Saturday, December 15, 2012

Review | Dolly by Susan Hill

Readers of horror are a sorry marginalized lot. If their ghosts are not competing, and losing, to Swedish serial killers, then they're up against sexy immortal vampires. Ghosts are immortal too you know! So imagine my pleasure, my absolute delight, when I am shown to a section at Waterstones Piccadily devoted to headless children, haunted homes and dark adventures. Three floor to ceiling shelves filled with atmosphere, that whistle in the dark that would have been the wind between the trees, or was it? Well you just had to be there. 

One of the best part's about Waterstones' is the employee recommendation cards stuck underneath the book and Dolly's iridescent green cover immediately stood out.  This little gem of a book is bound in green hardback and is the perfect library addition. I just stood awhile admiring the gorgeous cover; a dilapidated baby suspended in creeping embossed ivy that just jumps off the page and right into your nightmares.

Susan Hill is the queen of the contemporary ghost story. Her The Woman in Black has been playing in the west end for countless years and it was just made into a film starring Daniel Radcliff aka Harry Potter aka the man who went naked next to a horse. She has four ghost stories to her name and many more novels as well as non-fiction titles. 

It opens with an adult Edward Cayley, the protagonist for most part, returning back to Iyot Lock, a place where he spent one childhood summer when he about twelve, along with his thoroughly spiteful nevertheless pretty cousin, Leonara, “a white-faced child with a halo of red hair”. They arrive at their Aunt Kestral's house, Iyot lock, a simple yet bleak isolated Victorian home with the de rigueur dim lighting but nothing to suggest anything was out of the ordinary. He goes back in time to narrate listless summer days walking around the fen's, nights spent ignoring the merciless howling wind. The two cousins are children of Aunt Kestral's younger sisters, one dead, the other a fluttering socialite only too happy to get rid of her daughter. The days merge into each other, each one only distinguished by Leonora’s tantrums, which begin parallel to strange otherworldly incidents like a moment when the two of them glance at their reflections in a lake and don't like what they see. The tension is palpable and everything comes to head when Leonara does not receive a doll she has had her heart set on for years. A scream pierces the sky and the world changes after that for the both of them. One small event follows the two of them through adulthood and culminates when Edward returns, in a whisper. 

Susan Hill circumvents all the cliche's through language and the unpredictability of children. You know everything is connected to that one moment but you don't know how or why. Her language is like music, but never suffocating. The contrasting personalities of the two children are stark and no dialogue is self-indulgent. It is simple, direct and quick, storytelling at it's best. "It was almost as if I were playing the old childhood game of Hide and Seek, one in which the inner sense was saying 'Cold' 'Cold' 'Warm' 'Very Warm'. 

At the heart of this classic ghost story is probably recompense and retribution. It also reflects on why perhaps evil doesn’t touch all of us and is more attuned to those who are conducive to it. Is evil inherent or a by-product of upbringing? The book rushes at the chilling pace and will probably take last than a couple of hours to read. It's like a capsule of time between pages and not meant for train rides or that odd read while you wait at the doctor's office. It requires complete focus. Dim the lights, get yourself a cuppa tea or a glass of wine and find an old comfortable chair. Now you're set to encounter a few things that go bump in the night. 

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