pages in this section

Black Static

New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC 82/83 OUT NOW

The Late Review: The Doll Collection

13th Dec, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

Web Exclusive icon

Edited by Ellen Datlow and published in 2015 by Tor Books, The Doll Collection contains seventeen stories. In her introduction the editor talks about her own fascination with dolls and their use as tropes in horror fiction, with reference to Freud's theory of the uncanny. Individual stories are prefaced with a photograph of a doll, each with an eerie cast to its features.

The opening story is "Skin and Bone" by Tim Lebbon in which two adventurers are on an Antartctic expedition when Kurt discovers mannequins that leave him deeply unsettled. Everything combines here, the bleak and minatory setting, Kurt's doubts about his marriage and his relationship with companion Marshall, and of course the mannequins which seem to embody this existential threat to his very being, with an end turn that hints at the complete undoing of the character. Stephen Gallagher's "Heroes and Villains" tells the story of a dead ventriloquist, reputedly a hero when he tried to save some young girls from a fire at a sanatorium, but the man's doll tells the true story, which is slightly different. It's a subtle and disturbing piece, one firmly grounded in knowledge of ventriloquism, with a streak of black comedy giving way to something much darker, and along the way the author manages to take a poke at the 4theluv ideology.

I reviewed "The Doll-Master" by Joyce Carol Oates in Black Static #59 when I had this to say - 'the tale of a young boy who prefers toy dolls to action figures, but as he grows into adulthood his obsession seems to take a truly dark turn. The story is an accomplished feat of suspension of disbelief, with the reader lulled throughout so that we can never be sure what is taking place, fearing the worst but hoping that Oates is only teasing us with the possibility of terror. And finally we have the great reveal, with revelations that shock in all their ghastliness and bring to mind the closing scenes of Hitchcock's Psycho', while underlying all of that is a suggestion that maybe parental breakdown provided the catalyst for what has taken place. It's an assured and convincingly detailed description of warped psychology, with an understated ending that leaves the reader unsure of what will happen next but filled with dread by the possibilities.'

From Gemma Files we have "Gaze" in which a modern day antiquarian finds herself on the wrong end of a witch's curse when she is sent a portrait of an eye. This is the sort of story M. R. James might have composed if he'd been alive now, with a wealth of historical dressing and details about obscure artistic fads served up as a vibrant background to a story about a cursed object, with some excellent characterisation in the relationship of George and her girlfriend Antha. I loved it. "In Case of Zebras" by Pat Cadigan is the story of a young woman doing community service at a hospital who learns that certain patients have dolls that can be used to help recovery. Tone of voice is everything here, with the protagonist's curiosity and buoyant nature driving the narrative forward, while at back of it all we have a variation of sorts on the story of Dorian Gray.

Seanan McGuire creates a mythology that takes in Pinocchio and Pandora as backdrop to her story of a very unusual doll maker in "There Is No Place for Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold". It's a powerful piece, remarkable for the invention, but grounded in the real world by such things as misogyny, bullying, and the toll of old age. Carrie Vaughan's story has a callous newspaper reporter learn the meaning of "Goodness and Kindness" when he encounters the miraculous quality of kewpie dolls. This is a story that falls into the weird category rather than horror, with nothing to frighten except the character of the protagonist, for whom the story is a learning curve. It's the kind of piece that makes you ponder some of your own decisions in life.

"Daniel's Theory About Dolls" by Stephen Graham Jones is a surreal extravaganza of a story in which two brothers are warped by the burial of a doll in lieu of their unborn sister. It's a gripping piece of work, one in which grotesquerie abounds as the plasticity of life is celebrated, with appropriately repellent wet work. "After and Back Before" by Miranda Siemienowicz is set in post-apocalyptic world where dolls of a certain kind are at the heart of what remains of civilisation. The landscape through which children Kayna and Bel wander is unremittingly bleak and the vagueness regarding what has happened to the world makes it even more chilling, but such considerations pale into insignificance when compared to the disturbing final paragraphs of this grim and unsettling story. In Mary Robinette Kowal's "Doctor Faustus" two theatre technicians inadvertently summon a demonic entity and need to use puppets against the thing. This is probably the nearest the anthology comes to straightforward horror, a lively and entertaining account of ordinary people battling the extraordinary as best they can. A former dealer in antique dolls ends up in "Doll Court" and asked to answer for his crimes against dollkind. This story by Richard Bowes is a vibrant and highly original production, combining dolls and dreams, reality and fiction, and with a subtext about the dangers inherent in machismo.

"Visit lovely Cornwall on the Western Railway Line" by Genevieve Valentine is one of the most haunting stories in the anthology, telling what happens to various people who meet a young girl and her doll on the aforesaid train line. It's made all the more effective by the matter of fact tone of the piece, the way in which details are simply provided and the reader left to draw their own conclusions, with an ambiguous ending that seems to underline the fragility of life. In Richard Kadrey's "Ambitious Boys Like You" two youths set out to rob an elderly man who lives alone in a large house populated by dolls, but things go horrifically awry. This could well be the best story in the collection. It is very much in the mainstream horror tradition, with supernatural grace notes and moments of repellent gore, while the nature of the two young men makes readers ambivalent as to who to sympathise with - what happens to them is terrible, but in a sense they have only themselves to blame.

"Miss Sibyl-Cassandra" by Lucy Sussex tells us of a fortune telling doll, the back story conveyed in a series of letters that testify to the veracity of the doll's predictions, and with an aside that connects the story to somebody famous. It's a fascinating account, one that holds the reader spellbound as we expect and patiently wait for the worst to happen. Told from the perspective of a Shirley Temple doll who is sent to New York's only doll hospital, Veronica Schanoes' "The Permanent Collection" is a tale of cruelty and how the victims took revenge on their tormentor. It offers us a lament for all the things that were once loved and got left by the way, a sensitive depiction of love gone wrong in which the dolls could so easily be a metaphor for human beings.

The protagonist of "Homemade Monsters" by John Langan creates a Godzilla doll that is then destroyed by a bully, and in the aftermath finds vengeance of a kind. The framing device is not the thing here, nice as it is to see Eddie get his comeuppance, but the real horror lies in the depiction of bullying, the way in which everything the protagonist attempts is undone by his nemesis and for no real reason other than cruelty and petty spite. Finally we have "Word Doll" by Jeffrey Ford in which the writer unravels a local legend, with the startling concept of word dolls used to help workers in the fields deal with the monotony of their days. It's a cunningly crafted excursion into folk horror and the perfect end to this marvellous anthology in which, though obviously some are better than others, every single story is a gem. .





Section items by date:

Pages in this section: