The novel, not the recently-released film, as horror films and I don't get along very well. Looking at some of the reviews, though, I'm struck by how resistant the film appears to have been to the novel's neo-Victorian/neo-Edwardian conceits: whereas the film generates a substantial corpse count, according to the reviews (creative suicide techniques abound!), the novel borrows heavily from the Jameses (Henry and M. R.) by relying mostly on atmosphere, psychological exploration, and deferral, with a noticeable shortage of corpses. (I gather that the film isn't all that bloody, though.) As with The Turn of the Screw, the WIB's reader spends most of her time waiting for the Something to happen; as with many of M. R. James' short stories, the Something in question cannot be laid to rest.
The Woman in Black works, in part, by foregrounding its accumulation of Victorian ghost story tropes, starting with suitably Gothic storytelling on Christmas Eve. For example, there's the choice of lawyer-as-narrator--one of those "rational, sensible young men" (65). Victorian horror frequently casts doctors, scientists, lawyers, academics, and similar types in the lead--in other words, investigators of the empirical, firmly rooted in the details of textual and/or material evidence. Such figures must either abandon their trust in their own intellectual self-sufficiency or die thoroughly unpleasant deaths. Meanwhile, the apparently provincial locals are the ones who know best what's going on. Arthur Kipps, our first-person narrator, initially determines to "face it out" (90), rather like H. James' governess ("I faced what I had to face"), once he realizes that he's seen a ghost; his insouciance about the whole affair, casting himself as "resolute, brave and stout-hearted" (100), is very much taken out of boy's adventure tales. This, itself a regular feature of Victorian Gothic--people who persist in dealing with phenomena over which they clearly have no control--is the sort of attitude that tends to produce bad results. Again, in classic fashion, the hauntings themselves manifest as endless repetitions: not only does the original event (the death of a child and several others by drowning in quicksand) repeat itself, but also the ghost's vengeance turns out to be a random, distorted transformation of her initial loss, all the more painful because of the fiction that she was not the boy's mother. (The WIB spends some time quietly eviscerating Victorian family values and codes of sexual propriety.) The novel's plot, which triangulates between London, a very small village, and Eel Marsh House, is almost Bronte-esque in its sense of claustrophobia, and there are additional literary fillips (a description of London fog straight out of Bleak House, a chapter title borrowed from M. R. James) that ground the novel's setting in literary history rather than the other variety. (Only the novel's various allusions to technology--new innovations in cars, telephones, flashlights--let us know that we're not in the nineteenth century; even Arthur's rather stuffy prose conjures up an earlier time.)
But the novel also follows its predecessors in being sternly non-redemptive. (The protagonists of an M. R. James story rarely emerge as "better people.") It's not just that Arthur fails to "develop" in any way from the experience; instead, rather like Dracula's Jonathan Harker, he's reduced to a nightmare-ridden, weakened body, his psyche permanently wrecked. Despite all his rhetoric of stalwart masculinity, which alternates with the devil-may-care boyishness--"'If you mean you think I should give up the job I've been sent here to do and turn tail and run...'" (98)--he finds that confronting Gothic horror leads to temporary madness and emotional deprivation. And the brutally abrupt ending, in which the haunting repeats itself yet again, suggests the utter pointlessness of the ghost's vengeance, from which nothing can ultimately be learned. (In fact, Arthur's brief account of his wife's final months, which emphasizes his own pain and suffering, implies that his own experiences may have rendered him more self-centered rather than less.) The most Arthur can do is conclude the tale with a brusque "[e]nough"; in the face of the ghost's implacable and unstoppable nature, weak human beings can only retreat to silence.
In the stories we tell about teaching and research, we generally cast teaching as the beneficiary of burning the midnight oil over, say, obscure Reformation polemics or the works of the Bollandists. Scholarship keeps us attuned to "what's going on," keeps us energized, keeps us from eternally lecturing from the proverbial yellowed sheet of paper. (Whether, in this age of iPads, anyone lectures from yellowed sheets of paper is, of course, open to question.) And scholarship does do these things, even if the scholar in question never teaches the subject of his or her own research. (Bad religious poetry from The Protestant Magazine? Probably not going to be attractive to undergrads.) My work on anti-Catholicism, for example, is proving awfully handy in the Gothic course; I gave a down-and-dirty brief lecture on anti-Catholic tropes just this week, as it happens.
But we rarely talk about how teaching provokes or affects our research. This evening, while prepping tomorrow's class on Horace Walpole's The Mysterious Mother, I suddenly found myself working out how to talk about the White Lady of Avenel as a non-problem in Walter Scott's The Monastery and The Abbot duology. (Why she's usually treated as a problem: supernatural figure wandering about loose in the otherwise realist first novel, who then gets the delete-key treatment in the second. See also the history of critical unhappiness with The Bride of Lammermoor.) Or, more directly, an article I have coming out in just a few weeks emerged from a "wait, haven't I seen this before?" moment while rereading Vanity Fair for a seminar. Both instances, you'll note, were very spur-of-the-moment, very unexpected--something that's also important for scholarship. How can we ever know what will help us to learn some new thing or break through some old mental block?
This month is crunch time for the final revisions to Book Two, which is why I'm not talking about offbeat Victorian religious fiction very much--I'm writing about it! However, I'm also not shelving. Things are not looking pretty:
The situation is just as bad in the main library. As the books are usually the only things I manage to keep truly organized, I fear matters are getting into a perilous state.