The Doll Collection, edited by Ellen Datlow

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Editor’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 10, 2015

Summary: The Doll Collection is exactly what it sounds like: a treasured toy box of all-original dark stories about dolls of all types, including everything from puppets and poppets to mannequins and baby dolls. 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 such as Joyce Carol Oates, Seanan McGuire, Carrie Vaughn, Pat Cadigan, Tim Lebbon, Richard Kadrey, Genevieve Valentine, and Jeffrey Ford. The collection is illustrated with photographs of dolls taken by Datlow and other devoted doll collectors from the science fiction and fantasy field. The result is a star-studded collection exploring one of the most primal fears of readers of dark fiction everywhere, and one that every reader will want to add to their own collection.

Thoughts: Dolls. You either like them or they creep you out on some level. Miniature humans in plastic or porcelain, they have a place in just about everyone’s lives. At some point in your life, you probably owned a doll, whether it was some collectible item you put on a shelf and admired from afar, or a hand-sewn ragdoll that was loved to death over the years. They’ve touched us, as individuals and as a culture. And The Doll Collection takes us on a spine-tingling ride through numerous short stories all about them, but with one proviso: no stories about “evil dolls.” It’s a fallback. The doll possessed by a malicious ghost demon or that steals the soul of is owner or some such cliché. There’s none of that here. All stories involve dolls in some way or another, and all are creepy, but there’s no fallback on old and tired themes, and that gives this collection a wonderfully fresh and original feeling.

As always, some stories were stronger than others, but impressively, all the stories here were quite strong, and even when I didn’t expect to enjoy them so much due to prior experience with some authors’ works, I ended up surprised and impressed by how much I really did like what I read. Just goes to show that sometimes first impressions can be dead wrong, and I love being confronted with that when it yields new good fiction to read! But there were some amazing stories here, some true gems of the genre!

Seanan McGuire’s There is No Place for Sorrow in the Kingdom of the Cold is probably the best example of this, and a stand-out offering in this anthology. Taking beautiful and expensive ball-jointed dolls and turning them into something powerful and ancient and disturbing was a stroke of genius, especially the way she did it, and I would pick up this book for that story alone! Trigger warning: there’s physical abuse from a too-smug [expletive] in this story, so it may well turn your stomach in some places, but the revenge ending was quite satisfying. Beautiful, dark, and haunting.

But Joyce Carol Oates’s The Doll Master? Miranda Siemienowicz‘s After and Back Before? Richard Bowes’s Doll Court? Lucy Sussex’s Miss Sibyl-Cassandra? All amazing stories, all a treat to read! Mary Robinette Kowal’s Doctor Faustus is the very reason that I’ve thought I couldn’t swear allegiance to any gods or demons while acting; you never know what will happen as a result. Pat Cadigan’s In Case of Zebras shows why sometimes the young sees things that adults brush off, and why they should be paying attention.

I think it’s the sheer variety of stories here that really makes the collection shine. When you give people a limitation in what they can write, it forces a stretch of the imagination, forces one to think outside the box, and you can get some wonderful creative and varied stories as a result. That’s the joy of The Doll Collection. Every story may involve dolls, to a greater or smaller degree, but that’s the only thing that connects them besides a general feel of the supernatural or macabre. It’s prefect for a quick dip into many authors’s writing styles, what they can do with words and a connecting theme, and I loved it.

If you buy any one anthology this month, it ought to be this one. There’s very little to be disappointed by and so many things to impress you, whether you’re a fan of dark fiction, the supernatural, or just damn good stories. Datlow worked wonders with this idea and the selection of submitted stories, and the authors pulled out all the stops to make this a fantastic collection. Highly recommended for those nights when the rain is pouring, the wind is howling, and you want a little more tingle in your spine.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Black Swan, White Raven, edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

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Datlow’s website | Windling’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 30, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Once again, World Fantasy Award–winning editors Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling prove that fairy tales don’t have to be for little children and that happily ever after doesn’t necessarily mean forever. Black Swan, White Raven is Datlow and Windling’s fourth collection of once-familiar and much-beloved bedtime stories reimagined by some of the finest fantasists currently plying their literary trade—acclaimed writers like Jane Yolen, John Crowley, Michael Cadnum, and Joyce Carol Oates, who give new lives and new meanings to the plights of Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Rapunzel, and more.

Hansel and Gretel make several appearances here, not the least being at their trial for the murder of a supposedly helpless old woman. The shocking real reason for Snow White’s desperate flight from her home is revealed in “The True Story,” and the steadfast tin soldier, made flesh and blood, pays a terrible price for his love and devotion.

The twenty-one stories and poems in this collection run the gamut from triumphant to troubling to utterly outrageous, like Don Webb’s brilliant merging of numerous tales into one wild, hallucinogenic trip in his “Three Dwarves and 2000 Maniacs.” All in all, the reimagined fairy tales and fables in Datlow and Windling’s literary offering mine the fantastical yarns we loved as children for new and darker gold.

Thoughts: Fairy tales are interesting, both in their original form and the more sanitized happy versions we tend to grow up with today, and the differences between them. They resonate with so many people, no matter which form they’re in. From cautionary tales to hopeful visions of one’s future, there’s a place for fairy tales in our lives.

Which is why this collection is such a great one. It’s the sort of thing that can appeal to so many, not just fans of genre fiction. Though that is their primary appeal, since the overwhelming majority of the stories feature a sci-fi or fantasy bent, some read more like historical fiction or contemporary fiction, so there’s a range in here that’s fitting with the range of authors.

As with just about any anthology I read, though, some stories and some presentations hit harder with me than others. Particular favourites in this collection were Michael Blumlein’s Snow in Dirt (a sci-fi story involving a man who finds a strange comatose woman buried in his yard, then proceeds to revive and live with her), Esther M Friesner’s No Bigger Than My Thumb (a very twisted story of revenge), Gary Kilworth’s The Trial of Hansel and Gretel (exactly what it sounds like, portrayed as a medieval courtroom drama), Anne Bishop’s Rapunzel (a take on the classic story in which adversity builds character and everybody is more deeply flawed than you expect), Midori Snyder’s The Reverend’s Wife (a hilarious tale of ignorance and infidelity)… Okay, I’m starting to realise that there are more favourites in this collection that I first thought. Maybe it would be easier to say that there were really only 2 stories that I didn’t enjoy as much as the others rather than list all the ones I did like. And the ones that I didn’t find so appealing weren’t indicative of the quality of the story or the writing so much as they were just stories that didn’t really click with me. This happens a lot when I read anthologies with a mix of authors; inevitably there’s something that doesn’t appeal as much as the rest. Can’t win ’em all.

I understand that this isn’t the first collection in the series, and that there are plenty of other dark retellings of fairy tales edited by Datlow and Windling that I can look for now, and believe me, if this collection is indicative of the others, I’m going to have a damn good time reading through them. If you’re looking for a trip into a disturbing twist on the stories you grew up with (assuming you didn’t grow up with the Grimm versions, that is; they’re disturbing enough on their own), then I highly recommend Black Swan, White Raven. You’ve got a star collection of authors contributing here, and it really shows in the fantastic diversity of content and style. This is one to stay on my bookshelves for years to come!

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)

The Best Horror of the Year, volume 4, edited by Ellen Datlow

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Publication date – May 1, 2012

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Fear is the oldest human emotion. The most primal. We like to think we’re civilized. We tell ourselves we’re not afraid. And every year, we skim our fingers across nightmares, desperately pitting our courage against shivering dread.

A paraplegic millionaire hires a priest to exorcise his pain; a failing marriage is put to the ultimate test; hunters become the hunted as a small group of men ventures deep into a forest; a psychic struggles for her life on national television; a soldier strikes a gristly bargain with his sister’s killer; ravens answer a child’s wish for magic; two mercenaries accept a strangely simplistic assignment; a desperate woman in an occupied land makes a terrible choice…

What scares you? What frightens you? Horror wears new faces in these carefully selected stories. The details may change. But the fear remains.

Night Shade Books is proud to present The Best Horror of the Year, Volume Four, a new collection of horror brought to you by Ellen Datlow, winner of multiple Hugo, Bram Stoker, and World Fantasy awards.

Thoughts: I’ll be honest. I nearly gave up on this book. I nearly stopped reading it and gave it up as a lost cause. Why? Because the introduction takes up over 10% of the book, and is mostly a rundown of the best horror novels published during the past year. I actually had to look at outside descriptions of this book to remind myself that yes, there are actual stories in here, and that it’s not just a book about other books. While having that listing certainly is nice, having it right at the beginning was a bit of a pain, especially when reading it on the Kindle, so it’s not like I could just flip a few pages and quickly discover that I can get to the stories that make up the bulk of the book.

But once I found that out, and spent five minutes pressing the “forward” button on my Kindle over and over, I can say with certainty that I was glad I did.

There’s some serious talent contained within this compilation, stories written by some big names and some who were — to me, at least — completely unheard of. Stephen King gets the honour of getting the ball rolling, and the only downside to that is that it sets a precedent that some of the other stories have a hard time living up to.

And if King sets a high standard to live up to in the first story, the final story, written by Peter Straub, was a big bust. Most everything in between was great, and very entertaining to read, but Straub’s story was something that I couldn’t get into no matter how hard I tried. The timeline jumped about all over the place, making it hard to follow and appreciate, and aside from a couple of legitimately creepy moments (and they were just moments, mind you), I couldn’t even tell half the time where the story was going, or what the point to it was. Perhaps it’s just that Straub isn’t to my taste. But I do feel compelled to say that as much as the collection ended on a low note, it was far better than beginning on such a low note. Had this story been the first one, I might not have found much of a reason to keep reading.

But looking at the stories individually, and trying not to compare them to what came before or after, ultimately this collection lives up to its name. It was a great collection of horror stories, some that make you shiver, others that make you feel a bit queasy, and others still that make you struggle to wrap your mind around what’s going on. A very good set that makes me want to keep my eyes open for next year’s compilation! In spite of a couple of low notes, this collection is definitely worth checking out, especially for horror fans and for those who want to have their spines tingled and their minds expanded.

(Book provided for review by the publisher via NetGalley.)