Summary: Creepy, luxuriously described dark fantasy about lonely, intelligent Clare and her seduction by titular doll maker. Convincing, sympathetic main character, smooth prose, kinky subtext and great insight into the weird, ambivalent relationships people have with their dolls — all these things make The Doll Maker a neglected gem.
Most of us, with some atavistic part of our hearts, secretly suspect that our toys are alive. Of all playthings, we feel most ambivalent about dolls. The humanoid shapes of dolls make them seem more like Homo sapiens than, say, stuffed animals or toy cars. We easily envision dolls as alive. The perfection of their small scale and the stillness of their beauty seduce us with admiration and longing. They will never change, never wear, never die, never degrade. They are unsubjected to time and therefore immortal and desirable.
But there are melancholy currents in our yearning. Though pure in their design and unaging in their flawlessness, dolls are always under the control of their owners, which means that they are often victims of their owners’ careless abuse. When they are not being played with, dolls lie in a state of suspended animation like death. Their existence is bounded subservience on one end and coma on the other. What sort of immortality is this?
Sarban [pseudonym of John William Wall] explores the weird attractions of dolls in his novella of psychological horror The Doll Maker. It is the story of the lonely, intelligent ingenue Clare, a boarding school student in her last year before college, and her relationship with the titular character, a young scion of the nearby manor. Lacking room to exercise her curiosity and intellect, she first sees Niall [the doll maker] as an opportunity to open the narrow avenues of her mind and her life. As she pieces together the truth about his sinister, magical art, however, Clare realizes the danger of submerging her will in his: she might never get it back. She struggles to thwart Niall’s designs while she saves other students and herself.
For a story that’s basically a fairy tale of a young woman under the spell of an evil magician, The Doll Maker packs a surprising amount of character development and psychological truth. As a rule, I’m deeply suspicious of male writers who write about female characters seduced by male ones because male writers seem much more likely to create wilting, pliant, submissive, boring, UNREALISTIC female characters. Therefore, I approached Sarban and his portrayal of Clare with defensive hostility.
I was, therefore, gleefully surprised when Clare turned out to be an actual, fully rounded, active character. Sheltered, chaperoned and guarded by her boarding school, Clare first comes across as introverted, lonely, detached and dreamy, like a ghost with no place to haunt. At the same time, while not wildly rebellious, she is smart and curious, and these traits propel both her meeting with Niall and her eventual discoveries of his secrets. Clare is both appealingly intelligent and thoughtful, but also naive enough to be susceptible to Niall. To his credit, Sarban presents both Clare’s brains and her inexperience in measured detail, taking her seriously, rather than mocking her. In a delicate balancing act, he makes her passive enough to temporarily submit to Niall, but assertive enough to eventually throw off his yoke and find her own identity.
The Doll Maker crackles with sexual tension. As Niall tries, in some sense, to make a doll out of Clare, he brings the artist’s craft out of the realm of inanimate material and into the social world, where doll making becomes a power play. Niall wishes to be Clare’s creator and to make her do as he sees fit. He portrays his mastery over her as a release from the cares and changes of life, a perfectly fulfilling dream. Uncertain about her scholastic future, friendless and anxious, Clare eagerly lets him manipulate her. She does indeed gain a certain swooning ecstasy from Niall’s control over her; in fact, the passages in which she feels powerless and yet peaceful are accurate descriptions of the altered state of consciousness that a submissive may feel in BDSM play when he/she is being effectively topped by a dom. Clare’s pleasure dwindles when she realizes that Niall’s domination depends on death and annihilation. She must assert herself against Niall’s destructive power. The kinky subtext of The Doll Maker adds another level to the story so that it can be read as a sensually charged but non-explicit story of a woman who finds some erotic satisfaction in submission, but who eventually has to free herself from an abusive partner/dom.
I strongly recommend The Doll Maker to people interested in horror and/or dark fantasy and/or dolls and/or feminism and/or rites of passage for female characters and/or kinky sex. First published in 1953, The Doll Maker is inexplicably out of print as a stand-alone novel, but you can buy it in The Sarban Omnibus. Incidentally, I hear that The Sound of His Horn is also weird and strange and erotically charged too, although not as good. I should probably get a copy of The Sarban Omnibus because I bought a 1960s paperback of The Doll Maker, and it’s falling apart, and I am very sad, and so are my dolls because they want to read it too. :p