Dolls scare me. I couldn’t say why or what exactly it is about them that scares me, but I often blame the fact that I watched one of the Child’s Play movies when I was too young for all that gore. Another theory is that of the “uncanny valley”, which editor Ellen Datlow explains in her introduction:
The “uncanny valley” refers to a theory developed by robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970: it posits that objects with features that are human-like, that look and move almost—but not quite—like actual human beings, elicit visceral feelings of revulsion in many people. The “valley” in question refers to the change in our comfort with these objects: our comfort level increases as the objects look more human, until, suddenly, they look simultaneously too human and not quite human enough, and our comfort level drops off sharply, only to rise again on the other side of the valley when something appears and moves exactly like a human being.
The problem with dolls, basically, is it that they’re “too human and still not human enough”.
The weird thing is that I actually like doll horror, perhaps because I like the thrill of horror and dolls can get to me without trying too hard or getting too gory. That’s why I jumped at the chance to read and review The Doll Collection edited by Ellen Datlow. I find that short stories tend to deliver the most satisfying form in the genre, and these did not disappoint.
This is partly because Ellen Datlow curated this particular collection. Not only does she have decades of experience and multiple horror anthologies to her name, she’s also an avid doll collector. And she made one key editorial decision for this collection – no evil-doll stories. There are plenty of excellent ones out there already, she says, and the evil doll has become a bit of a cliché.
This immediately piqued my interest. Evil dolls are the most obvious choice, so how else might authors explore the theme?
Well some made use of the unnerving parallel between dolls and dead humans. In the opening story, “Skin and Bone” by Tim Lebbon, a man exploring the South Pole with his best friend finds two disturbingly featureless “bodies” in the snowy wasteland. He’s deeply unnerved by this mystery, but can’t bring himself to tell his friend as their relationship has deteriorated in the pitiliess conditions of the landscape.
In “The Doll Master” by Joyce Carol Oates – one of my favourites – a young boy is so distraught by the death of his little cousin, that he steals her doll. When his authoritarian father takes the doll away, he starts a secret collection of very disturbing “found dolls”.
“Daniel’s Theory About Dolls” by Stephen Graham Jones takes a slightly similar approach. A disturbed young boy identifies a doll with his stillborn sister, who he claims taught him to speak while she was in the womb. Her death has a profoundly grotesque influence on the person he becomes.
In other stories, dolls are used as tools to achieve otherworldly feats. As representatives of human beings, they often present a means of transcending our physical limitations, functioning as extra eyes and ears, or as vessels for our emotions or even our life force.
A particularly good story was “Ambitious Boys Like You” by Richard Kadrey, in which two guys break into a home to rob the old man who lives there, only to find that there are strange little dolls watching from the corners and vicious booby-traps all over the house. It’s no surprise that the strange old man is ready and waiting for the thieves, and the story makes for a great piece of quintessentially grim, gory horror.
“In Case of Zebras” by Pat Cadigan was also impressive, but in a completely different way. It’s about a teenager sentenced to community service in a hospital; she handles seeing all the trauma cases pretty well, but one night she’s mesmerised by the incredibly realistic figurine in the hand of a heavily wounded patient, and she keeps trying to find out more about it. For me, the mysterious doll in this story was only a secondary concern; what I really loved was the voice of the fantastic main character.
Gemma Files also plays around with voice in her story, “Gaze”, which is partly composed of an online exchange between an antiques dealer who uses text speak and pop culture references, and a client whose full sentences and proper English stand out in stark comparison. The doesn’t have any dolls per se; rather, it’s about eye minatures – small framed portraits of a beloved’s eye, often decorated with pearls and jewels. The dealer is approached with an offer to buy an eye miniature that completes an extremely rare set of a woman with heterochromia (“2 dfrnt colourd eyes, kno th term. saw xmen 1st class 2”, the protagonist tells her client). As she goes through the client’s historical documentation, she finds a story about suspected witchcraft that suggests the eye miniature may be more than just a lover’s token.
In “There is No Place for Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold”, Seanan McGuire explores the idea of a doll as “a vessel for the self”. An expert dollmaker crafts beautiful dolls into which she literally pours all the emotions she can’t contain. This is not because she’s an overly emotional person; she’s one of a long line of people whose purpose it is to absorb the excess emotion released into the world when Pandora opened that box (or something). I found this premise a bit silly, but I did like the idea of literally pouring emotion into dolls. It gives them a very dangerous kind of power that McGuire uses to tell a pretty good story. I also enjoyed the details about the craft of dollmaking.
Some of my favourite stories, though, were the ones where dolls were not merely used as representatives of humans, but were actually invested with a sense of humanity. When dolls become people, some truly horrifying possibiilities open up. Suddenly, dolls can see and hear things that no one else records. But far worse than this is the appalling cruelty we inflict on things assumed to be lifeless.
This is perfectly illustrated in “The Doll Court” by Richard Bowes, in which a man finds himself in the nightmarish situation of having to atone for the crimes he committed against dolls. The judge in the doll court is Debbie the Doll Detective, a character from a series of novels he read as a child, about a doll who solved crimes, often taking advantage of the fact that people assumed she was an inanimate object.
I really liked “Heroes and Villains” by Stephen Gallagher, in which a ventriloquist’s doll tells the sad truth of his owner’s death years before. To me, ventriloquist’s dolls are even more terrifying than other dolls, but Gallagher gives this one a gentler touch, while depicting the art of ventriloquism detailed authenticity.
My absolute favourite story was “The Permanent Collection” by Veronica Schanoes. An old Shirley Temple doll describes how deeply she was loved by the two girls who owned her, and how she remained connected to them even after she’d been packed away in a box for years. Later, she ends up in a private collection at The Doll Hospital, whose owner enjoys mutilating his dolls and can hear their screams of agony. It’s an incredibly sad, touching story. You really get a sense of how much dolls mean to some people, especially to children, which in turn just makes it so much more horrific when those dolls are abused
Another poignant tale can be found in “After and Back Before” by Miranda Siemienowicz, a postapocalyptic story in which two children leave their camp to explore a blighted landscape. There’s a fair amount of barbarity to their postapocalyptic lifestyle, which includes making shrunken-head dolls out of all the babies who die in their community. I struggled to get into this story at first, but at the end it broke my heart.
These last two stories by Schanoes and Siemienowicz and the one by Gallagher illustrate one of the things I love about this collection – they really demonstrates the range of the horror genre. You’ve got gory stories like Richard Kadrey’s and “Doctor Faustus” by Mary Robinette Kowal (in which a demon uses a dead human body like a hand puppet) – the kinds of tales most people probably think about when they think of horror. Then you’ve got the more subtle psychological horror that some fans (myself included) usually prefer to the bloodier stuff. But then you’ve also got stories like the ones by Cadigan and Files, which to me are more about voice and character than straight-up creepiness. There’s also a rather cute (if you can ever apply that word in this genre) story called “Miss Sibyl-Cassandra” by Lucy Sussex, about a doll designed as a fortune-telling party gimmick, wearing a skirt made of slips of paper with fortunes written on them. And then of course there are the beautiful, tragic stories by Schanoes, Siemienowicz, and Gallagher where the horror is bound up in the emotion you feel for the characters.
All in all, I am very pleased with this anthology. The writing is strong throughout, and although I didn’t love every story (well, you never do) none of them left me feeling completely cold (although, admittedly, Genevieve Valentine’s very subtle story “Visit Lovely Cornwall on the Western Railway Line” had me rather confused). I also wanted to add that every story comes with a photograph of a doll. Most of them gave me a fright as they flashed onto my Kindle screen when I turned the page after dark. But of course, dolls scare me.