Some years ago, Susan Hill stated in an interview: ‘It’s not plot that interests me but setting, people in a setting, wrestling with an abstract subject.’ In her ghost stories, of which Dolly is the latest, Hill exploits the impact of setting on character: the
role of atmosphere and environment in shaping human suggestibility and the dramatic
and sensational possibilities of this encounter.
Hill’s ghost stories are consciously literary creations. Beginning with The Woman in Black, she revels in the long shadow of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw. She makes allusions to Wilkie Collins and throughout Dolly and The Mist in the Mirror (first published in 1992, now reissued in hardback), Hill’s descriptive writing — the recurrent evocation of setting — recalls Dickens’s famous ‘fog’ passage at the beginning of Bleak House. For Hill, preferring setting to plot, setting ultimately becomes as significant a player in the development of her ghost stories as any of her human protagonists.
Her approach to writing ghost stories suggests the Christmas game of charades, when the family dressing-up box is cheerfully ransacked for all its musty and outlandish accoutrements. Hill marshals the ingredients traditional to her genre: an isolated house of indeterminate antiquity; obligingly atmospheric weather conditions; half-forgotten secrets, ancient enmities, broken families; a sense of isolation, of timelessness and, above all, of something brooding, sensed but not seen.
As in many of her novels, Hill’s narrators in Dolly and The Mist in the Mirror are men; both are orphans, both lacking the ordinary emotional attachments. Edward Cayley, the narrator of Dolly, ‘was not a cowardly boy, though he had a natural cautiousness’. Essential to the success of these stories is that, up to a point, Hill’s heroes are sceptical and unimaginative: we cannot easily dismiss their visions as idle fancy. Instead they are men temporarily in a state of heightened emotionalism, seized by an impulse they can neither define nor resist: ‘I had a strange and quite urgent sense that I ought to do something, that I was needed, that I was the one person who could rescue — rescue what? Who?’
Readers familiar with Hill’s most recent novels — The Beacon and A Kind Man — will have noted the increasing leanness of her current style. Details are sketched swiftly, with precision, in sharp, incisive prose. Sentences are short or include the deliberate repetition of a grammatical construction or a preponderance of finite verbs. The effect is simultaneously simple-seeming and poetic, like Iris Murdoch’s last novels. It is a technique apparently at odds with the ghost story’s requirement for lushly atmospheric over-writing and the difference is visible in any comparison between Dolly and The Mist in the Mirror. While Dolly possesses a timeless austerity, the more expansive earlier novel has an opulently Victorian quality, appropriate to its tale of a high-rolling imperial adventurer returned to the mother country. The very simplicity of Hill’s unveiling of her story in Dolly imposes an awful inevitability on the action.
There is, of course, a doll at its centre. Two dolls, in fact, enough to spoil any former doll-owner’s pleasure in their childhood memories. The first doll is an unwanted present; the second is the doll, only discovered many years later, which ought to have been given all those years ago as the birthday present longed for by the unattractive Leonora. Like many ghost stories, and, indeed, detective novels, the crux of the matter lies in the past: a vanished summer holiday when Edward Cayley and
his cousin, Leonora van Vorst, spent rain-sodden weeks in the isolated Fenland house of an elderly aunt.
Dolly is arguably not so much a ghost story as a horror story. Granted there are ‘ghostly’ elements — half-stifled unaccountable noises, flashbacks of memory, hideous apparitions — but the novel’s ‘ghosts’ are unresolved memories. Cayley is only partly convincing as a narrator. His ability to forget luridly horrid incidents and to fail to make obvious connections frustrates the reader, even if it is a deliberate ploy on Hill’s part.
The elderly James Monmouth, author of the memoir at the centre of The Mist in the Mirror, is consistently less obtuse: his very suggestibility is central to the eeriness of the earlier novel, with its dark murmurings of murder, the occult and a long-running curse. Cayley appears essentially detached in a manner which is impossible for Monmouth. Yet while Cayley survives intact, Monmouth retains the mental and emotional scars lifelong.
John Betjeman once referred to ‘the long, slow descent into winter’, and the opportunities presented by the season for reading. Simultaneous publication of Hill’s two novels offers a suitably wintry double- bill of atmospheric story-telling. Few readers will enjoy these novels equally, but both are of undoubted quality.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 27 October 2012