Doncaster feels new chills from Woman in Black author

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Susan Hill’s writing career has encompassed acclaimed literary novels, ghost stories, children’s books, detective novels, memoirs and even a sequel to Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.

Twenty-five years after its premiere, the theatre adaptation of her terrifying ghost story The Woman in Black is still running in the West End and is constantly on tour, while Daniel Radcliffe’s first post-Harry Potter film was the 2012 Hammer Horror film version.

Even so, Oldham Coliseum Theatre “are the first people brave enough to think of adapting my second ghost story The Mist in the Mirror for the stage, although it was first published in 1992, ten years after The Woman in Black”.

The play is touring at the moment and arrives in Doncaster next week.

The venue’s ushers are being given advice on how to deal with the effects of fright, should the production prove too scary for any faint-hearted audience members.

The show invites audiences to eavesdrop on a traditional, British ghost story. We follow restless traveller James Monmouth as he follows in the footsteps of infamous explorer Conrad Vane.

With a dusty manuscript that seems to be leading him into dangerous territory, James ignores all warnings against pursuing this quest.

He brushes off talk of a malevolent curse and becomes ever more determined to unravel the mysteries of the past. But as he soon discovers there are some secrets best left undisturbed.

And who is the mysterious pale, thin little boy who haunts his every step?

That brings us to the whole notion of ghosts, the enduring popularity of ghost stories and why, even though The Woman in Black has proved one of the most successful plays in UK theatre history, so few other ghost stories seem to have been produced on stage.

“Yes, you might have thought that the idea of adapting The Mist in the Mirror for the stage would have come up over the years, wouldn’t you? But it never has, I think people have been afraid to follow The Woman in Black,” she muses.

“I very much steer away from calling it ‘horror’, it’s a ghost play, but it’s a genre some people don’t like and don’t want to be involved in. They think ‘oh, cheap thrills’ but the skill is to make sure it’s fundamentally theatrical, and has its frightening moments.

“Ghosts which just drift upstairs and take their heads off when they don’t have any reason to do so are not frightening, just pointless!”

Hill has told many tales, publishing nearly 60 books as well as uncountable articles since her first novel was published during her first year at university. One thing she will not do, though, is, “to have anything ‘hands on’ to do with any adaptations of my books.

“My job is simply to write the book, then let the adapters, like Ian Kershaw, take that material and run with it, to recreate it in another form. I think that writers who want to have control of everything in a medium which isn’t theirs are quite wrong. Your only perogative really is to say ‘No, I don’t want it done’.

“However, I’m very pleased they have chosen this particular book. It was a joy to write because I used so many of my favourite settings, including Edwardian London, the river Thames, the old docks, an English country house and the North Yorkshire moors. It also has some of my favourite eccentric characters.

“I can’t often trace influences in my own books but Dickens is indisputably in there. He’s my great influence and I have to be very careful sometimes, even writing myself a note like ‘do not do fog again’ when I’m writing a new book!”

She’s in her seventies now but shows no signs of letting her own muse drift away. “I go on writing and reading. The one feeds the other every day”.

That aside, she said she has no writing routine at all.

“I just can’t understand this notion some writers talk about of sitting down at 9am and not getting back up until five even if there’s only two words on the sheet!

Why sit down in front of a blank sheet of paper until you get something? That’s not fun or exciting,” she scoffs.

“Usually ideas just pop into my head and I don’t even write them down, although I always make sure I’ve got a pen and notebook nearby just as I’m dropping off to sleep!

“I’m a very instinctive writer and, mostly, get it right about which ideas will run. Then I start working and I’ll just carry on until there’s a natural break.”

The Mist in the Mirror is at Cast in Doncaster next Tuesday to Saturday. Box office: at the theatre in Waterdale, online at http://castindoncaster.com/ or call 01302 303959.