The Fortune Theatre in London’s West End is a small Edwardian building, a short walk from Covent Garden, and just around the corner from the monumental Theatre Royal on Drury Lane. Tucked away on Russell Street, one could be forgiven for not knowing of its existence. However, since 1989 it has been home to one of the longest running plays in London: The Woman in Black.
This effective and well-staged Victorian ghost story is based on the novel by Susan Hill. A young lawyer is sent from London to a remote house in rural marshland, where an elderly client has died. He must stay in the house to go through the late woman’s documents, and this is the scene of terrifying discoveries, and the key to the mysterious woman in black.
This is the best known of Hill’s ghost stories, but they all share the same quality – a mixture of loneliness, despair and creeping fear. The Mist in the Mirror, another Victorian story, tells of a man returning from travelling the world and now set on finding out his own family history, and also the history of his favourite traveller Conrad Vane. He is repeatedly warned that pursuing his interest in Vane will cause unimaginable trouble. He ignores these warnings, and pays the price.
Two more contemporary stories are The Man in the Picture and The Small Hand. All four tales feature a single, unattached male narrator, usually intelligent and well read, inquisitive and sympathetic. Each narrator is drawn into something beyond his control, something connected with some tragic and mysterious chapter in history. The intrigue pulls the reader in until we feel both anxiety and excitement when something is at last revealed: an old photograph contains a telling detail, a figure appears, who only the narrator can see. But like all good ghost stories, these books aren’t really about ghosts. Susan Hill has said that as a Christian she doesn’t believe in apparitions making visitations from beyond the grave. This is reflected in the way the stories are less about the ghosts themselves, but more about guilt, identity, and coming to terms with the past.
Hill writes with precision. Her prose evokes a sense of place, the smells, tastes, and physical landscapes of her settings – London, or Venice, or high French mountains. And yet the story is never put on hold for the sake of a description. Story and style go hand in hand, to great effect. The stories are shorter than an average novel, and a couple of them could even be read in one sitting.
Of all these stories I find The Woman in Black to be the most powerful. It takes the severity of the haunting one step further, and includes the most shocking conclusion of them all. But I won’t say any more than that. Light a fire one winter’s night, pull up a large armchair and read the books yourself. The ghost of the story will stay with you only as long as your fear will allow; Susan Hill’s prose will stay much longer than that.