Maybe you’re braver than I am, but watching the recent film adaptation of Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black was an authentic horror movie experience: it succeeded in making me squeal, jump and eventually spend a large part of its duration cowering in my seat with my eyes covered. Perhaps I was just feeling distinctly un-Gryffindorish that day, but it felt like one of the most effective horror movies I’ve encountered in a long time. Now that I’ve finally recovered from the experience, I decided to return to the source material to address a crucial question: was the film’s success the product of a skilled page-to-screen adaptation, or the natural result of a genuinely spine-chilling tale?
Susan Hill’s novel is no less visually engaging than its film counterpart, even though this immersive effect is achieved through radically different means. Hill oversees her narrative with unwavering control: she crafts a mounting sense of suspense throughout, leading to an accumulation of haunting images that are in many ways more powerful than the immediate gratification facilitated by film (not least because it forces the reader to fill in the gaps). Hill’s writing has a strong sensory effect that could never be matched by visual representation alone. The sense of smell, for example, is inflamed continually through The Woman in Black: the damp, rotting scent of Eel Marsh House lingers long after the protagonist flees the grounds. By stimulating the senses in this way, the reader is drawn into Hill’s world, which enables the novel to establish an almost painful degree of tension. The suspense is relieved only at the very last minute: the novel has an entirely different ending to the film, and I won’t spoil it for anyone planning to pick up the book, but suffice to say that it’s made abundantly clear from the outset that all is not well with Arthur’s apparently peaceful existence, and only at the very end will all your questions be answered.
So, it is possible for a book to be as effectively squeal-inducing as a horror movie? The answer, if Hill’s example is anything to go by, is a resounding yes.