Here’s a fun, highly atmospheric horror/mystery thriller that will keep fans happily engaged, eagerly turning pages and jonesing to find out what happens next from beginning to end. In Doll House, UK author Ashley Lister sets up a dark, creepy tale with the macabrely-sophisticated psychology of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House, and the terror-tinged eroticism of François Ozon’s Swimming Pool, all with a decidedly British sensibility.
Lister’s less-than-perfect protagonist is Ben Haversham, a best-selling author of fictionalized memoir, though what little life or imagination he seems to have hardly suggest that the books were very thick. For a writer, Haversham seems chronically incurious, content to know what he knows, bugger-all the rest; getting by on fading charm and the cachet of his flagging literary reputation, his guttering creative spark now fueled mostly by drugs and alcohol. Desperate for a third best-seller, Haversham’s agent proposes something of a radical intervention, depositing his dissolute client in a small, isolated village somewhere in northern England, leaving him a virtual prisoner in a cottage-retreat with no distractions and nothing other to do than “write the damn book!” (Don’t we all wish we had so thoughtful an agent!)
Of course, weird and uncanny things start happening right away. There is something deeply unsettling about the village and its inhabitants, especially the mysterious Marian Papusa, owner of the Doll House, a creepy “Addam’s Family” mansion-cum-museum/factory just across the street from Ben’s cottage. Weirder still is the little army of dolls that populate the cottage, giving anyone who stays there a serious case of the heebie-jeebies, not to mention the grotesque oil paintings of evil clowns almost everywhere one looks. Throughout the novel, Lister draws on the macabre ambivalence many people feel toward dolls and clowns; seemingly innocent figures of childhood fun and amusement, they can also appear as dark avatars of the subconscious’ most disturbing tendencies, the stuff of very grown-up nightmares. Enter a vindictive religious fanatic from Haversham’s past, household staff who are just a little bit too accomodating, and a grisly backstory that drives everything towards a horrifyingly inevitable denouement, and the stage is well set indeed.
I do have a couple small complaints to register. First, whether because the book was written in a great hurry or indifferently edited afterwards, there are far too many instances of repetition, the same information—usually part of a character’s inner monologue—restated, sometimes two or three times, in almost precisely the same way within the space of a few lines. This occurs repeatedly throughout the text, lending the distinct sense of an early draft: one begins to feel as if some heavy from a Guy Ritchie gangster epic were standing alongside them, shouting at the top of their lungs, “if you didn’t get the obvious point I was trying to make in the previous sentence, I will now make the same point again, but this time I will hit you in the head with a lead pipe so the point will be even more obvious…” Second: there are a few glaring continuity errors that ought to have been caught in the editing process: the names of the two local pubs are mixed up at a couple points later in the story, and the character of a helpful local barmaid is confused with a denizen of the Doll House towards the end.
Small complaints, and mostly irrelevant once one begins to go with the flow. It’s easy—almost inevitable—to find oneself invested in the engaging story Lister so skillfully unfolds here; a good, fast, entertaining read, definitely worth a look! Recommended.