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The Doll Collection / Edited by Ellen Datlow

Tor Books / March 2015
Reviewed by: Vince A. Liaguno

It’s curious that it’s taken Ellen Datlow—the curator of some fifty-odd genre anthologies and avid collector herself—this long to make dolls the focal point of one of her marvelously macabre collections. Perhaps she was saving a theme for which she has such great personal affinity until she could bring something wholly unique to what’s become a horror trope and sub-genre in and of itself.

In her introduction to The Doll Collection, Datlow proves why she’s the preeminent anthologist of her time. Rather than capitalize on the effectively simple idea of the malevolent doll—as much a horror cliché as thunderstorms, dead phone lines, and cars that never start when you need them to—she tasked her fine assemblage of contributors here with reaching beyond the trope, admonishing them with the editorial caveat that evil dolls needn’t apply. So the writers of the anthology’s seventeen stories—all original to the collection—stretch, twist, turn, and sometimes dismember readers’ preconceived notions about what makes dolls scary in the first place. The result is a creepy, eclectic compendium in which dolls take many forms and the horrors are often external to and independent of the titular figure itself.

Several of the stories Datlow selected for The Doll Collection deserve specific mention.

Tim Lebbon ably sets the mood with his (literal) chiller “Skin and Bone”, in which the story of two lifelong friends hiking across the wintry wasteland of the Antarctic evokes images of John Carpenter’s The Thing and Invasion of the Body Snatchers in the reader’s mind. As the temperature drops and the story’s tension rises, the reader is torn between hypothermia-fueled hallucination and otherworldly terror as the culprit behind the characters’ increasingly dire predicament.

In “Heroes and Villains”, Stephen Gallagher takes on ventriloquism with this nifty little tale in which the star is Gallagher’s exacting detail. Prefaced around the idea of never lending voice to a dead ventriloquist’s dummy (or figure, as is the proper vernacular), this deceptively simple story of a museum curator interviewing a young ventriloquist for an unpaid gig is brimming with rich specificity. But while a lesser writer could hammer their readers over the head with such research, Gallagher seamlessly works these particulars into the fabric of the story, ultimately lending a grand sense of authenticity to the tale.

Likewise, anthology enthusiasts can always depend on Gemma Files to bring painstaking detail to her own unique brand of storytelling. In “Gaze”, the Canadian scribe crafts a tale of ghostly visitation against the world of eye miniatures with precise period detail.

“The Doll-Master” is quintessential Joyce Carol Oates. Psychologically damaged by unprocessed grief as a young boy, the story’s narrator—likely suffering from schizophrenia or bipolar disease—seeks to reclaim his late cousin’s baby doll taken from him by concerned parents. Oates’ spine-chilling story is skillfully crafted on a thematic substructure warning of the danger of gender conformity and unchecked mental illness in childhood development.

Pat Cadigan’s teenage narrator is busted for pot possession and sentenced to community service at the local emergency room at the outset of “In Case of Zebras”. When an MVA victim is brought in and a tiny, lifelike doll falls out of his pocket, the reluctant volunteer stumbles into the ancient world of poppets and sympathetic folk-magic. Not particularly gooseflesh inducing, but an effective story with a decent transmogrification scene that might give you a jolt.

Stephen Graham Jones has become as bankable an anthology star if ever there was one, and his contribution to The Doll Collection is no exception. “Daniel’s Theory About Dolls” is dark and unsettling and highlights Jones’ unique ability to deliver an unpredictable turn of events that leaves you slack-jawed. In this (ultimately) violent and visceral story about a sociopathic boy who speaks to his unborn—and then dead—baby sister and the tragic unfolding of events that follow him and his older brother into adulthood, Jones masterfully finds the tenderness within the tragedy at the core of this macabre tale.

Two additional stories within The Doll Collection really stood out as the crown jewels of the anthology for this reviewer.

The intriguingly titled “Visit Lovely Cornwall on the Western Railway Line” is a luxurious, languid period piece set in mid-20th century England that involves a series of haunting encounters with a little girl and her doll on a seaside train. Author Genevieve Valentine challenges with an intricately odd narrative structure that includes shifts in point-of-view in a story that’s been so precisely constructed that you’ll likely re-read it a second—possibly third—time. There’s an almost sepia-colored tint to Valentine’s tale, which is bolstered by the painstaking symmetry of her words:

On her way to the high street for shopping, she passes a building so sharp and square it reminds her of a tomb. Her husband told her it was a morbid thing to say, but she avoids the corner where she’ll have to turn and see it looming, hated.

Still, to turn the other way and avoid it means passing by the toy shop that lines up dolls in the window on a shelf above the train sets. Their porcelain faces crack a little more every month they sit in the window under full sun, everything about them leaching brightness, so a dress the colour of a robin’s egg slowly gives in to the watery blue of a spring sky, and the doll with the darkest hair is going gray at the temples faster than the wife. One of the dolls had violet eyes that have turned unnervingly pale. She can’t remember the colour of the doll’s eyes in the train car, long ago, no matter how hard she tries.

Brimming with gorgeous imagery and lushly constructed passages, Seanan McGuire’s “There Is No Place for Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold” is a sublime piece of speculative short fiction and The Doll Collection’s pièce de résistance. Marian is one of a long line of ancient doll makers—and living dolls who can’t house their own feelings—from an alternate world of the titular kingdom. Incapable of storing her own emotions, Marian creates dolls as vessels for her sorrow, disappointments, and frustrations. When she breaks the cardinal rule of her kind—namely, that no one you didn’t make with your own two hands should be trusted—and things go awry by way of an ill-tempered suitor, she enlists her ailing doll maker father to dole out some delicious dolly revenge. McGuire’s story snaps and crackles with imaginative detail and emotion, and the reader will marvel at the depth of the fantasy realm she’s able to create within the short story format.

The rest of the dolls in Datlow’s Collection cover quite a bit of territory—from dolls doling out justice in a dream court to an old house boobytrapped with malevolent dolls, from marionettes used as weapons when a young theatrical set designer is besieged by a summoned beast to a sad tale of the last doll hospital in Manhattan as narrated by a wizened Shirley Temple doll—with a smorgasbord of dolls represented, including kewpie dolls, fortune-telling dolls, “word” dolls, and even a Godzilla action figure. The wonderful thing about anthologies is that no two stories will appeal to the same two readers in exactly the same way; therefore, any omission or failure to highlight any of the stories in this superb compilation shouldn’t be construed as unfavorable.

With The Doll Collection, Ellen Datlow further cements her status as speculative fiction’s most distinguished anthologist. Her selections offer an intriguing exploration of a classic plaything—and frequent horror trope—through the darkened lens of adulthood. Seen through the literary eyes of her exceptional cast of contributors, readers will find much lurking beneath the plastic, porcelain, wood, and cloth exteriors of these seemingly innocent fabrications from our childhood.

Purchase The Doll Collection, edited by Ellen Datlow.

Posted on Monday, May 11, 2015 at 07:38PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

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