Susan Hill: Natural Born Chiller

The Woman in Black author on why writing a good ghost story is like baking a cake

Is it possible to define gothic fiction?

Gothic fiction is now taken to mean just stories that include ghosts, isolated houses, nasty sensations imparted, with fear and horror as essential ingredients. There must be a ghost, seen or heard, atmosphere, probably a haunted house/place, and 'weather' always plays a part. Gothic meant something rather different in earlier centuries.

What was the genesis of The Woman in Black?

When I took a break from writing to have my children, I read a lot of ghost stories, which I've always enjoyed. Most - apart from one or two very famous ones such as The Turn of the Screw - are short stories. So I decided to try and revive the ghost story and make it full-length again. I wondered: 'Can you write a full-length ghost story which will keep the atmosphere and the suspense going?' I sat down and made a list of vital ingredients, rather like baking a cake, and then I worked from there. And so The Woman in Black came to be.

Have you seen the film?

I went to watch filming at Pinewood a couple of times. It's an adaptation, and a film is not a novel - the medium is very different, it's a screenwriter's interpretation, just as the play is. And it is brilliant. And absolutely true to the spirit of the book.

What frightens you in stories?

Very evil people, especially those who look grotesque. The most frightening fiction is Dickens - he can be terrifying: in Little Dorrit, with the old man and woman in the dark, frightening house; some of A Christmas Carol; the opening of Great Expectations; the river scenes in Our Mutual Friend. Of ghost stories, I find many of M.R. James' really scary.


Gothic fiction's landmark books

Northanger Abbey
By Jane Austen (1817)

This delicious parody of the 18th-century Gothic novel is as readable now as it was 200 years ago. The young heroine, Catherine Morland, goes to stay at a friend’s house – the abbey of the title – with her head stuffed with terrifying expectations deriving from her favourite sort of novel. 

By Mary Shelley (1818)
Frankenstein’s monster is the romantic movement’s response to the age of reason. Mary Shelley’s terrifyingly prescient novel has spawned a host of imitations – but this is the real thing. 
Tales of Mystery and the Imagination (First published under this title, 1908)
By Edgar Allan Poe
In his short, tragic life Poe showed himself to be one of the most versatile authors of the 19th century. His overheated creative imagination produced some of the most influential stories of Gothic horror ever written. No one did it better. 
By Bram Stoker (1897)
To many readers, the very word ‘Gothic’ conjures up an image of Count Dracula and his dripping fangs. This rich, complex novel set him on the road to immortality. In doing so it changed Transylvania from a place on the map to a land of blood-sucking nightmares.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
By M.R. James (1904)
These ghost stories gain much of their impact from their combination of scholarly narratives with gothic settings, such as old mansions, archives and ancient abbeys. James, a master of the genre, knew that the scariest Gothic horrors needn’t be spelled out: they are buried deep in the reader’s imagination. 
By Daphne du Maurier (1938)
“Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again” is one of the best-known first lines of popular fiction. Du Maurier stylishly reworks the woman-in-peril theme in this classic Gothic romance about a woman’s malevolence from beyond the grave.