I'm coming off a trio of excellent ghost stories, my little pippins. I'll post about the other two later but will start off with my favorite: "The Woman in Black," by Susan Hill. This book has been on my to-read list for years but it's surprisingly hard to find. None of my last few libraries has had it and it's never in stores... I finally caved and included it in a big Amazon order last month. I read it on a visit home over two nights, sitting by the fire while my parents watched football. The racket of the TV kept me from getting too creeped out while the fire added nice atmosphere: it was a perfect setting for this classic ghost story.
The narrator is celebrating Christmas with his second wife and her grown children; he's enjoying the merriment and the good times when the family starts clamoring for a ghost story, and his mood darkens. He goes for a walk and remembers what happened to him many years ago, when he was a young, happily betrothed solicitor. His firm sends him from London to a northern town, to settle affairs for a client who's just died. No one in the town wants to talk about the client and her creepy old house, and no one comes to the funeral... but a mysterious woman in black appears in the back row during the service. When he mentions her, the reaction is shock and horror. She's a ghost!
This book has everything: a big creepy house on the marsh; ghostly sightings; ghostly sounds; a haunted nursery (yes!); a cute dog; and, most heartbreakingly, a very relate-able narrator who really does his best to pull himself together and do his job. You just deeply feel for the guy as events unfold. What would you do differently? Probably nothing. The pieces of the story fall inexorably into place around him, and there's no way he can escape.
At one point I was reading and gave a tremendous gasp. Mom looked up from the third down (or whatever football has) and I said, "He's alone in the house at night and the lights just went out!"
She said "How can you read those things?"
In 1989 the book was adapted for British TV, and I managed to track down a copy at the excellent Cinefile (and then kept it for an extra week -- sorry, guys). I had been working up this post in my head when I sat down to watch the movie, but afterward, I didn't want to even think about "The Woman in Black." It's taken me about a month to get it together enough to write this. The movie is absolutely terrifying. It nails all the best elements from the book, adds some good twists and some beautiful images, and gives you one scene that made me scream out loud here in the living room. Not a start; not a yelp; nothing that could be followed by embarrassed laughter, but a genuine scream of terror. (I had just taken a mouthful of hot toddy, which was extra tragic.) Oh my God. I've never seen anything like it. Final Girl has, as usual, an excellent review.
I understand the stage play is excellent as well, but haven't talked to anyone who's seen it. Apparently it makes explicit the terrifying subtext -- the reader/audience is as helplessly involved in things as the protagonist, so are we cursed too? Brr! Let's turn on all the lights!