's title clearly refers to The Woman in White by Dickens's novelist friend Wilkie Collins, the title character is a reworking of Miss Jessel, the governess revenant in Henry James's short ghost novel The Turn of the Screw.
But Hill's novel is more than a stylistic exercise. The male VictorianEdwardian ghost story tradition is viewed from a female perspective. The woman's ghost is a real character, not merely a figure to give narrative chills. We come to sympathise with the predicament she faced in life. Having had an illegitimate baby, she has had the child taken from her, then had to watch it grow up, at first living in the vicinity, then in the same house, without ever being allowed to identify herself as the mother. The piece is so "poignant, because of the unspeakably cruel things that were done to her. She was a tortured soul who withered spiritually and physically."
Susan Hill does not see narrative as among her greatest strengths. Yet, from the first, Mallatratt found The Woman in Black to be "a beautifully shaped book and just about the most frightening thing I'd ever read. It doesn't put you in a real world but a never-never land." Trying to locate it in time or place is like pursuing red herrings. "You can't get from King's Cross to the east coast via Crewe." Wonderful ambiguity. Or is Susan Hill to be believed when she claims she's just no good at geography or chronology?
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