He laughed, and, before they came to the door of the house, drew her aside and kissed her. “There’s more enchantment in these two lips of yours and in these two dear grey eyes than in all the books of Azzimari…”
“Ah, no,” she said. “There’s no enchantment in me, except what you’ve planted. Perhaps that’s it: you captured me that night and you’ve kept me in a cage ever since because you wanted someone to practise spells on. Is that it?”
“Do you mind if it is?”
“No,” she confessed, smiling up at him and speaking with a most innocent simplicity. “I like being your captive.”
They laughed silently at each other as he held her a little way off to look into her eyes.
“Who is Azzi–? The name you said just now?” she asked.
“Azzimari. That was the name of the Berber Kaid who bought my ancestor, Captain Trethewy, from the Sallee Rovers. He was a practitioner of the art of magic, which seeks to know the other side of nature. It seems their doctors had studied these matters, there in the Southern Atlas Mountains, before the Koran came among them. The captain translated some of Azzimari’s books and brought them back with him.”
“And you’ve learnt magic from them?”
He nodded solemnly. “From them and from experience.”
She bent her head and stroked his arms. “And you are Azzimari to me, and I’m a slave like the Captain. Dear Captain! I’m glad he brought Azzimari’s magic home for you. I wonder if he loved his master as I love mine?”
“Perhaps. But he fled from him at last. And you too will want to be free.”
She pressed close to him, winding his arms about her. “No, no. I am free, like this. You must be a stern master, and if I try to break the spell, you must double it and treble it, chain me down in the deepest dungeon in your castle, imprison me in the hollow of an oak in your enchanted wood. You must not let me go!”
“Ah, no,” he said with wondering tenderness. “Dungeons I have and hollow oaks, but not for you. One ancient ceremony of bondage is enough. If you want to be my slave, I’ll perform it: the same that Azzimari performed upon the Captain. Shall I?”
“Yes, yes,” she said in a scarcely audible voice, pressing her head against his coat.
He laughed. “Not now. It must be in the propitious conjunction of the planets. Time and place must adhere. I will do it when you come to see the puppets.”
This is the point in one of my favorite novellas where everything kind of goes off the rails in the best way possible.
Up until then, it’s been a cozy little story of Clare, a bored, stifled, and restless 19-year-old, on the edge of graduating from Paston Hall, a dull little residential school somewhere in England in the 1950s. Studying with the mom and son of the local gentry, she crams on the subjects she needs to learn so that she can sit for a scholarship at Oxford.
And yeah, she’s got a crush on Niall, who’s in his late twenties, and yeah, he says with an absolute deadpan that his ancestor learned magic and the secrets of making immortal bonzai, and yeah, he makes uncannily realistic likenesses of young women, some of whom have died.
But maybe the two of them are just bored out of their skulls and doing some sort of elaborate role play because it’s much more exciting than anything else going on in Paston.
But then Niall goes away for a few days, and, when he comes back, this happens. Clare says to herself that she’s in love with him, and, for the first time, they speak explicitly about their role play, the expectations, and where they want it to go. Magic, ownership, submission, imprisonment, punishment, and love, all previously subtextual or implied, become apparent and textual.
And so does the danger. The tone changes here, and they speak with serious depth. On her end, Clare abases herself before Niall with as much abjection as possible, trying to give herself entirely to him. On his end, Niall finally tells her the ominous consequences of the powers about which he has been making merry. Eventually she will tire of Niall-possession and Niall-mastery and search for self-possession and self-mastery.
Of course, at this point, I’m screaming, “Run away, Clare! Run the fuck away! He wants to turn you into a doll! Definitely in a figurative sense and possibly in a literal sense as well! Furthermore, this guy is the veritable quintessence of the Creepy Dom, and he’s telling you in his own words that you’re gonna regret it. Pay attention to all the fairy tales about deals with the Devil and bargains with the fairies and promises made to sneaky magicians, and don’t do it!”
And of course Clare’s not listening to me because story characters never do. They really should, but then there’d be no plot.
But what happens? Does Clare go through with this bullshit? [Spoiler alert: Yes.] Does she become Niall’s doll? [Yes.]
Does she save her own damn self in the most satisfyingly dramatic possible that one can break off such soul-sucking dysfunction without an impassioned monologue of self-righteous fury to the Creepy Dom in question? [Yes.]
Do you like stories of psychological depth and subtle horror that balance perfectly between realistic and supernatural explanations?
Do you just love it when the young, previously innocent, now more experienced heroine discovers inner strength, wises up, and kicks the older, psychologically manipulative, antagonistic dude’s ass?
Then read The Doll Maker by Sarban. By taking the naive Clare’s quest for self-determination absolutely seriously, the author imparts to the age-old trope a sensitivity and depth of character development rarely seen in such tales. That, plus the treatment of dolls, the kinky overtones, the possibility of either a realistic or a supernatural interpretation, and the clear, fluid prose, keeps me coming back to this sadly unknown gem.