I was in the unfortunate position of having had to spend some time in the Minor Injuries Unit of our local hospital over the weekend. It turned out that it was long enough for me to be able to read the whole of Susan Hill’s short ghost tale ‘Dolly‘. (Actually, I was sitting there long enough to have read ‘War and Peace’, but that is a different story!)
The narrator is Edward, who recounts time spent at Iyot House, the home of his great-aunt, Aunt Kestrel (fabulous name!), and her dour maid, Mrs Mullen. The trio are joined by Edward’s cousin, Leonora, a flame-haired, unfathomable young girl with a foul temper. She both bewitches and confuses the young Edward, although Aunt Kestrel is more kindly and pragmatic in her approach to her great-niece, believing her to be over-indulged and spoiled. From the numerous gifts sent to Leonora by her mother, it certainly seems as if the youngster is used to getting her own way. But her heart’s desire is a doll, and although she knows exactly what she wants, her mother never sends the Indian Princess dolly. When Edward takes it upon himself to make sure that Leonora receives the gift of her dreams, his decision has frightening lifelong repercussions for everyone.
As I turned the last page of this book, the over-riding question in my mind was ‘why’? The plot just didn’t seem to conclude satisfactorily, as I was left wondering. In any novel, there is often ambiguity, leaving the reader to consider several options as to what might have happened, and this can be interesting and fun. But the ending of ‘Dolly‘ felt unfinished, as if Hill ran out of ideas before she had to meet her agent’s deadline. I was disappointed with ‘The Small Hand‘ last year and feel that maybe ‘The Woman in Black‘, which I found genuinely unsettling, remains unsurpassed.
One of my closest friends is a talented drama teacher. Theatre trips to see the stage adaptation of Susan Hill’s ‘The Woman in Black’ are a regular feature of her curriculum. I remember my friend telling me that on one of these occasions, the woman in the seat next to her had been so utterly terrified by the production, that she had literally – well, peed her pants! I’ve read Susan Hill’s ‘The Woman in Black’ and although reading it did not have such a profound effect on me, it was nevertheless an engrossing, unsettling read. When my book group settled upon another of Ms Hill’s novellas, ‘The Small Hand,’ as its next read, I was looking forward to being similarly spooked.
Told in the first person, the book follows Adam Snow as he tracks down a rare First Folio edition of Shakespeare’s work. On the way to visit his client, Adam chances upon a deserted house, where he first feels a small, invisible hand in his. Resisting the urge to be drawn by the force of the child’s touch, Adam tries to forget the inexplicable sensation. However he begins to be bothered by nightmares, panic attacks and an impending sense of doom. He tries to discuss his dilemma with his brother, Hugo, who dismisses his fears and suggests a trip to the GP. Determined to uncover the truth about the tiny hand, Adam delves into the history of the White House. HIs encounter with its occupant enables him to unravel the mystery, culminating in a final encounter with the mysterious tiny fingers.
Unlike the lady in the theatre, I was not paralysed with fear by this book. That’s probably a good thing, given that I was reading it on my leather sofa! It was an intriguing tale, in so far as the terrors of our Adam’s own mind contrive to bewilder him, but it was not scary. The dark corners of my own mind were not infiltrated by the pull of the small hand. Maybe I am just not easily lead!