Susan Hill's The Small Hand and Dolly: Horror at Its Best
To the delight of horror fans everywhere, Susan Hill’s latest book, The Small Hand and Dolly, returns to the genre with two short novels.
The first, The Small Hand, is the retrospective account of antiquarian bookseller Adam Snow who, while returning from a client’s home, leaves the main route to London and, as the sun sets “into a bank of smoky violet cloud” and the lane narrows and twists within thickets, finds himself lost in the English country. At the end of one such lane, Mr. Snow discovers a decrepit Edwardian house with a “large, overgrown, empty, abandoned garden,” and despite knowing that he should turn around, return to the main route, and go home, his curiosity wins out, and he explores the property. Then it happens: Standing in a “dim, green-lit clearing” under a “silver paring of moon,” he feels it — a small, cold hand grasping his own. After that night, the hand continues to haunt him. It returns many times and becomes forceful, urging him toward pools and cliffs with a strength he can hardly fight. Mr. Snow must return to the old house, to its garden, to figure out what happened there and why this ghost-hand plagues him.
In the second novella, Dolly, Edward Cayley — a recently orphaned eight-year-old — is staying the summer in Iyot Lock with his Aunt Kestrel, a childless widow whom he has never met; his companion for the summer, who’s own mother is busy traveling with her latest husband, is his cousin Leonora. The two children are complete opposites — Edward is shy and courteous; Leonora is aggressive and rude — but they manage (if just barely) to pass their time together, playing Bagatelle and exploring, activities that often end with Leonora in a rage as she lets out “a terrible, violent scream.” When Leonora’s birthday arrives, her mother fails to send her the gift she wants desperately — a doll; more specifically, an “Indian royal bride, with elaborate clothes and jewels and braiding in her hair.” This birthday denial, as well as Aunt Kestrel’s own gifted attempt to appease her niece (a classic china baby doll, i.e. the wrong kind of doll), sends Leonora into yet another rage. Only this one is not a little girl’s tiff; it will hold consequences for both Edward and Leonora for years to come.
Although both novels are built with elements common to horror stories — the old, dusty houses; the flat-eyed dolls; the retrospective narrator; the ghost — Hill has a particular knack for producing atmosphere and suspense in very high concentration; her concise style (the whole book is only 280 pages) is ideal for horror stories, where it creates a world so convincingly, and with so few words, that readers cannot possibly doubt the legitimacy of such a tale — no matter how otherworldly — and are forced to experience each character’s tedium.
Susan Hill is the author of numerous books including I’m the King of the Castle, A Kind Man, and The Woman in Black, the latter of which has been adapted into a movie and a play.