by Susan Hill
From the author of The Woman in Black comes two gothic ghost stories to send chills creeping up your spine. In “The Small Hand”, a bookseller named Adam Snow finds himself lost in the English countryside. Pulling up to a house to ask for directions, he feels a small hand clasp his own, but the derelict, overgrown house is clearly abandoned. He eventually finds his way home, but the sensation of the invisible child’s hand continues to haunt him. Snow attempts to replicate the experience, but with each supernatural visitation more sinister demands are placed on the antiquarian. The second story, “Dolly”, brings a young orphan to his aunt’s house for a summer visit. Worried that her nephew Edward will be lonely by himself, his Aunt Kestrel invites his cousin Leonora to join them. Spoiled, selfish and cruel, Leonora terrorizes and fascinates Edward. When she tells him that she desperately wants a doll for her birthday, Edward passes the information on to their aunt – but the doll she purchases is not the type that Leonora wanted, so in a fury the ungrateful girl smashes it. Her wrath unleashes a curse that follows her and Edward through the years, slowly poisoning their lives.
I have heard that the stage show of The Woman in Black, which has been running in London since 1989, is amazing. I always mean to try and see it when I’m in England, but so far it hasn’t happened. I also know that the story was adapted into a movie starring Daniel Radcliffe, but I never saw that, either. That is the total prior knowledge I have of Susan Hill’s work.
Her ghost stories definitely make me think of classic 19th century ghost stories from authors like Sheridan Le Fanu and M. R. James. Her narrators are nearly anonymous; we learn their names and a few details of their lives, like their employment and names of family members. But there’s no strong sense of personality – Adam Snow and Edward Cayley are merely reporters describing frightening events in as factual a manner as they can.
Of the two stories, I found “Dolly” to be more successful. Placid, peaceful Edward and the furious terror that is Leonora create a strange odd couple; he is always eager to please his fiery cousin, who either torments or ignores him, as suits her whims. I suppose his attachment stems from the fact that he is an orphan, and he’s desperate for any family at all. Still, his devotion is perplexing, especially once he’s an adult and fully aware of how terribly Leonora treats him. But the cursed doll has always been a staple of the horror canon (Chucky, anyone?) and its menacing presence is far more memorable than the man it so frightens. The story is also made horrible by the fact that the curse impacts Edward and Leonora equally. Sure, Leonora gets her just desserts, but why is Edward punished? Is he equally to blame for their troubles because he never stood up to his cousin, or does he suffer simply because evil doesn’t discriminate?
“The Small Hand” builds a wonderful atmosphere at the crumbling manor house where Adam Snow first encounters the ghostly hand. Each subsequent return to the property adds to this darkness, feeding the gloom and rot. But I found Adam even less engaging than Edward Cayley, and while his story is spooky it never ramps the tension enough to genuinely frighten.
3 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2012: Isle of 100,000 Graves by Jason
2011: Another little break for school...
2010: The Ghost in the Tokaido Inn by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler
2009: Going on hiatus...
2008: Coolest Package Ever From Makers of 'Coraline'!