Ghost Novel Review: The Woman in Black

The Woman in Black by Susan Hill

David R. Godine, 138 pages


I do a writing assignment with my students called “Which is Better—the Book or the Movie?” Doesn’t matter if it’s a black-and-white classic or a Technicolor blockbuster, my students invariably plant themselves on the side of the book. (I don’t know if the knowledge that I’m a writer enters into their logic, so we should probably factor in the suck-up component.)

Ironically, I don’t always agree with my students. For instance, I’m pretty sure I prefer the Little Women film Gillian Armstrong directed in 1994 to the novel Louisa May Alcott penned in 1868.

I bring this up because, having just finished reading The Woman in Black, I think this will make a fine movie (perhaps even better than the book).

Woman in Black opens with an oft-used device–narrator relaxing at a genial fireside gathering when someone suggests passing the time with ghost stories. Naturally, the narrator knows the best and scariest supernatural tale, and the next chapter begins with his or her manuscript. I was reminded of The Turn of the Screw.

In Susan Hill’s novella, narrator/solicitor Arthur Kipps travels north of London to settle the estate of Alice Drablow, one of the last Victorians. Eel Marsh House sits on the edge of a shifting marsh worthy of Hound of the Baskervilles. Enter the ghost, a grief-racked, wacked-out woman appropriately attired in black Victorian garb. As Arthur delves into the deceased’s personal effects and letters, he uncovers family secrets and quiet treachery. At the same time, the black-clad presence wields her not inconsiderable powers to creak a nursery rocking chair, evoke a child’s piercing cry and re-enact a tragic accident.

As I perused Woman in Black, I realized I had read the book many years before. This was a good thing because I knew not to expect plot twists (although there is one at the end) and could instead immerse myself in the narrative. For this is a quiet book, much of it interior to a narrator knocking around an empty house (and, as you can imagine, some navel-gazing), more Charlotte Bronte than Dean Koontz. Indeed, the style, syntax and structure was quite reminiscent of 19th century writing even though the events take place in the 20th. And that pulled me out of the story a little bit. What brought me back in is the careful characterization of Arthur and his maturation.

So, if you like your fog thick, your winds howling, your marshes amorphous, your pauses pregnant; in short, your atmosphere atmospheric, you will enjoy this novella.

As I said earlier, I think this could make one creepily fun movie with Daniel Radcliffe as Arthur and additional touches by screenwriter Jane Goldman. You can watch the movie trailer here.

Now I ask you: Which is better, the movie or the book? Guess we’ll have to wait until 2012. Look for me in the theater!

Creative Writing Assignment: Let the Poem Speak

Many fiction writers and memoirists seek inspiration from reading poetry. I’m not a regular poetry reader, but I never tire of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” and I enjoy Frost, Cummings, Crane, Rich, Dickinson.

I’m going to let you in on a cool writing exercise (great for both writers and teachers) courtesy of nonpareil writer/academician Sara McAulay, founder of the popular ezine Tattoo Highway. Sara’s assignment is simple: pull out a poem you like, study it, and let the poem inspire you to create a work of fiction or creative nonfiction. (What you take from the poem, along with your interpretation, is entirely up to you.) Playing with writing is a great way to loosen your muscles and have fun, too!

If you try this exercise, please send it to me.  And if you dare, I’ll post your work and share it with our readers. Let me know what you think.

To get your creative synapses firing, I am posting the poem that I used and below that the piece I wrote. Though I have loved this Stephen Crane poem since high school, it resonates with me now more than ever during this time of political polarization and dogmatic posturing.

Here is the poem:

"Think as I think," said a man,
"Or you are abominably wicked;
You are a toad."

And after I had thought of it,
I said, "I will, then, be a toad."

Here is the piece I wrote:


We were meeting at my house for our monthly reading and discussion group. The topic of tonight’s discussion: “Should We Be Toads?”

Sharon had brought sushi to share, which I thought rather wicked of her (though I wouldn’t go so far as to call it abominable) because I had specifically informed everyone I was serving French Caribbean. I managed to confront my rigidity, and as it turned out, there was something about sharing seaweed and fish eggs that lent a certain veracity to our task.

Escargot followed, from my favorite French restaurant, La Grenouille. I passed on frog legs for obvious reasons.

“Good evening, everyone, glad you could make it,” I said, puffing cheek kisses all around. “Please sit. Now, I know you were all looking forward to hearing Dr. Stone’s remarks, but he called this afternoon to say he’d caught a bug and would be unable to join us.”

“Oh, I so wanted to ask him if it’s true toads give you warts,” Suzie said.

Just so you know, Suzie is our token airhead.

I sighed. “I can assure you warts are caused by viruses.”

Since I attend night school, I’m the unspoken leader.

“Natalie, why don’t you get us started?” I handed around bowls of fragrant shrimp bisque.

Natalie toyed with a fly in her soup. “I see Toad as the ultimate nonconformist. Pure iconoclast.”

“But isn’t Toad’s greatest virtue his patience?” Jan asked. “He must wait and wait for the princess to kiss him so he can turn into a prince and marry her.”

“Jan,” we whined in unison. “That’s nothing more than frog propaganda. Hello.”

“What is marriage, but a kind of conformity? Frog is the one who changes his colors to match his environment,” Sharon, the scientist among us, offered. “Toad would never put himself in that position.”

“I think you’re forgetting Toad’s dark side,” Melanie said, flicking her tongue.

We rolled our eyes. Melanie invariably seeks negativity. At last month’s meeting—Opportunities for Optimists—she would bring up global warming and species extinction.

“Certainly if we consider Kenneth Graham’s toad of the industrial age,” I said, “we see a toad who’s de-amphibicized—selfish, manipulative, deceitful. The classic conflict: Toad vs. Machine. And yet still capable of redemption through intervention.”

“Yes, and Arnold Lobel’s early work displays a fascinating juxtaposition of the amphib psyche,” Natalie said. “Toad Id battling Frog Ego.”

“That begs the question, how do we ultimately balance our own impulsive, creative toad with moral, controlling frog?” I asked, over crawfish stuffed zucchini and hollandaise artichokes.

Everyone had a pet theory ranging from meditation to hottubbing to hormone replacement, but no definitive answer emerged.

We rallied over key lime pie and café crème de menthe. So much so, that we had no time to discuss our sub-topics, The Toad’s Way, and Unblocking the Toad Within.

In the end, some of us felt we had been rubbed the wrong way. But we all agreed that original, nonconformist philosophy was ideal, tempered by sensitivity to others’ feelings.

All in all, a success, I felt, as I watched my friends depart into the warm night. Nocturnal music drifted my way, playful, sonorous, romantic.

Did I have the right stuff? I wondered. Dare I, could I…be a toad?

Ghost Novel Review in Honor of Banned Book Week

Read a banned book! Celebrate your subversive inner self!

I came across an interesting post at Insatiable Booksluts. Did you know this is banned book week? This year it takes place from September 24th to October 1st. The American Library Association sponsors this week to promote awareness of our right to free speech and free (as in unhindered) reading.

Think about the literary censorship and mind control of the Nazis and the Cultural Revolution and our very own McCarthy. In fiction, we can learn the lessons of book burning in The Book Thief, 1984 and Fahrenheit 451.

So, in honor of this special week, I went in search of a banned ghost book for you, my faithful readers. I came up with two ghost novels: Beloved (which I have already reviewed here) and The Headless Cupid.  I decided to read the latter to see what the fuss was about.

Book Review of The Headless Cupid by Zilpha Keatley Snyder

Random House, 203 pages.

What can I say about this book except that it’s a delight?

As the novel opens, twelve-year-old Amanda is wrenched from her father to live with her mother, her new step-father and four very individual step-siblings. With skillful irony, the author lays a subtext of birth father neglect that careful readers (and the wise step-father) will discern.

The protagonist Amanda struggles with suppressed rage amid the aftermath of divorce and displacement. A self-taught witch, Amanda agrees to teach the mysteries of the occult to her new siblings for reasons of her own.

The author chooses the reflective oldest brother as narrator. In this way the reader along with the narrator begins to question both Amanda’s motives in promoting the supernatural as well as the veracity of the ghostly sightings. (Yet not all can be explained with cold logic in this haunted house.)

Here’s the thing. I can’t figure out why The Headless Cupid was banned. Now, the ALA keeps statistics on banned books and cites two prominent reasons for challenges: referencing the occult and presenting religious differences. Yet the characters’ attempts at witchcraft are amateurish and quite often humorous. Plus, methinks freedom of religion is covered under the First Amendment right alongside freedom of the press.

The Headless Cupid ranked in the top 100 banned books for the decade ending in the year 2000.

The censors miss the point of this novel. It is far less about occult worship and far more about sorrow and the redemptive powers of compassion and forgiveness. Bread and butter Judeo-Christian values, yes?

I should mention this is a young adult novel written for readers aged 10 and up. As you may have guessed, yours truly falls into that category.

Oh, and The Headless Cupid won the coveted Newbery Honor Award. Subversive indeed!

Writer on the Road: 5 Reasons Writers Should Take the Train

All Aboard, Writers!

No doubt you’ve heard that quote attributed to activist writer Mary Heaton Vorse: “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”

Okay, it’s a cliche, and writers are trained to give cliches a wide berth, avoid them like the plague and otherwise handle them with kid gloves. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.

But in the case of the seat-of-the-pants axiom, it’s true that much of writing depends upon our ability to sit still. For long periods. Have you noticed that when you plop down to write, suddenly the litter box needs changing, dirty laundry finds its voice, and you realize you cannot put off the reorganization of the junk drawer last cracked open during the Roosevelt era (Teddy, not Franklin)?

Yep. Well, I have the perfect therapy for you. Ride the train.

I could fly to see my firstborn Hillary and her husband Jason in Seattle. The trip, including driving to the airport, wading through security (ugh) and the flight itself, would last 3.25 hours.

Or, I could board the train. That trip, including a 10 minute drive to the station and a leisurely stroll to the tracks, stretches to a delicious 22.75 hours.

Now I ask you, which transport mode is superior? Think about it.

Here are the top five reasons the train is perfect for writers.

1. No one will go with you, leaving you free to write. Instead, your loved ones will roll their eyes at your “stupidity” and inform you with maniacal glee that you could arrive at your destination by plane in one eighth of the time. Like you didn’t know that. Like you didn’t know that was the whole point.

2. You will reap the benefits of enforced seat of pants writing. The only possible excursions on a train consist of strolling to the observation car (1 minute), descending to the snack car (1 min 20 seconds), or ambling to the dining car (1 minute 30 seconds). Assuming one excursion per 1.5 hours and excluding meals, which you have to partake of anyway, that leaves a big % of chair time. (I planned to figure out the exact percentage, but I failed. I’m a writer, not a mathematician.)

3. Scenery outside your window can morph into setting details in your writing. On the Coast Starlight route, you will see velvet marshland, dive-bombing pelicans, grooming egrets, amber grasses. Barreling down the tracks, I penned this sentence for my first novel The Circle Line. “The train bisected farmland spotted with cattle and the cattle was hemmed within boundary markers–tires impaled on wooden spikes–a disturbing image, so she pretended the markers were giant root beer lollipops.”

4. Movement stimulates the “write” brain. National Public Radio interviewed neuroscientist Dr. Michel Muhlethaler who conducted a study on the effect of train rocking. Dr. Muhlethaler found that participants on the train slept more deeply with a resultant boost in memory (good for writers and other living things) and a positive correlation to cognitive function. Numerous studies demonstrate that side to side motion is critical to the brain development of babies. I can personally attest to the ability of rocking–train or chair–to stimulate my creative center.

5. You will create unique character sketches. We all need these. Particularly difficult are those secondary characters that we wish to paint with just a few brush strokes. Real models help us avoid character stereotypes. You know the ones I mean. Messy bachelor, clueless nerd, blond bimbo. By noticing your fellow passengers, you can keep a journal of characters to draw upon as needed. Some examples from my trip:

Eighty-year-old ethnic Aztec from Kansas City who refuses to speak Spanish outside of his home.

German Catholic journalist reading Elie Wiesel’s Night. (There’s a juxtaposition for you.)

Cherubic-faced Australian teen wearing brown overalls and a prayer shawl, just back from Burning Man.

You could make this stuff up, but isn’t this easier?

Two rules to make your train trip more productive:

1. Don’t bring your laptop unless you use it for writing. And then, ahem, use it for writing, not movie watching or web surfing.

2. Don’t let people chatter at you. Some travelers regard the person next to them as open season for nattering on about the minutiae of their lives. (Actually, that’s why I know so much about the Aztec from Kansas City.) If your seatmate does this, move to the observation car where there are tables and chairs. My daughter Manda recommends dummy ear phones to pop on as needed. Just smile and mouth, “Sorry. I can’t hear you.”

Have you had any experiences writing on the train? I’d love to hear. Until then, I’ll see you on down the tracks.