Thursday, October 10, 2019

"The Haunted Dolls' House" (1923)

I haven't entirely connected with M.R. James so far, and I'd really like to ever since I found out Mark E. Smith of the Fall was a fan. I still haven't got to all his best regarded stories but consensus seems to lean toward "Casting the Runes" as very best and it didn't do much for me (the Tourneur movie Curse of the Demon is faithful, not bad, and about as good). This later story is not that impressive either—haunted dollhouse with tiny ghostly figures reenacting murders in an intricate tableau every night at 1 a.m., what's to be done? Still, I was struck by the glowing imagery of the dollhouse in its overnight convulsions. I thought the story ought to be an ideal candidate and good bet for a movie adaptation, particularly in the silent era it comes from. It's probably a little old-fashioned now but I imagine, say, director Guy Maddin (My Winnipeg, Tales From the Gimli Hospital) could do something with it. The detail I like is the sight of the dollhouse at night: " ... though there was no light at all in the room, the Dolls' House ... stood out with complete clearness.... The effect was that of a bright harvest moon shining full on the front of a big white stone mansion—a quarter of a mile away it might be, and yet every detail was photographically sharp." I like the image of our hero, Mr. Dillet, sitting up in bed in a dark room in the middle of the night and seeing that. Even silent movie technology in 1923 should have been able to handle it. Think of the French epic from 1923 La roue, or the 1924 version of Peter Pan, or certain effects in Metropolis that reduce actors to the size of dolls. Mr. Dillet is entirely rapt by his hobby of collecting antiques and especially dollhouses. When he brings home this one (it's not his first) he spends hours lovingly setting it up, arranging figures, furniture, and other accessories. That makes him likable even if he is moneyed and haughty, but it's also beside the point. As for the difficulties posed (mainly interrupted sleep) it appears you can do what Mr. Dillet finally does, put it in another room, and problem solved basically. It never seems to be threatening, only a nuisance at worst. Well, it might make you depressed to be reminded every night that some murders of innocents went apparently unpunished. That should never happen. But the magic, such as it is, is in the dollhouse and its ability to cast a campfire mood of comfort and thrilling strangeness.

The Big Book of the Masters of Horror, Weird and Supernatural Short Stories, pub. Dark Chaos
Realms of Darkness, ed. Mary Danby (out of print)
Read story online.

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