Editor Ellen Datlow had one condition for contributing writers to The Doll Collection: no evil dolls. Her reasoning? Well, from Chucky to Slappy, we’ve all seen that before, right? And yet, while there is nary a knife-wielding My Buddy to be found in the book, many of the writers couldn’t quite shake that eerie, stare-at-it-too-long-and-you’ll-understand feeling that inspired the evil doll cliché to begin with. The dolls in these stories are connected to, at best, the otherworldly unexplainable, and at worst, the outright horrific.
The concept behind the collection does push the writers to go beyond simply showing us something scary, and focus instead on examining why we feel a visceral impulse to find evil in perfectly harmless hunks of wood, plastic, and porcelain. And that’s where it gets interesting, because in answering that question, these stories explore the reality that a doll is, even in the hands of a child, a tool. Dolls, like hammers, nails—or pens—are powerless until in human hands. Several stories suggest what it might look like if dolls possessed sentient life and the will to use it, but even then, the power is exercised against or through human psychology, which is so susceptible to it.
In Skin and Bone, by Tim Lebbon, the “doll” may or may not be a hallucination brought on by deprivation, and in Veronica Schanoes’ The Permanent Collection, a doll recounts with glee an effort to make sure a particularly cruel doll hospital proprietor gets his. Meanwhile, the slow-burning horror story Gaze, by Gemma Files, explains the implicit power of dolls through reference to Lacan’s titular theory, which posits that gaze is, “an anxious state that comes with the awareness that one can be viewed.” Humans turn objects into “mirrors,” making our “awareness of an object… induce an awareness of also being an object.” It’s a discomfiting thought that does a lot to explain why dolls unnerve us—they are the gaze that never looks away.
The “doll as tool” trope also explains their attraction. For children, they provide a safe way to play at an adult life they cannot yet imagine, a strangeness that persists. In these stories, dolls serve as symbols of magic and religion both dark and light (In Case of Zebras, Ambitious Boys Like You), provide a voice to the voiceless (Heroes and Villains ), and serve as psychological crutches for those crippled by trauma and loneliness (as in Seanan McGuire’s There is No Place for Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold, which pretty much broke my heart). Joyce Carol Oates’ The Doll Master describes the history of a man’s silent obsession with what he calls “found dolls,” which started in childhood, after the death of his angelic cousin. In the immediate aftermath, the doll became a permanent symbol of mourning, a defense against the idea of death, of disappearance and endings. But what his “dolls” become to him, and why, is a boom that Oates waits to reveal until the last awful moment. While terrible, it is also an attempt to explain something that is, perhaps, impossible to grasp.
The collection’s grace note, for me, is its exploration of the connection of dolls to history, nostalgia, and the past, a choice that underlines their otherworldly appeal in a way I can’t quite nail down. In an increasingly intangible age, dolls are a kind of ambassador from that other country, the past. Genevieve Valentine’s Visit Lovely Cornwall on the Western Railway Lane literally incarnates this theme by having a doll repeatedly play anchor to the ghost of a childhood memory that cannot be anything other than what it is. Miss Sibyl-Cassandra, by Lucy Sussex, examines the idea through the lens of historical value, examining the story of a doll whose appearance suggests it is worth much less than its story reveals. The collection closes with Jeffrey Ford’s Word Doll, an eerie history of a doll that acted as symbol of a rite of passage in a small agricultural society (that tool theme again). It makes us realize how terrifyingly few things separate us from those strange “Other People” of the past, and by its end, I found myself both quite disturbed and unexpectedly, quietly moved at the passing of something that was already lost long ago.
In Miss Sibyl-Cassandra, two fictional Sotheby’s employees email back and forth, crowing over their discovery of an 18th century doll that is “not exactly mint [condition],” but which has such an incredible story attached, it overcomes any concerns over its appearance. “Provenance,” says one of them, “is everything.” In the end, The Doll Collection reminds us that whatever pull we feel from them, it is only stories—the ones we are told about them, the ones we imagine for them, and the ones from our own lives that color our view of them, our use of them—that give dolls power. They might be gazing into us, but in the end, we are the real beasts.