Book Club Nominees

6 Novels Featuring Evil Dolls

by @dudedude, curator of HOWLS book club nominees for July’s “Just Punt the Little Bastards: Evil Dolls and Creepy Toys” category

When we’re born, our parents place us, alone and defenseless, into a crib. Next to us they place a doll. As we cry and thrash our soft, marshmallow limbs, the doll lays unmoving, its half-smile never fading, glassy eyes staring lazily and unwavering into the sky. As we get older, we start to play with the doll. We talk to it, and, in our mind at least, it talks back. When our coos and gibberish have yet to turn to words, the doll is the only being in the world that understands us. We ask it to be a vessel for our joys and fears, and it complies–always smiling, always staring. 

Now imagine if that doll didn’t like us. What if when we looked away, its eyes narrowed and its smile faded. Imagine how easy it would be for the doll to make us hurt. 

I’ve chosen six different books based around creepy dolls and toys. Some of the stories take a more cerebral approach, while some throw every Anabelle, Chucky and Howdy Doody at the wall and see what sticks. There’s a little something here for everyone, but remember to choose wisely, because big scares come in small packages.

Cover of Mama by Ruby Jean Jensen. cover shows a doll with a glowing red eye.

MaMa by Ruby Jean Jensen

Once upon a time there lived a sweet little girl. The only place she was happy was in the attic with her dolly. If she could have seen her little doll’s legs kick, she would have been frightened. If she could have felt her little doll’s arms squeeze, she would have been shocked. But if she could have read her little doll’s thoughts she would have run from the attic forever–for her sweet little dolly only had killing her on her mind…

Ruby Jean Jensen is a forgotten giant in the field of tiny terrors. In her 1980’s heyday, she cranked out creepy doll book after creepy doll book, with MaMa being perhaps her finest work. Are her books a touch silly? Yes, but at the same time there’s an undeniable dread that oozes from the text. Anyone that has ever heard a creak from their attic and thought it sounded just a little too much like footsteps will be creeped out by this one. 

Bookshop* | Goodreads | Amazon 

Cover of Pin by Andrew Neiderman. Cover shows a drawing of a girl sitting n the lap of a man made only of veins and arteries. The only realistic portion of the image is the girl's face, which is a photograph superimposed on the drawing. The man is stroking her face with his hand.

Pin by Andrew Neiderman

Mother was driven by a psychotic compulsion to clean – constantly – everything in sight. Father was consumed by his medical practice and an analytical approach to life.

But he understood the sensual hunger growing inside his children’s young bodies. He knew they could help each other answer “The Need”.

Father had Science. Father had Reason. And he had Pin.

Deranged siblings in an incestuous throuple with a medical dummy–what more could you ask for? 

Bookshop* | Goodreads | Amazon

Cover of The Doll Collection, edited by Ellen Datlow. Cover shows a disembodied doll head on the ground outdoors among leaves. The doll head is old and dirty.

The Doll Collection edited by Ellen Datlow

The Doll Collection is exactly what it sounds like: a treasured toy box of all-original dark stories about dolls of all types. Featuring everything from life-sized clockwork dolls to all-too-human Betsy Wetsy-type baby dolls, these stories play into the true creepiness of the doll trope, but avoid the clichés that often show up in stories of this type.

Master anthologist Ellen Datlow has assembled a list of beautiful and terrifying stories from bestselling and critically acclaimed authors. The result is a star-studded collection exploring one of the most primal fears of readers of dark fiction everywhere.

This collection is comprised entirely of original stories by an absolute dream team of horror writers, and curated and compiled by the brilliant Ellen Datlow. That alone is enough for a strong recommendation. The stories here do a great job of creeping up on you slowly, weaseling their way into your thoughts long after you’ve finished them. 

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Cover of Night of the Living Dummy by R.L. Stine. Cover shows a ventriloquist's dummy with an evil smile and evil looking nearly all-white eyes.

Night of the Living Dummy by R.L. Stine

When twins Lindy and Kris find a ventriloquist’s dummy in a Dumpster, Lindy decides to “rescue” it, and she names it Slappy. But Kris is green with envy. It’s not fair. Why does Lindy get to have all the fun and all the attention? Kris decides to get a dummy of her own. She’ll show Lindy. Then weird things begin to happen. Nasty things. Evil things. It can’t be the dummy causing all the trouble, Can it?

I know. It’s been a while since you cracked open the Dunkaroo-sticky pages of an R.L. Stine book. You were a different person then–young and naive. You had light up tennis shoes. Your swishy windbreaker pants always had a matching, swishy windbreaker jacket. The cherubic psychedelia of Lisa Frank covered your folders, and there was always at least one Polly Pocket in your jeans, even if you would’ve sworn you didn’t put it there. Point being, the things that scared that version of you couldn’t possibly scare you now, right? Slappy’s just a goofy character from a little kid’s chapter book. It doesn’t matter that thinking of him kept you up at night. It doesn’t matter that you couldn’t dangle your feet over the edge of your bed because you could feel Slappy hiding there, waiting to grab your ankles. It doesn’t matter that in your head you knew, knew, what Slappy’s laugh sounded like. 

It doesn’t matter. 

Does it?

To that, I will just say this:

Reader Beware–You’re in for a Scare!

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Cover of House of Small Shadows by Adam Nevill. Cover shows half of a doll's face, hidden partially in shadow. The doll appears to be outside a window looking in; there are raindrops on the glass in front of her face. It is night and it is dark, and the doll's face is partially hidden in shadow.

The House of Small Shadows by Adam Nevill

Catherine’s last job ended badly. Corporate bullying at a top TV network saw her fired and forced to leave London, but she was determined to get her life back. A new job and a few therapists later, things look much brighter. Especially when a challenging new project presents itself — to catalogue the late M. H. Mason’s wildly eccentric cache of antique dolls and puppets. Rarest of all, she’ll get to examine his elaborate displays of posed, costumed and preserved animals, depicting bloody scenes from the Great War. Catherine can’t believe her luck when Mason’s elderly niece invites her to stay at Red House itself, where she maintains the collection until his niece exposes her to the dark message behind her uncle’s “Art.” Catherine tries to concentrate on the job, but Mason’s damaged visions begin to raise dark shadows from her own past. Shadows she’d hoped therapy had finally erased. Soon the barriers between reality, sanity and memory start to merge and some truths seem too terrible to be real.

Poor Catherine. She didn’t deserve to lose her job, and certainly didn’t deserve to get stuck sorting through a dead man’s spooky toy collection just to pay the bills. That just goes to show that the only thing scarier than creepy Victorian dolls… is capitalism. 

In all seriousness, Adam Nevill has a particular style that is perfectly suited to this kind of story. He knows how to build unease and make the reader question their reality, drawing them deeper into his world until it’s too late.

Bookshop* | Goodreads | Amazon

Cover of Toy Cemetery by William W Johnstone. Cover shows a doll with a cracked face, dressed as a jester. The doll is resting against a headstone in a cemetery. The doll has the hands of a skeleton and dirt is spilling from its cracked face.

Toy Cemetery by William W. Johnstone

There they were, just as he remembered. Rooms and rooms of them. Dolls. Toy soldiers. Clowns. Twenty years had passed since Jay Clute set foot in Victory, Missouri. Twenty years of trying to forget that night–that hellish night of unimaginable horror. Now, his Aunt Cary was dead, and it’s all been left to him–the house, the furniture, every last piece of her collection. And nothing had changed. Not the painted-on dolly smiles or the garish clown colors–or the tiny hands that were dripping with bright red blood.

Toy Cemetery is discussed at length in Grady Hendrix’s fantastic book, Paperbacks from Hell. Out of all the absolutely insane books discussed there, Toy Cemetery is definitely near the top. It’s difficult to explain all the reasons why, as the book itself is so bizarre that it simply must be read to be believed. However, if you try to imagine the trashiest ‘Puppet Master’ fan fiction co-written by Tommy Wiseau and the My Pillow guy, you’re probably not far off. 

In his full-length review of the book, Hendrix says the following:

“…[Jay] almost run over a tiny, living doll crossing the street (that flips him off with both fingers), and children have called his phone to giggle eerily and whisper, ‘You should have stayed away, Clute. Now it’s too late.’ His reaction to these grim omens?

‘He began to wonder what they were going to have for dinner.’

Welcome to the Olympics of horror cliches, where splitting up is the only way to do anything, conversations inevitably end the second shocking revelations are teased, and a tiny living doll screaming and stabbing you in the foot is dismissed as ‘Only the wind.'”

I do think it’s important to note that Toy Cemetery is full of triggers, including rape, pedophilia, animal abuse and incest. It’s also incredibly misogynistic in it’s worldview, with evil women frequently trying to corrupt or kill our square-jawed, barrel-chested protagonist. The only saving grace here is that Johnstone’s writing is so amateurish, and his plotting so nonsensical, that whatever ideology he wanted to espouse is rendered impotent self-parody by his own hand. However, this is definitely not a book for everyone.

Bookshop* | Goodreads | Amazon

And The Winner Is…

Out of these six books, HOWLers voted to read Pin by Andrew Neiderman. Join HOWL Society on June 28 to begin discussion!

Author photo of Ethan Yoder
Ethan Yoder

Ethan Yoder aspires to be an aspiring horror writer. He has a long and storied history of horror list curation, and has spent his entire adult life curating an ever-lengthening TBR pile that continues to grow, blob-like, throughout every crevice of his home. Ethan currently spends his free time hanging out with his cat and wondering why the porcelain doll with the cracked face calls to him in his dreams. The lullabies it sings are sweet and sharp. Shards of stained glass drowning in pools of honey…

… Ethan has also been getting into french press coffee recently. He finds it less acidic than drip coffee, which helps with his acid reflux.

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