I am a collector of dolls and doll parts. I'm rarely creeped out by most dolls, either in real life or in literature, but I know many people who are. Why might that be? Dolls often reside in "the uncanny valley" a phrase that refers to a theory developed by robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970: it posits that objects with features that are human-like, that look and move almost, but not quite, like actual human beings, elicit visceral feelings of revulsion in many people. The "valley" in question refers to the change in our comfort with these objects -- our comfort level increases as the objects look more human, until, suddenly, they look simultaneously too human and not quite human enough, and our comfort level drops off sharply, only to rise again on the other side of the valley when something appears and moves exactly like a human being.
When I thought about the creepiest dolls in literature, I immediately remembered Richard Matheson's Zuni warrior doll (mentioned below). I thought I'd give some of the contributors to my anthology The Doll Collection their say as to inspiration, as the new dolls they've created are damn scary. Here are the terrifying dolls from literature they came up with:
Dido from A Candle in Her Room by Ruth M. Arthur
Dido, a wooden doll held together with pegs -- slim, hard and totemically simple, her name incised along her spine -- features prominently in A Candle in Her Room, by Ruth M. Arthur. Dido is obviously a witch's fetish, though the reader never really discovers her full backstory -- all we know is that if you light a candle in your room and pray to her, essentially, Dido will grant you your most selfish desire... but at a cost. Her purpose is to sow division, to set blood against blood, to create suffering. She is very definitely an instrument of revenge, an object through which some ceaseless fount of malice is able to survive the grave.
Fats from Magic by William Goldman
Fats is the ventriloquist dummy from William Goldman's novel Magic (made into a movie with the same title). All ventriloquist dummies are terrifying. This is why horror movies about them are so effective. Most people probably call the novel a brilliant portrait of a performer who is losing his mind. Well, it is brilliant but nobody, not even Goldman himself, will convince me that the dummy isn't the true villain. I just know that little bastard with those clicking eyes and snapping mouth set poor Corky Withers up. Never trust a dummy.
The Monkey from "The Monkey" by Stephen King
The Monkey, a cymbal-playing toy in Stephen King's story of the same title. Whenever the monkey claps its cymbal, someone dies. It's implacable, unstoppable, and doesn't care if you play with it or not--the monkey just wants you to die. Author Seanan McGuire still gets cold shivers when she see monkeys with cymbals in an antique store or at a swap meet.
Nailbunny from Johnny the Homicidal Maniac by Jhonen Vasquez
Nailbunny, from the comic book Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, by artist, director and comic artist Jhonen Vasquez. Nailbunny is one of Johnny's 'familiars.' It used to be a pet but now it's a decayed mascot of sorts -- sometimes nailed to the wall, sometimes floating around. Also, Fuzzy, from "The Professor's Teddy Bear," by Theodore Sturgeon. This is a teddy bear that feeds on his four-year-old's future every night. It speaks through its ears because its mouth is always full of blood.
--Stephen Graham Jones
Zuni Warrior Doll from "Prey" by Richard Matheson
The wooden doll inhabited by the spirit of a Zuni warrior from Richard Matheson's story "Prey," (made infamous from his screen adaptation for the portmanteau TV movie Trilogy of Terror in which Karen Black's apartment is the setting for a vicious all-out scrap with the doll). But the published story came first, and it's even more tight, tense and vivid.
Julio from "The Doll" by Daphne du Maurier
"The Doll," by Daphne du Maurier, the author of classic creepy tales like "Don't Look Now" and "The Birds" (both made into memorable films), was written in the 1920's, when the author was only twenty years old. The story is told by a doctor, E. Strongman, who meets a mysterious young woman, Rebecca. The good Dr. falls madly in love with her and, out of jealousy, wants to know about her earlier lovers. She tells him she's never been with a man. That's when he meets Julio, her life-size mechanical sex doll with the body of a 16-year-old. Strongman goes crazy, unable to deal with a woman exploring her sexuality on her own terms and the fact that he could be so completely unnecessary in this equation. A horror story for most men then and some now. Also a haunting story for writers in its sophistication of style and powerfully subtle depiction of what could not be said outright at the time.
The Armadillo Purse from "Stone Animals" by Kelly Link
There are many ways to be afraid. There is standard gore horror and then there is the deep, pervasive unease you feel in many of Link's surreal short stories. "Stone Animals" is achingly sweet and distressing in equal measures. In this piece, one household item after another is suddenly "haunted" ("haunted wasn't the right word of course, but Catherine couldn't think what the right word was"). This intangible shift in the relationship between the members of this young family and their things is played out as either cause or effect in a parallel crescendo of emotional tension - job stress, moving house, infidelity. The armadillo purse, whose taxidermy mouth you open to put things in, is a quietly revolting treasured possession of the family's little girl. When it, too, is finally haunted it becomes the creepiest symbol in a story that makes you afraid that life will never be the same again.
Pinocchio from The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi
Pinocchio, from the 19th-century novel by Carlo Collodi and popularized by the Disney movie. He's the original embodiment of the Uncanny Valley. Is he real, is he not? Is he alive, is he not? This taps into the suspicion we have as children that our toys are getting Up To Things when we aren't looking. Moreover, that horror, looking into their glass eyes, that they're trapped. They want to be alive, but they can't be. And then there's that nose: when he lies, it grows. So, the puppet who is alive but isn't "real" is actually a self-monitoring lie detector who can't say anything that isn't true. The semantics of it get very twisty and weird.
The The Master of Revels from House of Small Shadows by Adam Nevill
I'll never look at a marionette puppet the same way again. I've always found them disturbing, but in Nevill's hands the marionettes are truly terrifying. It's the need for human interaction, I think... the subtle hand movements, the thought and skill to make them work... and the idea of a marionette moving and walking without the guidance of a human hand is just wonderfully sinister. The Master of Revels has the hind legs of a dog, but it has the face of a child, made from cracked wood. Like the other puppets in the Theatre of Cruelty, they're constructed from wood and animal remains and none of them are supported by strings. And who is directing the plays in which they perform, the puppet or the puppeteer? It's the stuff of true nightmares, and that's why I love it.
Dolls from The Stone Cage by Nicholas Stuart Gray
The toys and dolls conjured by witch Mother Gothel in The Stone Cage (a retelling of Rapunzel) by Nicholas Stuart Gray. Tomlyn the cat-familiar watches and describes: "There was a greyish sort of lamb-thing, with crossed eyes. If you hit it hard, it bawled 'Maa-maaaah!' till you stopped. There was a doll too. Cor! Its head was on back to front, and it could crawl very quickly all over the floor, and it put its tongue out six inches if you went near."
Toy soldiers from "Battleground" by Stephen King
In Stephen King's story "Battleground," a package of particularly aggressive scale-model soldiers and their equipment allow a toymaker to have his revenge on the hitman who murdered him. "Battleground" impressed me with its relentless forward momentum (not to mention, what kid hasn't fantasized about his toys coming to life?)."