I have never read Susan Hill’s 1983 horror novel, The Woman in Black; I have never seen any theatrical or filmic production of it and, most significantly of all, I have almost no idea what the story is about. And yet, still, when the new Woman in Black film came out in 2012, I was somehow automatically sceptical. How can a story that has come from a book be scary?, I thought. What a load of poppycock. This ignorance from a long-term literature lover and English graduate. *sigh*
As you might have sussed, until this week, I had never even flipped open the cover of a scary novel – not a single ghost tale, horror story, or gore-fest. I’d seen the odd scary film of course (or rather, I’ve been in their vicinity, even if I was tucked safely behind the sofa at the time) and I was quite confident I could identify the typical formula:
To summarise, your senses of hearing and sight are bombarded with signs of creepdom and thus, you are creeped out. To summarise the summary, scary films require elements that cannot possibly be recreated in books.
In a book, the only sensory perception comes to us second-hand, mediated by the characters. It is a character’s ears that are pricked up by unnatural sounds and their nose that detects faint odours of decay and their eyes that bear witness to events. The reader has no senses; there is no music or creaking or darkness that we can see; only the words on the page. There are no make-you-jump moments; reading a paragraph takes longer than a sudden change in camera angle. Pace is sacrificed, our senses are sacrificed…so what’s left that’s worth getting excited about?
Well, what a journey I’ve been on in Louise West’s 50-page ghost tale, Late, set in her home county of Lincolnshire. (I know it’s not technically a novel, but I’ve been dying to read something like this and I’m also a bit behind in blogging – it kills two birds with one stone. No murderous pun intended.)
In this short story, a teacher is working late in a dark and draughty school that is “well over one hundred years old” (2), when she hears a noise and comes face-to-face with a ghost of a young boy who has unfinished business to which he must attend. During the night that follows she experiences the fright of her life, an existential crisis, a car accident and hours of dragging herself through mud and swamp in the pitch black in an effort to survive.
Her rural location is significant to the plot throughout: the impressive Gothic school that still stands is where her nightmare begins, her lack of phone reception “this far out in the Fens” (19) leaves her completely isolated and, under the direction of the ghostly boy, she is drawn away from the main village road and into the wild Lincolnshire countryside. Initially the landscape is hostile and unwelcoming and she, “too used to bright lights and small rooms, struggled to make out any features or landmarks” (22), which makes her dependent on her ghostly tormentor. For a while, she dreams only of being rid of him and returning home to the fireside, her dogs and her vision of domesticated comfort. Soon, though, as she treks deeper and further and comes to understand her companion’s wishes, “her eyes […] adjusted to the darkness” so that she becomes aware of “the shape of the land” (25). She even begins to identify with the boy, finding his cold, tiny hand feeling warm in hers and that the “wind blew straight through her” (23) just as it did him.
Overall, the biggest thing I’ve learnt through this novella is as follows: the suspense in a scary book may come to us indirectly, through someone else’s perception, but the fear the words inspire could not be more personal. The image of the ghost isn’t given to us ready-prepared (as it would be in a film); the reader’s imagination has to do most of the work. This, I can now see, is a far scarier tool.
Brilliantly and thrillingly written, I can’t wait to read something longer by Louise West. A worthy 4/5 stars.
Next time I’ll be reviewing Berlie Doherty’s Deep Secret. Get reading!