book reviews by Althea

The Doll Collection – Ellen Datlow, ed.

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Another high-quality collection of tales of horror from Ellen Datlow; unquestionably the best editor working in the genre.
As the title indicates, “dolls” are the theme. The one stipulation here was that the contributing authors avoid the frequently-used trop of the ‘evil doll.’ The dolls here might not be evil, but some of them are damn well spooky!

**** Skin and Bone – Tim Lebbon
Hallucination meets madness – and possibly something more eldritch – in this tale of two modern Antarctic explorers on an ill-fated expedition.
I’m not sure how well this piece fits in with the theme of the collection, but it’s an excellent story.

**** Heroes and Villains – Stephen Gallagher
Ventriloquist’s dummies (excuse me, ‘dolls’ or ‘figures’) are pretty much automatically creepy. However, this story brings both a wealth of authentic detail and a new twist to the old horror trope. A town has had the idea of hiring a ventriloquist to animate an old doll found in the museum’s archives for a local festival. But the interview with a ventriloquist doesn’t quite go how the curator expected.

**** The Doll-Master – Joyce Carol Oates
While, in general, I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with little boys playing with dolls, there’s certainly something quite, quite wrong with this specific boy playing with dolls.

**** Gaze – Gemma Files
Slightly reminiscent of a ‘Friday the 13th’ episode (the TV show, not the movie series, of course). I love the ‘haunted antique’ trope, and it’s done well here. When a dealer is contacted by a stranger asking if she might be interested in a matching item to one of her pieces, she’s intrigued. Miniatures featuring only an eye are rare, and her new contact has a fascinating and extensive provenance for his item. But answering his e-mail has opened the door to far more than she could have expected.

**** In Case of Zebras – Pat Cadigan
A teenager has been sentenced to community service – she’s required to volunteer at the local emergency room. She throws herself into the work willingly – but when a small, intriguing doll falls out of a patient’s pocket, her fascination with it seems likely to lost he co-workers’ newfound trust. But is there truly something odd about this doll, that no one else seems to have seen?

**** There Is No Place for Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold – Seanan McGuire
Hobbyists might have many reasons for crafting their dolls. However, it’s fairly certain that you won’t have guessed at the one this narrator has. I loved the supernatural background here, was slightly less enthused by the domestic violence/office aspects of the plot. <spoiler>If you’re going to take supernatural, murderous revenge on someone, you shouldn’t call the police. If on the other hand, you ARE going to call the police; don’t say no to the restraining order!</spoiler>I am so, so glad that years ago, when my beloved vinyl collection was stolen and sold to a local store, that the employees at the store were ever so much nicer to me about it than what the protagonist here experiences!
Overall, a very good story. Loved the Pinocchio tie-in!

*** Goodness and Kindness – Carrie Vaughn
New York City – maybe the 1950s? An aspiring reporter is willing to put his career before anything else in his life – but doesn’t have the instincts needed for the job. And there are an awful lot of kewpie dolls.

*** Daniel’s Theory of Dolls – Stephen Graham Jones
Weird, weird fiction. The narrator tells us there’s always been something… off… about his younger brother. And then he tells us about how his family handled the miscarriage of a much-anticipated infant, and how that incident scarred them all. And then things just keep getting stranger…

*** After and Back Before – Miranda Siemienowicz
This is one in the subgenre I might describe as ‘Children of the Apocalypse,’ where after a disaster, young survivors, expecting to die, have formed a dysfunctional kind of society. There are some ‘adults’ here as well, but I was still reminded in tone of Star Trek’s ‘Miri,’ for example.
It’s good, but there are a few disorienting shifts, and I don’t think the ‘shocking reveal’ fully worked as a dramatic climax.

*** Doctor Faustus – Mary Robinette Kowal
In this genre, it’s always a bad idea to mess with ancient magical symbols found in an old book you don’t know much about. No, your theatrical production doesn’t have to be *that* accurate. Here, some well-intentioned set design goes horribly wrong, in a brief and bloody tale.

*** Doll Court – Richard Bowes
An older man begins to have dreams where he is called to account for all his alleged misdeeds against dolls, both in the recent past and in his childhood. When these dreams start intruding into real life, there’s a potential for true eeriness – but that’s undercut by a thread of silliness to the whole thing.

***  Visit Lovely Cornwall on the Western Railway Line – Genevieve Valentine
A series of random travelers encounter a girl, alone with her doll, on a train en route from London to Cornwall. The writing here is beautiful, and the imagery memorable. I also like how the piece plays with the readers’ preconceptions and expectations. However, I still wish that it had all been tied up a bit more conclusively.

**** Ambitious Boys Like You – Richard Kadrey
A pure horror tale; would make a great start to a late-night movie. Two lowlifes decide to burglarize the home of an old man whose eerie, doll-festooned, dilapidated house was always rumored to be haunted. The house looks like it was upper-class, once upon a time, and they suspect he’s got something good stashed away. However, the ‘something’ in the house is more than they bargained for.

**  The Permanent Collection – Veronica Schanoes
This story is clearly inspired by a visit to this now-closed business. You know, you could’ve just written a bad yelp review instead of this story. All I can say is, I’m sure it’s true enough that the elderly proprietor may have been cantankerous, and his prices were surely high, but I actually feel like this piece is an uncalled-for slandering of the dead.

*** Homemade Monsters – John Langan
An effective description of childhood bullying – and a strange and ambiguous incident that’s finally triggered when the bully decides to mess with his ‘friend’s’ “Godzilla” figure.

**** Word Doll – Jeffrey Ford
As an archivist with a personal interest in anthropology & history-related topics, this one pushed all the right buttons for me. A man (coincidentally sharing the author’s name) has his curiosity piqued by a small sign for a “Word Doll Museum.” He goes to see what on earth a “Word Doll” might be, and meets a woman who tells him a fascinating (and strange) story of local history.

**** Miss Sibyl-Cassandra – Lucy Sussex
Presented as the description of an item up for auction at Sotheby’s. (I have to give a bonus point for an off-hand mention of a Sotheby’s employee named Althea… no, I never worked there, but I did consider applying…) The item is a fortune-telling doll, and the letters that are included as provenance tell the strange story of the fortunes that she ‘told.’

Many thanks to Tor and NetGalley for the opportunity to read! As always, my opinions are solely my own.


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