I love a Datlow-edited anthology. She has an incredible eye for talent, and always does a nice job of mixing solid stories by veteran writers with exciting pieces by up-and-comers. Her concept of horror is a broad one, including both dark crime fiction and horror-tinged fantasy. And she comes up with intriguing themes for her anthologies, satisfying both the dictates of the marketplace (Fearful Symmetries, the only non-themed anthology Datlow has edited recently, needed a Kickstarter campaign to bring to fruition) and the savvy horror reader.
The Doll Collection is one of Datlow’s relatively recent anthologies, and it does not disappoint. What’s particularly interesting with this anthology is how much mileage the contributors get out of what appears, at first glance, to be a limited concept: horror stories involving dolls. Datlow narrows the concept further by excluding any “evil doll” tales, which are what I immediately think of when one mentions “doll” and “horror” in the same breath. Instead, the stories in this collection focus on creepy doll collectors and odd doll makers, dolls as talismans and protectors, dolls in the role of proxy or surrogate. There are all kinds of stories included here. More instructive for this writer, there are also all types of stories–examples of familiar themes or approaches that I have seen used by writers again and again. An examination of a few of the story types I encountered in The Doll Collection follow:
The “easy skeleton” story–”Skin and Bone” by Tim Lebbon
Some stories have relatively uncomplicated plots. I refer to them as “easy skeleton” stories, because you can clearly see the “bones” of the plot. That doesn’t mean the story is a bad one–many simple stories can be quite effective. Lebbon’s tale of an Antarctic explorer and the odd doll he finds in the snow is both easy to graph (main character finds life-size doll, talks to friend in tent, checks on doll again, etc) and incredibly creepy. It’s heartening when you read an effective story that you feel wouldn’t have been impossible to write, and Lebbon’s story is a good example.
The EC comics homage–”Gaze” by Gemma Files
I’ve enjoyed just about every story of Files I have read, and “Gaze” is no exception. Files’ tale of supernatural revenge from beyond the grave is definitely more refined than the typical EC tale, but has a similar flavor. Files employs a historical curiosity (eye miniatures) as a significant plot device and uses a slightly patchwork narrative, but the main thrust of the story is still “woman unjustly accused and hanged, returns from the dead.” EC-type stories aren’t usually my favorites, but Files makes every type of story her own, and adds enough intriguing story furniture to make her story satisfy.
The dark fantasy story–”There Is No Place for Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold” by Seanan McGuire
Datlow often has stories in her anthologies that skew towards the fantasy end of the horror spectrum. McGuire’s story is one of those. She manages to meld the myth of Pandora and the story of Pinnochio (and his creator, Carlos Collodi) into a rich backdrop for her contemporary tale. I’ve read many stories recently that successfully use myth or fairy tale elements to add another level to their narrative; this is something I would like to do more frequently (and maybe become more well-versed in mythology in the process).
The apocalyptic story–”After and Back Before” by Miranda Siemienowicz
Apocalyptic horror (or science fiction, for that matter) has always been one of my favorite subgenres. Unfortunately, the post-apocalypse tale has become a bit overused lately. I blame zombies, since zombie tales are both uber-popular and essentially a variation of apocalypse. Siemienowicz’s story is not about zombies, even if it does have people resorting to cannibalism. Instead, it’s the familiar “societal collapse following a nuclear war” story that’s been a staple of science fiction magazines for seventy years. I liked it fine, as Siemienowicz’s style lifts her tale beyond the well-traveled plot machinations.
The metafictional story–”Word Doll” by John Ford
John Ford has written a whole series of stories where he is a character in the story. Several of those are included in his collection Crackpot Palace, which I read last year. “Word Doll” is another of these metafictional pieces.
I admit I am a sucker for novelty and experimentation, so I really enjoy metafiction. What’s great with these stories of Ford’s is the metafictional elements are only one layer; Ford grafts a compelling (and in this case, creepy) story to his wanderings around his neighborhood and struggles to write. Ford’s story of a weird anthropological ritual that backfires on a farming community doesn’t need Ford’s self-referential musings to be successful, but they add an element of immediacy and authenticity to the story, making it one of my favorites in the anthology.
The WTF story–”Visit Lovely Cornwall on the Western Railway Line” by Genevieve Valentine
Another story I greatly enjoyed was Valentine’s. It was an excellent example of what I call a “WTF” story, where the story is told or concludes somewhat enigmatically, leaving the reader to deduce some of the story’s connections. The key words here are “some” and “somewhat,” as too much ambiguity or subtlety can make a story a confusing mess. Valentine’s story was called “baffling” by one reviewer (who actually really liked it) and it is, but in a good way. Valentine provides enough details to give readers a guide for coloring in the empty spaces in her story, which revolves around a number of characters’ individual encounters with a strange girl and her doll on a train. It reminded me a bit of Dennis Etchison’s work, one of my favorite “WTF” writers.
My biggest problem with “WTF” stories is my desire to write them. I tend to still write unsatisfying “WTF” stories, as I’ve not yet found that fine line between “ambiguously odd” and “confusing and stupid.” That doesn’t stop me from trying, though.
There are other noteworthy stories in The Doll Collection (I especially liked the John Langan story and the grisly tale by Stephen Graham Jones), and few duds. Anthologies like this one are among my favorite things to read, because I get a high degree of enjoyment out of them, and also learn so much as a writer. Kudos to Ellen Datlow for not only being a fine anthologist, but for also providing this writer with excellent craft tutorials, year after year.