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[The following contains spoilers.]

If Susan Hill remains nostalgic for the traditional English ghost story, she usually sets the coordinates of her time machine to a point prior to when the majority of these stories were actually written. The literary critic Jack Sullivan has questioned whether “traditional” Edwardian ghost stories “represent a fond, fireside vision of the nineteenth century,” and he instead suggests that they offer “the most concrete (if somewhat vulgarised) manifestation of the definitive trends in the major fiction of Lawrence, Joyce, Conrad, Hardy and Woolf,” namely the themes of darkness, irrationality, and timelessness. With its traditional settings and distinctive narrative plainness, Hill’s fiction is a world away from the ambitions of the modernists. When it comes to authoring ghost stories, she appears to identify most closely with those wishy-washy Victorian spiritualists who could only summon up bland and unthreatening spectres.

Any horror to The Woman in Black (1983) is mislaid within its cumbersome pastiche, whilst The Small Hand (2010) is too short and sweet to do anything other than charm an adult reader. You are supposed to luxuriate in ghosts, but Hill’s own spooks generally provide a false or a purely formal treat, rather like an old fashioned pudding. Hill’s readers may often feel like Edward Cayley – the young hero of her latest stocking-filler Dollyas he munches on “pears and custard” at Aunt Kestrel’s table. Hill’s writing is cold and mostly savoury. She makes it clear that she can write well – as when we are told that, “ragged jackdaws whirled about on the wind like scraps of torn burned paper” – but it would not do to let this luxury go to our heads. Hill luxuriates sparingly, or only as far as can be judged sensible. Dolly adheres to the novella format which Hill has made her standard. It is like a little puritan chapel, rid of unnecessary detail. The apparition of a novel.

Yet Dolly offers a pleasant surprise in that it proves to be surprisingly unpleasant. The book is practically thrashing in your hands like a live fish, spluttering with real bubbling blood. It captures something of Hill’s 2008 novella The Beacon, which was not quite a ghost story, though rich in moral horror. Whilst Dolly does not depart radically from Hill’s modus operandi, it is more vivid and authentic than one has come to expect from her ghostly fiction.

Like many of Hill’s stories, Dolly is set in an England which you would have only ever experienced, if at all, as a child. Any independent young person with a life ahead of them would consign this England to the past. Everything is grey and predictable and conservative. At Iyot House, Edward will visit the cold sleepy church and its gloomy graveyard, he will sleep in a draughty attic bedroom with bare floorboards, he will play bagatelle in the garden every afternoon, and there will be garibaldi biscuits at teatime. The introductory description of Iyot Lock is nothing other than that generic watercolour Norfolk landscape which we will have seen hundreds of times before, hanging on the walls of guest house bedrooms and printed on greeting cards from distant relatives. “It is rare for a night here to be so still,” Hill remarks of her composition.

It may seem faintly barbarous to dismiss such timeless images of rural England as clichés. The Fens ring out in a single line: “At this time of year the area is so open, so fresh-faced, with nothing hidden for miles, everything was spread out before me as I drove.” The glories of England’s ancient summer will never fade: “There was a small fish pond over which dragonflies hovered, their blue sheen catching the sun, and the flower beds were seething with bees.”

Although the ghostly aficionado M.R. James was fond of the Fens, the supernatural remains at odds with this setting in Dolly. The cursed girl Leonora Van Vorst is a rootless, cosmopolitan brat, who is at home nowhere in the world and certainly not at Iyot House. As for her “Indian princess,” this exotic and sumptuous being does most emphatically not belong in staid, stodgy England. The princess is a lot more fancy than they are accustomed to around these parts: “It was an Indian royal bride, with elaborate clothes and jewels and braiding in her hair, which Leonora knew in every tiny detail, every colour and shading and texture.” Leonora has wanted the doll since she was “about two or three.” She describes it as “the only thing I ever ever wanted and my mother knows that and she has never got it for me.” Leonora worships this creature with a truly heathen devotion. When the princess finally materialises, one expects it to utter commands and take its place in some bejewelled shrine.

One may decide that Dolly is simply a horror story about a little girl who falls in love with a demon, and that it otherwise remains as illogical and glamorous as a nightmare. This would be a point in its favour since the best ghost stories tend to defy literary criticism. There is nothing that one can write about Sheridan Le Fanu’s fiction other than that it works, and that it is thoroughly frightening. It may be likewise feasible to surrender the interpretation of Dolly to the least conscious part of the mind. But from whatever level of consciousness, this story demands a little moral engagement. The princess is not depraved or predatory, and her vengeance seems to be solemnly underpinned by some obscure moral contract.

We can scarcely look to Edward for any initiative: “He did not think and he did not feel, he simply accepted, having learned that accepting was the best and safest way.” When Edward is confronted with Leonora’s blighted daughter, he concedes that, “Whatever crazy imagining I had ever had, I could not conceivably blame my cousin for bringing such a dreadful fate upon her own child.” But this is not really good enough, since Edward has previously tried to influence us into attributing this blame for ourselves.

At first, the demonic force which wreaks otherworldly vengeance upon Leonora seems to have stepped straight out of Enid Blyton’s fiction. A naughty little girl has been punished for her bad manners by invoking a curse which will return to blight her own child over thirty years later. Children by definition cannot be held responsible for their actions, and so this interpretation of the story is not likely to impress for long. Yet Edward might respond that Leonora overrides conventional moral considerations by being exceptionally wicked. He pronounces that, “Desire, want, getting what she believed ought to be hers – simple greed, these were what drove her, as they had driven her in childhood and, I saw now, throughout her life.” He has glimpsed, as evidence of this, “a look on her face when she glanced round… a look so full of malice and evil, so twisted and distorted with dislike and scorn and a sort of laughing hatred, that he wanted to be the one to run, to get away as fast as he could…”

There is no distinction in Edward’s mind between Leonora as a child and as an adult. We may be faintly perturbed by the independence of these two small children and the intimacy between them. Edward is conscious of the eight year old Leonora’s sensual body and how her frock “lifts” in the wind, noting how her “hair lifted and seemed to float out from her head, then settle back.” Edward and Leonora are not banal enough to be real children. Leonora erupts with a deep, inexplicable passion, whilst Edward responds with an imaginative sympathy. Over thirty years later, they meet again as adults and their childhood friendship is immediately resumed without any alteration or awkwardness.

Even when she is a child, it seems that Leonora is practically an adult, and that an inexorably tragic destiny has set her on the wrong side of everyday morality. Yet how do we account for the fact that the curse of the story falls equally upon Edward’s head? This story is all rather too easy for Edward, and he is apparently incriminated only as a bystander, like Adam remaining unsuspecting whilst Eve is off being innately Evil. Edward and Leonora bear a conspicuous resemblance to the fallen couple, alone together in the gardens of Aunt Kestrel, whose vengeance will swoop down like her avian namesake.

Kestrel, lest we forget, authors much of the misery in this story. The children will be trapped on her estate, bored to tears, whilst she experiments ineffectually with providing childcare. She tries to reconcile the bad blood between her adult sisters by forcing their offspring together. She punishes the forty-three year old Leonora for her actions as a child, perceiving the adult to be fallen from some spurious non-existent innocence. She fails to acknowledge the stupidity of making a child’s toy out of china in the first place. Yet the prospect of a heathen princess does not go down well in Kestrel’s Eden and her senior archangel will warn that Leonora is “possessed by a demon.”

Edward and Leonora are cursed together, despite the former’s consciousness of the distinction between them and our inability to slip into the latter’s thoughts. Both characters are essentially incomplete – indeed, each child is clearly the missing piece of the other. Leonora would benefit from Edward’s imagination and sensitivity; and Edward needs a bit of Leonora’s welly. Edward, a boy without the colour added, is naturally at home within Hill’s watercolour landscape. He is a blank, faded figure, “his true thoughts and feelings all his own and kept hidden.” You would not know him from Adam.

Dolly is conceivably narrated by his subconscious, with his everyday personality rinsed off, leaving a doll’s blankness. Perhaps he is the “dolly” of the story, forever encased in the sound of “rustling” paper. With her heart-wrenching tears, the china doll is certainly more human than Edward. When the Szargesti toy-restorer glances at Edward “the very centres of his eyes steel-bright, fixed and all-seeing,” we are possibly reminded of Geppetto alone in his workshop with Pinocchio.

For her part, Leonora sleepwalks as a doll with “blank unseeing eyes,” and Edward “had the odd sense that if he did touch her she would feel cold.” Reunited as adults, he finds “her eyes oddly without expression.” Yet Edward otherwise rebukes Leonora for not being sufficiently like a doll, with her unlady-like tantrums and demonic facial expressions.

Edward and Leonora’s respective dolls represent what they think they need and what they cannot provide for each other. If Edward would prefer a soft, submissive baby sister to Leonora, when the semblance of such a thing materialises, the incandescent Leonora will smash a fireplace through its face. If Leonora wants a proud powerful princess for an older sister, such things are not dreamt of at Iyot House. Edward himself cannot provide even a satisfactory picture of the princess – a warning, if ever one was needed, about not trusting his narration.

Edward’s baby doll drips and rustles and shrivels up. Leonora’s devotion to the princess will engorge her with blood and passion. The children’s inability to provide for each other becomes the curse of this story. Leonora could have never comported herself as a blue-eyed china doll, but her failure in this respect will be visited upon her in the person of her own child, who offers a decomposing travesty of Edward’s beloved baby. If Edward’s painting of the princess was left on the lawn to be spotted with rain, his own child will resemble a bleary pockmarked mockery of the lost princess.

These children should have compromised. Leonora should have softened and grown tender; Edward should have been a bit more fabulous, or he should have at least served Leonora’s future with the same dedication that he will minister to the history of Szargesti. Dolly is subtitled “A Ghost Story,” but it is unclear at what point the ghost intrudes into its machinery. Neither of the dolls to feature in this story appear to be “haunted” in the conventional sense. The curse seems instead to emanate from within the children themselves, or from some frustration of their own spiritual needs.

The dolls are ultimately symbols and their curse is exacted only through symbolism. Leonora’s child Frederica is “a happy, friendly child with the happy chatter of a three year old coming so oddly out of that wizened little body.” She is not expected to live beyond ten, but many sickly children have lived to prove their doctors wrong. Perhaps Leonora’s tragedy has taught her to subject her child to the love and appreciation that were lacking in her own childhood. Edward describes his daughter as “still perfect to us, still overwhelmingly loved, but nevertheless, sadly disfigured.” If this was a real horror story, she would have died. These children are at heart liberated from the past and if they were ever brought together, just as Edward and Leonora had been once, they might well make history rather than being made by it.

[Tychy previously reviewed The Small Hand in the 16th of the Noctes. There are good reviews of Dolly here and here. Ed.]