The Elements of Ghostly Style

by Bill D’Agostino, production dramaturg

ImageTo prepare for writing her novella, The Woman in Black, Susan Hill read “a lot of ghost stories to see if I could find common elements,” she told Act II Playhouse in a recent e-mail.

The novelist made a list of the ingredients she discovered, among them:

  • A reason for the ghost to be haunting the place;
  • A narrator who doesn’t believe in ghosts; and
  • A mixture of the familiar, ordinary and everyday – but distorted or made strange.

The Woman in Black was published in 1983, but it wasn’t until it was turned into  a play in 1987 by the late Stephen Mallatratt that it gained fame. Mallatratt was looking for something to adapt as a Christmas show for a theatre in Scarborough, where he was then writer-in-residence. He read Hill’s novella, and had the brilliant idea of transforming it into a play-within-a-play for two actors.

“I thought he was mad,” Hill recalled. “I was wrong.”

Hill had no input on the adaptation “other than to encourage.”  The play is, 25 years later, still running on the West End, making it the second-longest running show in London history (after The Mousetrap). Last year, the novella was turned into a successful movie, starring Daniel Radcliffe (best known for playing Harry Potter).

When asked what she thinks accounts for the story’s continued success, Hill demurred.  “I wish I knew and I`d bottle it,” she wrote. “Dramatic tension and atmosphere I think are key.”

Hill has a new novella, Printer’s Devil Yard, that was just published on Oct. 17. The supernatural is still haunting her.

“It’s a ghost story set in the old Fleet Street area of London – more than that, I won’t say.”

The Woman in Black plays at Act II Playhouse in Ambler from Oct. 29-Nov. 24, 2013. For tickets and information, visit http://www.act2.org or call 215-654-0200.

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