Life Lessons Through Horror

Author: Rachel Harrison

In Bad Dolls Rachel Harrison presents four short stories, each taking a glimpse into a woman’s life and the instability of hopes, self-image, and societal expectations. Each story has an obvious, somewhat overwrought moral, complimented by a thoughtful writing style. It’s not all out horror, per-say, so much as a psychological look into the modern, independent woman and what makes her tick.

In “Reply Hazy, Try Again,” Jordan appears to have the perfect life: a long-term relationship heading toward marriage, a nice house, and new work bestie, but a Magic 8-Ball purchased at a flea market shows her the underlying instability of her life and encourages her to discover what she really wants. This is not a horror story per se, but more one with supernatural elements. It’s written in a way that evokes the sadness and fear of the main character, a woman who hides her own disappointment from itself. At the end, we’re left to extrapolate how it works out, positive or negative, based on our own desires and just a bit of encouragement from the all-too-sentient 8-Ball.

The next story, “Bachelorette,” is about lost friendships, people growing up and apart. Nat is the only “longtimer” in her childhood best friend’s wedding party, and she’s struggling to fit in with her friend’s new set. Nat left her childhood home and has only just returned for this wedding, but her friend soon shows her that nothing stays the same and, conversely, that despite all the best nostalgia, you can’t step in the same river twice. At the end, the story takes a grim turn, and Nat is forced to decide how far she will go to keep the illusion of this friendship alive. “Bachelorette” is a story of not fitting in, of people and relationships changing, and of the inevitable letting go and moving on. Again, the horror element is subtle here, added to make a point. Some sacrifices, as it were, aren’t worth making.

The third story, “Goblin,” focuses on a young woman, Meg, desperate to diet for her ex’s wedding. She’s let go of him and his expectations (right?), but she is still focused on her weight. She downloads an app to help, but soon the little screen goblin is popping up in real life, shaming and abusing her so that she will fit in that dress. Is it worth it, or should Meg turn the stereotype around and take control of her life and body image back? This story is just quirky and weird. It shatters expectations of reality (no one is surprised that the goblin from the app is real and pops up in Meg’s home) and the moral is the most obvious and heavy-handed of all. It’s enjoyable, and gross, but not exactly unexpected or original.

The final story, the namesake for the collection, follows Mackenzie, who returns to her dead-end town and drops her life when her little sister commits suicide. When she rents a new apartment, she finds a prescient porcelain doll, and this haunted doll helps her realize all her feelings of guilt and inadequacy. It shows how we punish ourselves, knowingly tolerating bad situations because we think that we don’t deserve better. The story leaves us with another cliffhanger ending, although this time there is no guessing game: whatever happens once that final page rustles closed is going to be bad.

The stories in Bad Dolls look at everything from romantic love to friendship to body image to broken families, using horror or absurd circumstances to reveal what the characters really want or need to realize to be more actualized: a new love, punishment, acceptance of a real body, and the end of a friendship. The stories each have a certain quality, and the writing itself sings. While none of these are lastingly good, perhaps because they lack subtly, they are all entertaining and well-written. The characters resonate during the tales, and we’re interested to see where it goes. This collection hasn’t changed my preference for novels over short stories, but I did enjoy it and recognize the author’s obvious talent. Recommended.

– Frances Carden

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Frances Carden
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