Dolls hold a fascination for us, symbols both of innocence and corruption, death-like miniature people, as likely to inspire revulsion as love. The title of Susan Hill's short novel, Dolly, clearly signals horror, and the path of this deceptively familiar narrative is littered with landmarks of the ghost story. There is a bleak and isolated house, storms, a dreary churchyard abandoned by God, and, as in the earlier Mist in the Mirror, warped reflections in mirrors as a symbol of the darker self. For this is also a morality tale, and what better visual metaphor for the soul than the revelation of reflection?
Dolly is set in the past and has something of a 19th-century sensibility, although cars, electric light and, towards the end of the book, the 1970s are referred to. Much of the narrative is a flashback to a childhood summer, as cousins Edward and Leonora, arriving in the Fens by steam train, meet for the first time to spend the summer at Iyot House with their evocatively named Aunt Kestrel. We are told that Kestrel's sisters, the children's mothers, had "a life-long feud"; one drab and brown-haired and jealous of the other, "an extremely pretty child with blonde bubble-curls", who grew up to have "a succession of lovers" before having Leonora with an older, rich husband. We are not told who brings Edward up, or where he spends the time when not at Iyot, only that Leonora's mother, Violet, travels the globe restlessly, indulging and neglecting her daughter by turns.
As in other of her novels, Hill has created a blameless, sensitive male protagonist, not subject to the sins of the female characters yet suffering their disturbing consequences. The book opens with the adult Edward as he revisits Iyot House, now empty, finding himself driven by unseen forces to the graveyard and a certain dusty, dark cupboard in the house. He is disturbed by strange rustling sounds but time has frozen over his disturbing childhood experience. The place acts "like a pick stabbing through the ice of memory" and we are transported back to discover it.
Anticipating the arrival of her nephew and niece, Aunt Kestrel, unused to children, yearns to please them; but she finds Edward unsettling – "opaque and polite" – and the unpleasant Leonora more unsettling still. Kestrel observes that Leonora is like her mother, which "boded ill", but Mrs Mullen, the housekeeper, has no such delicacy. She represents a more superstitious, but, we sense, more accurate view: Edward is "namby pamby" and "the devil is in Leonora".
Leonora is "a white-faced child with a halo of red hair". When crossed she is prey to violent rages, stabbing tea-tables with silver forks, screaming "without apparently needing to pause for breath". She is without empathy, bored by Edward's orphaned state, despising of kindness. On Leonora's birthday, her mother sends packages from abroad, which she opens with impatience. She longs desperately for the one thing her mother has never given her – a doll. Both Edward and Aunt Kestrel, assuming innocence in this desire, try in their own ways to make up to Leonora for her lack of love, but their efforts have horrible consequences. A doll, when it arrives, instead of softening the girl, comes to grotesquely embody the damage of Leonora's soul.
While parallels with The Turn of the Screw might be assumed, it is not the psychology of the perception of evil that is considered in Dolly but evil itself. The narrative is conventional but an examination of love and the lack of it is the substance of the book. Is evil caused by psychological damage, or is it inherent? It's true that Leonora's mother rejects her, but Edward's situation is at least as tragic; he has no parents at all, and yet he is not "possessed by a demon", as even Leonora herself believes – "I am, I am." The daughter of a selfish, pleasure-seeking woman, she cannot look on her own reflection. Glimpsing her face murkily next to Edward's in a black pool, and later in the church, in a shiny silver plate, she runs away in fearful horror.
An assuredly chilling ghost story, Dolly doesn't leave its questions unanswered. Damage is assumed, noted, but not forgiven, and as the story develops evil is passed through the generations like a stain – in dark places, dank graves, dolls, and ultimately even human flesh.
- Imprint: Profile Books
- Published: 05/10/2012
- Price: £9.99
- Format: Hardback
- Extent: 192pp
- ISBN: 9781846685743