"The Doll Collection" Book Review
Written by Steve Pattee
Published by Tor Books
Edited by Ellen Datlow
2015, 352 pages, Fiction
Published on March 10th, 2015
I saw the news announcement sometime last year for the anthology The Doll Collection, edited by the fantastic Ellen Datlow no less, and I got a bit excited. I had to read this. Dolls are creepy little things that I'm convinced come alive at night and watch you as you sleep, and a book containing stories about these soul stealers edited by Datlow?!? Sign. Me. Up.
When I finally had the book in my hands, I eagerly opened it up, ready for some tales of doll terror. I paused long enough only to read Datlow's introduction. If you aren't the type of person who reads an introduction and/or foreword, you really should fix that. Many times you'll get a glimpse of the reasoning behind the editor's decisions in regards to the topic at hand, how the book came to be, or, in the case here, something that throws a wrench into your entire conception about what you are about to jump into. Datlow made one condition when she approached the authors in this book, "…no evil doll stories." Wait, what? An anthology about dolls, none of which can be evil? I'll admit I was both disappointed and intrigued when I read that. So, does it work? Well, for the most part, yeah.
There are 17 stories found in The Doll Collection that are all new and not reprints (which itself is always a pleasure to see). I'm not going to go through each one, but I will share with you some of the standouts of the book, starting with my favorite: John Langan's "Homemade Monsters". I don't know how old Langan is, but if he's not my age (40ish), I'd be shocked. "Homemade Monsters" is the tale of a young boy who loves action figures (and the ones he has brought a flood of memories back to me), and the one he wants the most but doesn't have is Godzilla. So he makes one himself and then creates his town out of construction paper, toothpicks, cotton balls, and more, only to have the monster destroy it. Immediately you love this kid. So when his jerkface friend Eddie destroys the boy's Godzilla, he vows revenge and you root for him to have it in spades because his pain is so tangible. But how that revenge happens is parts unexpected, creepy, and funny. Langan tells the story through the eyes of the boy as an adult à la Stand by Me, and it really works here. The final reveal does a great job wrapping up the story in a nice little bow.
Pat Cadigan's "In the Case of Zebras" is another favorite. The tale centers on a young girl, Olivia, forced to do community service at a hospital after being busted with some pot ("…not very good pot at that…"). When a car accident patient arrives and Olivia finds a little doll in his pocket, she becomes obsessed in finding out both what the doll represents and what happened to it after it disappears. This is one of those unique situations where the story takes back seat to the author's prose. It's very reminiscent of Stephen King's work because Cadigan does such a great job giving Olivia a voice. You would be satisfied just reading about her adventures, no matter what they involved, and it's just a bonus that this one happens to be about a mysterious patient and his creepy pocket doll. The best part is Cadigan skillfully dances that line of making a believable, intelligent teenager without crossing it to the land of "no teenager is that smart".
Things get rather dark in Stephen Graham Jones' "Daniel's Theory About Dolls", a story whose narrator tells the disturbing tale of his sociopathic brother, Daniel. Jones crafts an effectively unsettling piece, starting with some strange shit Daniel does as a child all the way up to a rather brutal and disturbing ending that you could both see and not see coming. What elevates it from your standard "this guy is evil" story is Jones' ability to have a sense of dread permeating through it from beginning to end. You just can't go wrong with lines like, "When I turned the doll right side up, its eyes rolled open to greet me, its lashes caked with blood," throughout.
The Doll Collection's opening story, Tim Lebbon's "Skin and Bone", about a pair of friends trekking through the Antarctic for God knows why, is a good example of how a great author can make a landscape terrifying. The characters, and the horror that one of them discovers, take second seat to the cold, desolate loneliness of the Antarctic. Lebbon's prose is so good, I know I will be going back to this one in the summer months when it's hot and humid, just to cool down some.
There are 13 other stories found in The Doll Collection, and I could easily spend time on each one, like Stephen Gallagher's disturbing dummy tale, "Heroes and Villains"; Richard Kadrey's piece of a robbery gone very wrong in "Ambitious Boys Like You"; or maybe the story of a Shirley Temple doll and her experiences in the last doll hospital in Veronica Schanoes' "The Permanent Collection", there's just so much to enjoy. The variety found in these pages runs the gamut from tragic to horrific to even comedic, and they all bring something dark to the table. While I had my reservations on how the book would be after reading Datlow's requirement of the authors, I should have known better considering her skill and my enjoyment of her prior anthologies. I hate to say something so clichéd, but there really is something for every horror fan to be found here, and you'd do well to pick up a copy.