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Dolly: A Ghost Story, By Susan Hill

 

Although you can have a ghost story set pretty much anywhere if the tension is palpable and the ending is unnerving, there are certain elements that tend to crop up again and again. Dusty mansions; orphaned and/or odd children; graveyards; dolls or dolls' houses: a number of classic M R James stories elegantly combine some or all of these to horribly, wonderfully chilling effect.

Susan Hill also has form with these dramatic devices. Her fabulous The Woman in Black was a malevolent masterpiece along these lines, while her previous ghost story, The Small Hand, was shorter, sharper but still centred on a house, and a child's ghostly hand.

But despite using such well-worn motifs, Hill always manages to unsettle: in the pleasurable, things-that-go-bump-in-the-night way, as well as in a more insidious way that stays long after the covers are closed. As Hill herself put it in a recent article about the art of the ghost story, "some of the traditional ingredients rarely fail – the old, isolated house, the churchyard – but best be sparing. One small hint, a shadow, one rustling sound and you can have the reader in your power."

There is plenty of mysterious rustling in Dolly, and its initial innocuousness soon takes on a darker edge. The novella is about an orphaned boy, Edward Cayley, and his headstrong, damaged cousin Leonora. During a summer spent with their aunt Kestrel, Edward's attempts to reach out to Leonora go badly wrong, with results that haunt both as they grow up.

In a book as short as this, what's left out is as important as what's left in. There's a sense of each character's life beyond the page which reveals Hill's immense skill. She's very good on horrid shocks that stay in the mind and, while I'd be lying if I said I was totally convinced by the logic of the denouement, I relished the nastiness therein. Moments were reminiscent of Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, and a short section set in an Eastern European town was pure M R James. That's not to say Dolly is derivative; just that it has the hallmarks of good, scary storytelling.

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