Sunday 9 December 2012

Reflecting badly on horror: Dolly by Susan Hill

Spoiler alert: contains plot hints.

Does anyone do it better than Susan Hill? Give her a remote house, a graveyard, an attic with an iron-framed bed, some bad weather, circling birds and a childless mother or a motherless child and she’ll give you three hundred pages of expert ghastliness. Dead or ghostlike children, live or lifelike dolls, mirrors that reveal a true face, unjustly buried things trying to get out, unfairly banished things trying to get in, cots and rocking chairs that rock themselves, dead people who’ve lost something returning to look for it… we know what world we’re in.

Hill’s versatility as a literary novelist is well-known but there is a special, chilly pocket of appreciation reserved for her ghost stories The Man in the Picture, The Small Hand, The Mist in the Mirror and perhaps the most famous of all, The Woman in Black, which is onstage and onscreen as well as on the page.

Here’s an indiscreet anecdote from a namedropping writer colleague: “I’m friends with Susan Hill. If you’re worried about money, get a play on. The Woman in Black’s been showing for ever and Susan was telling me it makes so much money she doesn’t know what to do with it.”

Dolly is a long short story, beautifully presented as a black and green pocket hardback by Profile books. It performs the same clever Halloween trick as Hill’s other works, taking all the staples of historic horror and ghost genres and delivering something that is completely predictable, symmetrical and seemingly obvious. Yet it is Hill’s storytelling skill itself that makes these stories seem like they’ve been around forever and are part of some deep national dread.  

Here’s a comment from another colleague, a brilliant writer to whom I was praising Dolly but wondering why we need an old house and no Net for a proper horror story: 
“We need to strip away the modern for true horror because technology isn’t frightening,” she said.
“A literary editor once said to me, ‘No-one wants to read about people texting,’” I said.
“Well – screens might be frightening, people climbing out of them or going into them.”
“Like that Japanese film, The Ring.” 
“But what’s really frightening is people.”
“Or things behaving like people, or bad people pretending to be good people and getting away with it. Or wearing a mask in full view. Have you read the Freud essay, The Truth of Masks? It’s about how disguises are real. We choose the disguise that we think hides us, but we subconsciously choose the thing that reveals our true face.”
“…Or people pretending to be people you know. I once received a lovely letter from a young reader – I write for children – and she told me one of her most horrible dreams. She told me there was someone in her room, and she thought it was her mother. It looked like her mother. And she got close to it and suddenly it said, ‘I’m not your mother.’ And then, the girl wrote, ‘She took me to her cold dark nest.’ Isn’t that the phrase? ‘Cold dark nest.’ She was a writer’s daughter of course, her mother’s a writer, it starts so young.”

In Dolly, two children go to stay at an old house inhabited by a sullen housekeeper and a well-meaning but distant aunt. One child is a diffident and uninteresting little boy, who narrates the story as a grown-up. The other is a fiery, spoilt, unhappy girl whose flighty, frivolous (etc) mother has abandoned her. This girl, Leonora, wants a doll for her birthday. She doesn’t get the one she wants, expresses her rage in a jarringly ugly and ungrateful manner, and then…. There are no thrills or spills with Dolly, merely a momentary act of crude brattishness which is quickly forgotten by the young perpetrator but punished cruelly for decades afterwards by …well… and revealed with implacable, predictable (but no less affecting) calmness.

Dolly is about consequences, about the real monster not being the person or thing you thought it was, about the punishment being much greater than the crime and unfairly and disproportionately affecting many more people than just the perpetrator. It’s about the suffering of innocents and sometimes their revenge. The suffering comes out in twos: there are the two original children, each of whom has a daughter, and there are not one but two dolls, and there may be two or more perpetrators, and two of them might be the dolls – or maybe the dolls are merely reflecting the malice of Fate or the bitterness and pique of a grown adult who’s been hurt – or maybe it’s a very hard lesson that little girls shouldn’t misbehave….

At once frozen and hokey, underpowered yet overbaked, perverse yet obvious, smooth and inexorable, it’s also horribly satisfying. Yet the underlying (and I am sure, subconscious) politics of the story leave a bad impression. Though narrated by a male character, the story is about the nastiness, pettiness, malice and punishing of females, who are the perpetrators of most of the bad events in the book, but for one very significant act at the beginning; and the victims of this female malice are all very young girls themselves, almost babies. The flighty mother who abandons Leonora, the shrewd housekeeper who diagnoses Leonora on sight as evil – “She had looked into Leonora’s eyes when she had first arrived, and seen the devil there”, Leonora the malicious child herself, the childless aunt who seems kind but may not be, the changing female dolls who cause or mimic the suffering of the little girls and grow ugly in their boxes like “a wizened old woman, a crone” in one case and “no longer a beauty… a pariah” in another. The worst thing that is said of Leonora is that “she is too like her mother” – a bad girl taking after a bad woman – and the insult is delivered by another woman, the aunt, Leonora’s mother’s own sister. We are not only in an Edwardian physical setting but also its psychology: whether real or mannequins, young or old, absent or present, females are sad, mad, bad, petty, shrill, vicious, shrewish, irresponsible, occult, corrupt and corrupting.

If your desire to revel in the nastiness of Woman is satisfied and you want some racial and national stereotypes as a side dish then look no further than the Eastern European city the narrator visits as an adult. The medieval Old Town is in the middle, surrounded by hastily over-developed malls and motorways, the building work halted following a people’s revolution and the exile of the state leader. In the Old Town is… you can finish this sentence for me… a little old toy shop, and in the little old toy shop is a little old toy-restorer… “a very small old man” with an inscrutable manner and “a jeweller’s glass screwed into one eye”, from a Quality Street advert at Christmas, who seems to know exactly what the narrator is looking for.

If the Grimm climate of Eastern European cultural clichés is too chilly for you then let’s go to India – that palace of clichés! - with the narrator and his family, to a region which Hill does not even bother to give a name to, instead sketching it with a series of offhand, inexact, thrown-out and embarrassingly crude and ignorant pejoratives: “heat and humidity…extreme poverty” amongst “women and their children in a remote village, where there were no medical facilities and where clothes and people were washed in the great river that flowed through the area.” Tiny hint: there is no such thing as a remote village on the banks of a great river. If there’s a great river, it’s not a remote village but has the provision for irrigation for centuries of agriculture and therefore crops, food, flora and fauna; a prime position along an established transport route; a longstanding and probably classic trade route and the possibility of (to-be-purified) drinking water. Another hint: If you do not know a country, culture or people well, particularly one that was a former colony and subject to any number of racist clichés and Orientalist justifications, don’t patronise it with uneducated generalisations. Write about something you know and respect instead. Want more, reader? How about “terrible diseases… ravage this beautiful country. Poor sanitation, contaminated water, easy spread of infection…” easy and glib, just like that.

Dolly is a smoothly gut-churning story from one of England’s greatest living writers. From its lonely starting point it soon widens into an exploration of the depth and ineffability of curses. However, it leaves a bitter taste as much for its racial stereotypes and tinge of sexual slander as its sensational storytelling and core of fatalistic horror.

Dolly by Susan Hill is published by ProfileBooks.