The Horror Honeys: Haunted Bookclub ~ 'Among the Dolls'

Haunted Bookclub ~ 'Among the Dolls'

Hardcover Honey Jocelyn's Book of the Week

Among the Dolls by William Sleator

This week brings a shorty review as your Hardcover Honey recently revisited her childhood in a most disturbing fashion with Among the Dolls.

I was waiting to meet some friends for lunch recently and ducked into Prospero’s Books, a locally-owned bookstore here in Kansas City that has an awesome vibe and an interesting small section of used kid’s books – when I have time, I like to stop by and browse for stuff for Sir Bookworm, my 9 year old. A slim paperback caught my eye – Among the Dolls – I pulled it from the shelf and was instantly interested, especially when I realized the author was William Sleator, who wrote my middle school favorite and Book of the Week House of Stairs. As I paged through this book, I realized I had read it before, many years ago when I was just a tiny Hardcover Honey – would it hold up as well as House of Stairs did for me? It was definitely worth finding out.  One of the true pleasures of adulthood is re-discovering childhood favorites, after all – wouldn’t you agree?

I took it home and read it in, like, 53 minutes.  Those were 53 of the best minutes of my day as I lost myself again in its simple story. Ten year old Vicky longs for a new bicycle for her birthday – but her kind and well-meaning parents instead present her with a musty, old-fashioned dollhouse with faded furniture and dolls. Vicky is bitterly disappointed. But she finds herself drawn to it the next day and begins to play with it. The dollhouse came with four dolls – a mother, a father, another woman (who Vicky deems the aunt) and a little girl. Vicky decides that in order to make the dollhouse her own, she needs to introduce a new element to it – so she buys a small plastic toddler and introduces him into her doll family. At first things are calm and pleasant in the dollhouse – Vicky’s little family cooks, cleans, eats, etc.  

But one night at dinner they begin to squabble and it continues – the brother refuses to eat and is sent to his room, the sister steals toys from the brother, the mother criticizes the father, etc – and as Vicky’s playing brings ever more problems in the dollhouse family, her own life begins to change as well. She is friendless at school and her home life becomes a place of trouble too – her mother falls down the stairs and breaks her hand, her father hides out in his study to avoid his wife’s endless hectoring, and Vicky’s mom becomes ever more critical of Vicky, once even slapping Vicky across the face.

As things escalate at home, so too do the problems inside the dollhouse worsen – and one sunny afternoon when Vicky is playing with the dollhouse and closes her eyes for a second, she re-opens them to find herself inside the dollhouse. What? Yes, I know – super creepy. In fact, this book reminded me a great deal of another favorite “Coraline” which I read as an adult and loved.  It’s worth pointing out that “Among the Dolls” precedes “Coraline” by more than 15 years. They would make a terrific double-feature.

Once inside the dollhouse, Vicky meets the family she has been tormenting and learns the names they have given themselves – the father, cowed and cringing, is named Quimbee. The mother, cruel and calculating, remains nameless throughout (do you think William Sleator may have had some parent issues?  I sure do). The aunt, Diadama, is coldly furious with Vicky at the nights she has been left sitting at the dining room table all night instead of being put to bed like the others. The daughter, Ganglia, is ever giggling and shrieking as she shows Vicky around her new prison, and the toddler, Dandaroo, doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the family, but seems unable to help Vicky.

Vicky apologizes and bargains to no avail and here the book takes on a dreamlike quality as she learns that the doll family has begun to enjoy the mean streak she introduced into their lives. What Vicky can’t figure out is how she got into the dollhouse in the first place – that is, until she comes across a mysterious door off of a little landing that she has never noticed in her playing. When she asks where it leads, she is given the bum rush downstairs, which of course only increases her curiosity. When Dandaroo sneaks downstairs in the night to tell her what’s behind the door, she is astonished to learn that it’s an attic holding an even tinier dollhouse – a dollhouse of Vicky, her mother and father. And as Vicky has been playing with the dolls, the dolls have been playing with her – her mother’s strange anger, her father’s withdrawal – all part of that play.

I won’t spoil the ending for you, but that is where this book really gave me a shudder – we’ve all had those days, haven’t we? Where we snap at our loved ones or think idly about pulling the cat’s tail a bit too hard to get them off the couch?  Where we find ourselves screaming in traffic, or wishing harm upon the old lady in front of us at the grocery store taking five minutes to write a check?  What if none of that is really you at all?

Hardcover Honey verdict – 4 out of 5 creaky dollhouses for this one!