With only six stories comprising the entire book, The Doll-Master and Other Tales of Terror is a satisfying weekend read. Although I prefer I Am No One You Know to this shorter collection, I also enjoyed it more than I did The Corn Maiden and Other Nightmares as I found the latter to peak at the opening (title) story. In Doll-Master, all of the stories are strong, engaging, and expertly crafted.
“Equatorial,” the longest of the stories, follows a wife on a Galapagos cruise with her husband. As she recounts her own beginnings as her spouse’s mistress destined to replace his former wife, she realizes that she herself has become the aging (and replaceable) partner, and when she discovers a suspicious intruder in their home one evening, her paranoia at how her husband might dispose of her next begins to grow. Although the collection was released in 2016, the story “Soldier” could only be more relevant to 2021 if it included a pandemic. There is no Co-Vid here, but there is a militant stealth racist awaiting trial for the shooting death of a young Black man. Oates digs deeply into the brain of a malignant narcissist and scrambles it for the reader’s pleasure.
One of my two favorites is the title story, “The Doll-Master.” In it, the narrator explains his pastime for collecting discarded, rare dolls: first from around town as a boy, and then, after he grows older and can drive, from the surrounding area. Slowly, it is apparent that the “dolls” the narrator has been describing are not the plastic, lifeless objects he made us believe. My second favorite, and by far the stand-out of the book, is “Big Momma.” Poor Violet. Her single mother has moved them to a new town, and Violet is often left to fend for herself when she comes home from middle school: her mother must routinely “work late,” though it is often labor suspiciously peppered with cigarettes and liquor. When Violet befriends a strange outcast named Rita Mae, it seems that Violet has finally found a family who will feed and care for her. “Mr. Clovis would wink, adding, ‘And Vi’let. Did I get around to adopting you yet, sweetheart?’” Pay no attention to the rash of disappearing children and pets in the town, or to the big secret the Clovis family has hidden in the back room of their isolated house on the edge of town…
I learned only after finishing this collection that it was a previous winner of the Bram Stoker Award, but I am certainly unsurprised. For anyone who dismisses first-person narration in dark fiction or doubts the power of quiet horror lacking supernatural elements, it is a must read.