The Small Hand and Dolly by Susan Hill
I suppose if you start with the broader genre of horror, the supernatural ghost story is rather like a cousin. In other words there are some shared genes, but with genre walls usually maintained efficiently, the authors are aiming at slightly different emotional responses from the readers. That said, we should not distract ourselves or prejudge as reviewers because of the genre or subgenre label. The essence of any successful creative work is that it’s believable. Which, of course, inevitably leads to scepticism that a ghost story can be believable. The majority of people are sufficiently rational to accept there ain’t no such thing as a ghost. If believability is our criterion, every attempt to conjure a ghost would fail. But this ignores the more subtle truth. As readers, we can believe in the psychology of the protagonist who, for whatever reason, believes he or she’s being haunted. In the real world, we all have issues to deal with. Guilt, for example, can lead to bad dreams. If our protagonist loses enough sleep, he or she may hallucinate or become delusional. In such cases, there’s no knowing what our imaginations might impose on our rational minds.
The Small Hand and Dolly by Susan Hill are two quintessentially British novellas (Vintage Books, 2013). Ah, another Pandora’s Box to open. If I had to distinguish the American from the British approach to the supernatural, it would be in the scale. The transAtlantic ghost story is usually more explicit and showy with more overt mayhem. British stories tend to be understated and more about the sense of terror that comes as we empathise with a protagonist who suddenly finds him or herself cast adrift from secure moorings in reality. If I had to capture the principle underpinning the British more literary style, it would be that less is more, i.e. that the vicarious fear or terror arises more from hints and suggestions than from anything explicit. The template relies on the skill of the author to create an appropriate atmosphere and then leaves it to the reader to anticipate the worst. I suppose the best in ghost stories gives us the option of a rational explanation, e.g. by supplying a family background which includes some degree of mental disorder. Indeed, we might consider the appearance of a ghost as being a defeat for the author’s inventiveness. Then it all comes down to the characterisation and, sometimes, flirting with the device of an unreliable narrator to create the requisite effects. If there are cracks through which the ghost is going to emerge into our world, they will be cracks in the character of the protagonist. So perhaps the protagonist is just imagining the cold breeze on his neck or is having an anxiety attack. In the right mood, we can all abandon the thin veer of rationality and revert to a more primitive state in which we’re afraid of what may be lurking in the dark just out of sight.
One of the more commonly used devices is the abandoned or rundown country house as an extension to gothic romanticism which enhances its more melodramatic aspirations by placing the action in mediaeval piles. Even Dickens got in on the act with settings such as Satis House in Great Expectations, albeit not with supernatural overtones. So in The Small Hand, our bookseller “hero” is lost and, in the hope of finding someone to ask for directions, enters the overgrown gardens of what proves a derelict Edwardian house. This is a beautifully sustained moment as everything suddenly stills. Not even a cricket would have dared break the silence. Imagine how you would react in this moment of relaxation and peace if you felt the small hand of a child sneak into yours — as if you were suddenly trusted to be a friend. Yet when you looked down, you were alone. So begins a journey. Our bookseller has people to see and books to find. He travels around. Most of the time he feels safe, but then come disturbing episodes. Perhaps he’s no longer alone or maybe he’s following in his brother’s footsteps and developing an anxiety disorder. Is he merely succumbing to panic attacks? This is a supremely assured and elegant novella in which certainty and peace of mind are suddenly put under pressure. When you begin to doubt yourself, how do you tell what’s real?
Dolly takes us into the fens, to a hamlet called Iyot Lock where, appropriately enough, you find Iyot House. After a gap of forty years, Edward Cayley, our first-person narrator, returns to the house. As he approaches the house through the churchyard, he finds himself attracted to three graves near the wall. Perhaps he hears a rustling. . . there’s something just at the edge of his memory, something he can’t quite remember. As a slightly frail eight-year-old boy, he’d never been afraid of the house. Surely this is not the time for fear to come? Now his Aunt is dead, there’s the question of inheritance. And that’s why his cousin Leonora van Vorst comes back into his life. In the backstory, Kestrel Dickinson was one of three sisters who disliked each other. She and Mrs Mullen, the housekeeper, do their best to make the two cousins welcome. They reopen the attics which had largely been ignored since the tradition of having maids had died. Orphaned Edward proves persistently polite about staying there during his school holiday. Like her selfish mother, Lenora is spoiled and aggressive. She hates everything about being sent there as a companion for Edward. There are only two things they share — a love of thunderstorms and an absence of parental love in their lives. And then comes the incident with the doll. Of course, at the age of eight, they are not completely responsible for their actions, but that doesn’t prevent those around them from feeling resentful. Perhaps even wanting to take some measure of revenge when the children have grown old enough to understand. Except, Edward’s motives and actions were more human, maybe even honourable. If there were to be consequences, he would be forgiven. Ah, if only life could be so fair. After all, what happens is just bad luck. There ain’t no such thing as ghosts.
These two novellas represent a tremendous achievement, flirting with the borderline between the pain and hardships of real life, and the unlikely possibility of supernatural interventions as one of the causes. The Small Hand and Dolly are destined to be ranked highly in the all-time list of classic ghost stories.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.