Dolly: Hell, oh, Dolly

Dolly by Susan Hill horror book reviewsDolly by Susan Hill horror book reviewsDolly by Susan Hill

English author Susan Hill had recently been an impressive 2 for 2 with this reader. Last year, I was happy to discover that her 1983 ghost novel, The Woman in Black, is one of the scariest books that I’d read in quite some time, and just a few weeks back, her 2010 ghost novel, The Small Hand, had proved highly satisfying for me, if not quite as chilling as the earlier book. Curious as to whether Ms. Hill could possibly go 3 for 3 with yours truly, I dove into her 2012 offering, Dolly, which, like those other two, is subtitled “A Ghost Story.” So, you may reasonably ask, has Ms. Hill managed the difficult challenge of pulling off a hat trick with me? Well, yes and no.

For one thing, Dolly, as it turns out, is hardly a ghost story, as advertised … unless we are possibly talking about the ghosts of memory here; a “supernatural enigma” might be closer to the truth. The book is hardly as shivery as those other, earlier ones, yet still manages to conjure up some undeniably bizarre moments. Fortunately, this short novel also features two sharply drawn main characters, and its descriptions of the Fenlands, in England, where most of the action transpires, engender atmosphere to spare. Whereas The Woman in Black had been set in the early 20th century (at least, one assumed) and The Small Hand very much in the present day, Dolly is set in two distinct periods, separated by a good 40 years (or so), and one must read between the lines a bit to figure out the possible dates. (More on this in a moment.)

The book is narrated by the middle-aged Edward Cayley, who returns to his Aunt Kestrel’s (!) home, Iyot House, in the lonely, windswept village of Iyot Lock, after a period of what he tells us is 40 years. Kestrel had recently passed away, and Cayley has returned to attend the reading of her will, along with his first cousin, Leonora van Vorst. While waiting for Leonora to arrive, Edward flashes back to the summer that he and his cousin had spent at Iyot House four decades earlier, when he was 8 and Leonora was 9; this section takes up a full half of Ms. Hill’s novel. Cayley had been a quiet, well-mannered child, whereas Leonora had been anything but. Spoiled, willful, self-centered and disdainful, the girl was truly something of a “bad seed” brat. She was also decidedly odd: a sleepwalker, an easily enraged screamer, frightened of images that she sees in standing water (we never quite learn what this is all about), a lover of thunderstorms (like Edward, granted). No wonder Aunt Kestrel’s housekeeper, Mrs. Mullen, offers the opinion that the girl is possessed by demons!

Dolly by Susan HillStill, their summer together had gone by uneventfully, until Leonora’s birthday, when Aunt Kestrel had made the mistake of giving her niece the wrong dolly as a present. In a rage, the ungrateful brat had thrown the china doll against a wall, cracking its head wide open. And this act of youthful spite and anger, it would seem, had set off a series of unexplainable events, with that doll not only seeming to later come to life, but to exert a malign influence on Leonora’s future. And then, years later, in a small toy shop in Eastern Europe, Edward finds another doll, the exact copy of the one wished for by Leonora 40 years earlier, and its purchase similarly seems to set off unfortunate events…

If this capsule description of Dolly strikes you by chance as being a bit vague and hazy, I apologize, but to reveal any more would be a disservice to any potential readers here, ruining the few shocking surprises that the book adroitly reserves for just the right moments. To my own great surprise, my favorite section of Dolly was the highly atmospheric first half, in which the two kids are shown getting to know one another. Once the supernatural occurrences start, confusion sets in; at least, for this reader. And to be sure, this short novel left me just as perplexed as another entertainment that I recently took in, Darren Aronofsky’s current film, mother! Like that film, Dolly is a book in which no matter how one rearranges all the pieces, they never seem to fit together to make a coherent whole. Why the dolls manage to come to life, and do the things they do, and how, remains a mystery by the book’s conclusion. No wonder that our narrator, toward his story’s end, tells us “I feel helpless and at the mercy of strange events and forces which not only can I not explain away but in which I do not believe. Yet what happened, happened…” Fortunately for the reader, Susan Hill is such a compelling, readable author that most folks will probably devour this short novel in a sitting or two, reserving their head-scratching for later.

The book, as I said, is highly atmospheric and occasionally creepy; plus, whereas those two earlier bona fide ghost novels had each concluded with a terrible tragedy, Dolly manages to conclude with a double bummer, which only serves to amplify what had preceded them. It is a very British novel, employing many words and terms that might be a tad unfamiliar to those living outside the U.K. Thus, “lay-by” is used for a road turning; “holdall” for a traveling case; “lemon squash” for lemonade and soda water; “garibaldi biscuits” … well, look that one up for yourself; “plimsolls” for sneakers; “deal” for pinewood; “skirting” for baseboard; and “poste restante” for general delivery. Oh … not to mention such childhood games as shove ha’penny, and solitaire (the latter of which, apparently, is not the card game for single players that you might be envisioning, but rather, a board game played with marbles). As I say, a very British type of spook story. And Ms. Hill does not shy away from making up her own words, as well, as she sees fit … unless “scrumpled” is a real word not to be found in even the unabridged dictionary…

I mentioned earlier that the exact years when Dolly is set are kind of hard to pin down, and this leads me to some more minor problems that I had with the book. As I said, Cayley had told us that he and Leonora first met 40 years earlier, when he was 8 and she was 9. But at the will reading, the older, now pregnant Leonora states that she is currently 43. Shouldn’t that be 49? Or perhaps Edward was wrong; perhaps they had first met 34 years earlier? Who knows? Is this a mistake by authoress Hill, or of Edward, an unreliable narrator? There is no way to tell. Similarly, the adult Leonora tells Edward that her share of Aunt Kestrel’s will should be larger, as her mother was older than Edward’s. However, it had been clearly stated earlier that although Kestrel was the oldest of three sisters, Edward’s mother, Dora, was the middle sister, and Leonora’s mother, the similarly bratty Violet, had been the youngest. Again, a mistake on the part of the distraught Leonora, or an instance of sloppiness and loss of control on the part of Ms. Hill? Once again, no way to know. Anyway, when we learn that Edward purchases that second doll closely following the Prague Spring (which was in 1968), we can thus only roughly approximate when the kids’ first summer together was, by subtracting either 40 (giving us 1928) or 34 (which results in 1934). Just one more inexplicable conundrum in a book filled with many.

But these petty gripes aside, let me be clear that I did enjoy Dolly, and indeed, gulped it down in record time. It’s surely a book to arouse lively discussion, and that is hardly a bad thing, right? Further good news concerning Dolly today is that it currently appears in print in an edition from Vintage Books that also includes The Little Hand in the same volume. Taken together, the two make for one very impressive double feature of British horror…

Published in 2012. The remoter parts of the English Fens are forlorn, lost and damp even in the height of summer. At Iyot Lock, a large decaying house, two young cousins, Leonora and Edward are parked for the summer with their ageing spinster aunt and her cruel housekeeper. At first the unpleasantness and petty meannesses appear simply spiteful, calculated to destroy Edward’s equanimity. But when spoilt Leonora is not given the birthday present of a specific dolly that she wants, affairs inexorably take a much darker turn with terrifying, life destroying, consequences for everyone.

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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  1. I’ve seen this in the bookstore and while I appreciated the cover, it didn’t really draw me. Based on your experience with three of her books, I think I’ll give this writer a try.

    • Sandy Ferber /

      Again, I’d advise “The Woman In Black” as a starting point with Ms. Hill, Marion; it’s surely my favorite of the three that I’ve written about here on FanLit….

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