Dolly by Susan Hill

Dolly is one of Susan Hill's supernatural novellas. My copy is a nice little hardcover edition; I have matching editions of The Small Hand and Printer's Devil Court, also by Hill, and they're very nicely designed.

Image result for dolly susan hillDolly is the story of two cousins who are invited to spend the summer with their aunt in her isolated ancestral home. Edward and Leonora are the children of Dora and Violet, Aunt Kestrel's much younger, feuding sisters. Dora is now dead, leaving Edward an orphan, and international socialite Violet has been drifting from country to country for years, living in hotels with Leonora in tow, her lifestyle financed mainly by a succession of boyfriends. Part of the story takes place in the present, with Edward and Leonora returning to Iyot House after Aunt Kestrel's death, and the rest is set during their childhood stay there.

Susan Hill excels at building atmosphere and making places feel like characters in their own right. Iyot House, large and rambling with its isolated Fenland location, is every bit as damp and bleak as The Woman In Black's Eel Marsh House. The rain falls even throughout the summer and there's a general sense of decay about the place, with a flat, grey gloominess to the landscape.

Edward, from whose point of the view the story is told, is a polite, timid child and a polite, non-confrontational adult, constantly nervous but also stoical and innately kind. By contrast, Leonora is rude, spiteful, thoughtless and self-centred. Despite this, there are times when you will feel sorry for Leonora, spoilt but unloved by the mother she clearly idolises and resigned to a life of a succession of 'stepfathers'. Are Leonora's tantrums solely down to her upbringing, or is there someone or something at Iyot House that's driving her to worse and worse behaviour? Housekeeper Mrs Mullen seems to think so - does she have a point, or does she simply hate children?

I have some very minor issues with the sequence of events, as I think there is a slight flaw in the logic at one point early on in the story, but  Dolly is certainly a very creepy book indeed, and by and large it's beautifully constructed. Although its cover calls it a ghost story, it isn't really a ghost story in a literal sense. It's is a supernatural horror story, but the 'haunting' isn't the traditional sort and to me, Dolly reads like a cross between MR James and one of Roald Dahl's Tales of the Unexpected.

It's short enough to read in one sitting (and I would recommend doing so), yet long enough to build the characters effectively and to lend it some extra nuance that might have been absent in a short story. It also leaves plenty of scope for the reader to decide why certain things might have been happened and who or what might be responsible; it doesn't spoonfeed the reader with clear explanations. This would make a great read for a rainy summer afternoon or a winter evening by the fire - and if the BBC don't adapt it as a ghost story for the Christmas schedules one day, they're really missing a trick.