Cleverly titled, The Doll Collection is an anthology of short stories preoccupied with the fact that dolls are confusing objects: they often embody innocence, yet they frequently breed anxiety and fear. Inevitably, the dark fascination with dolls will draw horror fans to the collection; they cannot help but be enticed with the cover image of a severed doll’s head lying abandoned in a dark forest and the odd photographs of dolls preceding each individual tale. Famed horror/fantasy editor Ellen Datlow is another draw, but she quickly dissuades readers from the notion that this anthology is merely creepy doll stories, saying, “I did not want to publish a collection of stories revolving around the cliché of the evil doll. Surely, I thought, there was horror and darkness to be found in the world of dolls beyond that well-trodden path” (14). After a brief exploration of the “uncanny,” Datlow claims that dolls are objects of “the realm of the too human but still not human enough” and that “it is this valley that seventeen writers invite you to visit” (15). One might present a caveat here that while venturing into new territory is often admirable and rewarding, it is not always so.
Such is the case in this rather hit-or-miss collection that contains some fantastic stories--fantastic in the sense of excellence, not just in subject matter--yet there are some tales that fall short of their full potential. The overall averageness of the collection might be predicted early on, as the anthology begins with Tim Lebbon’s “Skin and Bone”--rather good for casting an eerie atmosphere but weakened due to some very obvious symbolism. This tale is just enough to entice readers, spurring them onward through the next four stories that are not particularly notable or memorable.
In each tale, as might be expected, artificiality is an inescapable theme. The ability of dolls to skew our senses, especially sight and touch, is partially how dolls so easily disrupt our conception of innocence to evoke fear. Some stories approach this successfully, which the reader approaching the middle of the anthology will be relieved to find. Near the center of the book they will encounter Seanan McGuire’s “There Is No Place for Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold.” This story is long in developing, but it becomes worthy of its unique title by questioning the banality (and horrors) of existence with a creative interpretation of an ancient myth. The reader finds Stephen Graham Jones’s “Daniel’s Theory About Dolls” in almost the exact middle of the book, arguably the collection’s most bizarre tale and one that distinctly and disturbingly blurs the line between reality and fantasy.
Of potential detriment to the lastingness of these works, and the pleasure of the anthology as a whole, are the consistent technological references. Many of the pieces date themselves by referencing things like Google, YouTube, and Etsy, clear setting placement that would be better used in full-length novels. This issue is not unexpected since these are new stories from current writers; however, such clearly established references to a modern setting seem antithetical to an anthology designed as an exploration of creative approaches to the commonplace, regardless of subject matter. Placing readers in more uncertain settings would reinforce the anthology’s mystique by increasing the potential for the unexpected, and could potentially free writers to explore more abstract resolutions to their stories.
The collection’s best stories, by far, are the final three. Veronica Schanoes’s “The Permanent Collection” is an intriguing tale told from the doll’s perspective, one that presents a chilling acceptance of eternity’s permanence. John Langan’s “Homemade Monsters” is a marvelous coming-of-age exploration of how youth slips away with lost innocence. The final tale, Jeffrey Ford’s “Word Doll,” is a remarkable story-turned-treatise on history and legends, and the way these concepts permeate our culture and influence our lives. In their own way, each of these three final tales masters the material, a redemptive conclusion to the anthology that leaves readers pondering about the distinction between human beings and our creations--something many of the other stories fail to do.
Where does that leave The Doll Collection as a whole? The book is a welcome addition to any library or book collection, but not an essential one. Certainly it is nice to have an anthology of original stories since many such collections rely on republished material, but the balance between great stories and lackluster tales is lopsided toward the latter. This fact moves the collection toward a middle ground and relegates the book to ordinary. Perhaps it is the influence of the subject matter, the paradoxical and unknowable nature of dolls that defies categorical emotion, affecting the ability of these many talented writers and causing some to fail where others succeed. Or perhaps it is simply the flawed human belief in artificiality as reflected in both dolls and writing: the belief that another medium--be it plastic or words--can fully express our perceptions when nothing truly can.