Dolly: A Ghost Story by Susan Hill

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I read Hill’s brilliantly chilling The Woman in Black a few years ago before going to see the excellent stage adaptation so was delighted to find this book in my Christmas stocking.

Eight year old Edward Cayley and his ‘wayward’ nine year old cousin Leonora are sent to spend a summer with their widowed Aunt Kestrel in ‘bleak and isolated’ Iyot House. Several decades later they return to hear the contents of Aunt Kestrel’s will.  Why does the adult Edward have an ‘anxious feeling’ in Iyot churchyard?  And in Iyot House why does he feel ‘mounting distress’ on opening the cupboard in the small, attic bedroom he stayed in as a child? It soon becomes apparent that an act of violent rage perpetrated by Leonora that long-ago summer has unleashed a ‘malign force’ that will bring down ‘curses’ on them both.

Hill’s style is deceptively simple but hauntingly effective.  The setting is fittingly ‘spooky’: a remote house, in a remote hamlet, a churchyard – a place where ‘flat fields bleed into the flat fens’ and ‘the wind prowls.’  As with The Women in Black, Dolly is narrated by a central character looking back on what’s happened to him and trying (and failing) to rationalise it. This device not only builds suspense by making events seem horribly inevitable but also lends them credibility, vital for the supernatural genre – because if we don’t suspend our disbelief how can we be afraid?

If you’re a stickler for detail you might notice a couple of discrepancies in ages and timescales. Leonora celebrates her ninth birthday at Iyot House and is 43 at the will reading i.e. a lapse of 34 years, whereas the narrator, Edward, says it’s been 40 years since he was there.  And if Kestrel was sixteen when Leonora’s mother, Violet, was born, and Violet was 42 when Leonora was born, that would mean Kestrel died aged 100 or more, not 90.  With a character called Kestrel perhaps the book’s editor should have been more eagle-eyed?  (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself!)

This doesn’t detract much from the book, though, which I literally couldn’t put down, reading it in one sitting.  Despite its subtitle Dolly focuses on the supernatural rather than the ghostly (unlike The Woman in Black) and the ending is a bit of an anticlimax.  Even so it hasn’t spoiled my appetite for Hill’s ghost stories; as far as I know there are three more to read: The Man in the Picture, The Small Hand, and The Mist in the Mirror.  Dear Father Christmas….

** Worth reading (especially on a winter’s evening)


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