Dolls and puppets have quite an extensive history in the horror genre. As editor Ellen Datlow states in the introduction to her anthology The Doll Collection, “Evil dolls are practically a subgenre of horror fiction and film” and then proceeds to enumerate examples. Since the evil doll theme is so culturally pervasive, Datlow made a stipulation about tales considered for inclusion in The Doll Collection: “no evil doll stories.” While there are no bona fide evil dolls or toys in the compilation, there are certainly some justifiably vindictive ones. Retribution for abuse is a theme that appears in several of the yarns. As writer Veronica Schanoes sagely says in her story “The Permanent Collection,” narrated by a Shirley Temple doll who has fallen on hard times, “Children and dolls have this in common: We are both so vulnerable to the whims of those bigger than us.”
In the brilliantly evocative “Homemade Monsters” by John Langan, size does indeed matter. A youth, who finds his monster soul mate in Godzilla, fashions a copy of the reptilian anti-hero from a Captain Kirk action figure. Once modifications such as scales, tail, and facial features are made, the miniature Godzilla is the stuff that a boy’s science fiction-horror dreams are made of. When a schoolmate’s petty sadistic acts reach a crescendo, the transformed Godzilla and/or the youth who worships him, level the playing field.
The male protagonist in Joyce Carol Oates’ “The Doll Master” also craves control over his life. His sexual orientation is stymied by a rigid conformist father. Anger seethes when dormant emotions are repressed. The attraction of dolls is summed up thus: “You can look into a doll’s eyes without fear of the doll seeing into your soul in a way hostile to you, but you can’t be so careless looking at anyone else.” Oates weaves a chilling tale that features a profoundly unsettling main character.
Like “The Doll Master,” “Doll Court” by Richard Bowes also features a narrator whose sexual orientation was repressed in childhood. Now, as an openly gay urban New Yorker, he no longer worries about being judged in the court of public opinion. He is, however, put on trial by the dolls that endured his physical abuse many years ago. As a kid, he attempted a display of macho bravado. Playing Indians with his male peers, the boys scalped the dolls that belonged to his sister and her girlfriends. His resentment about having to stifle his true self is another psychological aspect behind the mutilations, driving him to damage what he had been denied. In adulthood, he becomes a successful dealer in valuable dolls. His clinically mercantile attitude is another charge against him. Bowes delivers a wry and wise story.
Carrie Vaughn similarly employs dolls as a guilt mechanism in “Goodness and Kindness.” An insensitive reporter discovers an underlying reason for the popularity of Kewpie dolls. To relate anymore would lead to spoilers. Suffice to say that the coo-inducing diminutive darlings have a legion of collectors, and Vaughn deftly plays with the premise, by toying with the reporter’s less than admirable personality.
Marionettes are used as weapons in Mary Robinette Kowal’s contribution “Doctor Faustus.” The narrative is precise and powerful. Springing off with the absurd notion of an off-Broadway remount of Orson Welles’ The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, performed with puppets, the story then hits the ground running. Theatrical concerns about arcane authenticity lead to the unleashing of a predatory entity. The puppeteer uses what resources she has at hand to combat the supernatural assault. “Doctor Faustus” is a fine example of less is more. Short, but so not sweet, it is a knock-your-socks-off delving into horror.
These are a few examples of what to expect in The Doll Collection published by Tor. The seventeen all-new stories that comprise the anthology are of high quality, plus there’s the visual bonus of the accompanying photos which punctuate the eerie yet comprehensible allure of dolls. Taking into account childhood reveries, and the recognition that there’s that weird physical resemblance, The Doll Collection reminds that dolls and puppets are very much a part of our consciousness.