A while back, I watched the DVD box-set of the 1st season of the TV series, “Night Gallery” by Rod Serling, which I found to be a hit or miss affair. I loved the pilot episode, but found that within the subsequent episodes there was usually at least one or more duds in the episode’s customary trifold offering.
One sequence, however, that really caught my imagination was the adaptation of the novelette, “The Doll”, by British author Algernon Blackwood. In fact, I was so taken by it that I vowed to read it if I ever found a collection that contained the story. This proved harder than I thought, as the novelette seems to be just a shade too lengthy for inclusion in your common story collections. In fact, other than its original 1946 release by Arkham House, It doesn’t seem to pop up much elsewhere. So, imagine my surprise when I did a book buy at work that turned up two Blackwood collections, one f which featured the story as the very first offering in the book! Needless to say, I borrowed it as soon as it was officially ours, and I have just finished reading the story this evening.
Well, for starters, even though I should be ready for this by now, I was a bit abashed by the use of the dreaded “N” word within the opening paragraphs of the book. The epithet in this case was used to describe a very dark-skinned Indian man who delivers a parcel to the home of Colonel Hymber Masters, a very bitter career man(“late of an Indian regiment”) who lives in a big house filled with servants and Monica, an illegitimate daughter from some past indiscretion, whom he adores but does not communicate well with. In fact, the set up sounds very much like Henry James’ “The Turn of the Screw” or Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”, with a governess watching over a sweet but neglected child as the overbearing (but mysteriously handsome and tragic) master of the house drops in and out of their lives every now and then to stir things up.
The catch in this story is the delivery of a brown paper parcel, which Colonel Masters orders to be disposed of immediately. “Take it away and burn it, he ordered in his army voice, passing it to her outstretched hands. ‘Burn it,’ he repeated it, ‘or chuck the damned thing away.'” However, instead of doing as he ordered, Mrs. O’Reilly, the Irish housemaid he charges with this task, decides to open it to see what all of the fuss is about and “Turning back the thick paper wrappings, she started, and to her rather disappointed amazement,she found herself staring at nothing but a fair, waxen faced doll that could be bought in any toy-shop for one shilling and sixpence. A commonplace little cheap doll! Its face was pallid, white, expressionless, its flaxen hair was dirty, its tiny mouth was closed, though somehow grinning, no teeth visible, its eyelashes ridiculously like a worn tooth brush, its entire presentment in its flimsy skirt, contemptible, harmless, even ugly.” Laughing at the pathetic creature and all of the hubbub the Colonel had made over it, she resolves to give it to the child instead, since she has no playmates and so few toys to entertain her, and makes her promise not to mention it to the Colonel.
Everything goes fine at first as Monica loves the doll exclaiming, “It’s so much more real and alive than my teddy bears,”… “Why it even talks to me!” The doll and the girl become inseparable and everyone is happy until one night, as the governess, an attractive young Polish woman by the name of Madame Jodzka checks in on the slumbering Monica and sees the doll walking, “…in a disjointed, hoppity, hideous fashion across the bed in which Monica lay sleeping.” As she starts, the doll notices the governess and charges at her, causing her to faint. The next day, she gives notice to the Colonel using an excuse about family emergency and leaves for her native Poland, but after a brief and disappointing homecoming, she has a change of heart and decides to return to try to save Monica from the evil influence of the doll.
Upon her return to the house, she not only sees the doll move again, but hears it conversing with the slumbering Monica, responding to the sleeping child in indecipherable utterances. Despite her fear of incurring the wrath of the quick tempered Colonel, she resolves to confront him about the doll and see if he can’t help her get rid of the nasty thing.
I shall stop here so as not to ruin the story for you, but needless to say it is a very creepy read and a bit darker than I had expected. The ending was very different from the Night Gallery episode and I was surprised by the darker turn the novelette took in the last pages. The Night Gallery episode had an interesting twist on the ending, which is arguably more palatable for the general viewing audience, but the story is surprisingly blunt and grim. It has some of the old school prejudices, which many writers or the time had, like the racist remarks about foreigners and condescending attitudes about women, but it is well written otherwise and worth checking out if you ever come across it.