Edition 21: Audiobook Review: The Doll Collection (ed. Ellen Datlow)
Reviewed by Mysti Parker
For this edition of SQ Mag, I decided to step out of my usual e-book reading and chose an audiobook instead. Being the weird and creepy story lover that I am, this anthology caught my eye immediately. Anyone who knows me could guess why—it was that creepy doll on the cover and the title that promised a collection featuring my worst phobia. Not to mention that most of these stories were authored by notable names in the literary and entertainment industry like Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen Gallagher. What I listened to, however, wasn’t quite what I expected, but not entirely in a bad way.
In the book’s description and in the introduction, we learn the goal of this story collection was to avoid clichéd stories of the “evil” Chucky-type killer doll. The one caveat presented to the authors was that they were not to present the dolls themselves as evil. Rather, they were to use the dolls as a centerpiece to explore the darker tendencies in human nature. They definitely accomplished this goal. However, that may also be the reason some of the stories fell flat.
Because I hit the play button expecting goosebumps, I resonated best with the stories that were overtly on the horror spectrum. Out of all seventeen stories, my favorites were The Doll-Master by Joyce Carol Oates, Daniel’s Theory About Dolls by Stephen Graham Jones, and Ambitious Boys Like You by Richard Kadrey. The others certainly had their merits and employed fine writing, but most I would classify as literary psychological drama instead of horror. I was impressed with the variety in imaginative plots and character voices (not the narrator’s, but literary voice).
Bernadette Dunne as narrator for the collection did a fair job of it. For the first few stories, her voice took on the exact same tone – breathy and sinister. That became tedious to listen to after a while. Luckily, she seemed to have grown more comfortable with character variation in the later stories and hit all the expected accents and tones needed to bring each story to audio life.
Having recently worked with narrators to produce audio versions of my own work, I know there is only so much a narrator can do with what is written on the page. Where this collection fell short, for me, was the common pitfall of “trying too hard.” In keeping with the “avoid clichés” goal, it seemed as though several of the authors went overboard in making their plots original. So much so that it was quite hard to follow what was happening in some of them. Part of the problem may be that in short story format, they didn’t have the time needed to fully develop such original ideas. No writer wants to be accused of using clichés, but common themes and plots have one advantage in that the reader can immediately grasp the new concepts being introduced so long as they are built upon a familiar framework.
Since the goal of every writer is to produce a page-turner (even in an audiobook), that’s the only thing that kept me from enjoying this anthology as much as I had hoped. Now, if you enjoy literary fiction, particularly highly original, psychologically twisted fiction, this collection is definitely worth reading (or listening to). I’d recommend it to adults only due to graphic depictions and profanity.
The Doll Collection, edited by Ellen Datlow
Audiobook format: Narrated by Bernadette Dunne
Horror/Dark Fantasy short fiction anthology
Publisher: Audible, 2015
Mysti Parker is a wife, mother, and shameless chocoholic. While her first love is romance, including the Tallenmere fantasy romance series and an award-winning historical with EsKape Press, she enjoys writing flash fiction (the weirder the better) and children’s stories. She resides in Buckner, KY with her husband, three children and too many pets.