Book Review – Dolly by Susan Hill

★★★★ 4 Stars

Genre: Suspense / Horror
Publication Date: October 5th, 2012
Publisher: Profile Books

“All, all of it I remember. Then I relived, my heart pounding again as I stood at the window and through the fog-blanketed darkness heard the sound again. Deep under the earth, inside its cardboard coffin, shrouded with the layers of white paper, the china doll with the jagged, open crevasse in its skull was crying.”

The atmosphere in Dolly is so heavy and intense that it’s almost its own character, perfectly at home in its loneliness. Dolly recalls pieces of Burnett’s The Secret Garden, but twisted. It’s like the marshy underside of the Secret Garden, where you would expect fairytale things to be waiting in the bog.

After the death of his aunt, a man, Edward, recalls his childhood staying at Iyot Lock, her manor house decaying out in the middle of the moor. The house is straight out of a gothic novel and nobody much enjoys being there save for the aunt, and especially not Edward’s cousin, Leonora. He tries to get along with Leonora desperately, but sometimes she just turns into an evil stranger with no warning or transition, and Edward becomes afraid of her. The aunt buys Leonora a baby doll that she breaks, and afterward the doll becomes kind of… vocal, but only late in the night when it’s only Edward there to hear it.

I really appreciate the oddness of the characters. Edward and Leonora have a weird dynamic – they start off like you’d expect they’re going to end up being best of friends. They hate each other on a subtle level from square one, even for the moments they get along. I think that they had always enjoyed seeing each other miserable, and that’s probably why, even though Edward wasn’t insufferable as Leonora was, they are both doomed to be bound to each other through horrible occurrences that they can’t explain to anybody else. Their relationship is surprisingly bleak for being children through most of the story.
Like the manor is a decrepit version of the one in The Secret Garden, Edward and Leonora are sort of shadow selves of Mary and Dickon, only Leonora never learns to be appreciative and Edward is vindictive.

Calling this book “a ghost story”, which apparently a lot of Susan Hill’s books are subtitled, is misleading. It is… and it isn’t. The threat and dread that is felt in this book is something a little more ambiguous than a ghost. There is the doll itself, but whether or not it’s even the doll that’s abnormal is left up to the imagination. The ghost in question is more of a curse, not even necessarily anything of human origin. Depending on the type of mind you have, one could view what happens to Edward and Leonora as just karma, a strain of bad luck, or you could see it as a stray demon they’ve picked up in the marsh that’s taken a home in the doll as well.

Dolly has met some criticism for not being “ghostly” enough. That’s rather unfair, I think. The way it was handled is so much more inventive and ultimately creepier than if it had been your run-of-the-mill, classic house-haunting ghost. Hill plays off of the universal fear of fate and unknowns that will destroy a person, a child even, with zero provocation. That’s just its role in nature to be evil.
Tension runs like mercury in Dolly – the pacing is slow but at the same time impending with every new detail. I personally loved it, and don’t really understand the amount of dislike that this book has gotten.

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