Susan Neville, The Town of Whispering Dolls, FC2, 2020

[Review Guidelines]



A new Susan Neville book is a cause for celebration. We're fans here, having published two of the stories ("Resurrection" and "Grotto") in her newest, The Town of Whispering Dolls. So it's not a shocker that we're super into her new collection, the winner of the Catherine Doctorow Prize for Innovative Fiction from FC2.
     I've been on a bit of a doll kick myself over the past few years for reasons I can't entirely articulate, and have found Susan Neville to be an excellent fellow traveler. We talked about her essay, "The Woman Who Sculpts the Dolls Is Named Gretel Ehrlich Turner" (linked in this conversation on Essay Daily if you'd like to read it, or check out Fabrications, the essay collection that contains it and a whole bunch of fantastic essays on the way we make things in America) that follows Neville and a friend of hers as they visit a doll factory and think together about friendship and dolls.
     I'm a recent convert to doll lit, if that's a thing (my colleague Kate Bernheimer teaches a course on puppets and dolls, so I'm feeling like it is indeed a thing), and have been studying up on dollology. I picked up a good primer on dollology, Kenneth Gross's On Dolls, which I strongly recommend if you too are drawn to dolls but aren't quite yet sure why.
     It's an anthology of some of the big writers on dolls, and while it is great, I was struck by how few of the contributors were women (two). Reading Neville thinking about dolls (in that essay above), I was astounded by just how mired in gender my own thinking about dolls was, and in fact is. I suppose it's inevitable, since dolls are so strongly identified with female domesticity and girlhood in our culture, but reading Neville looking at dolls I felt differently about them, and about the way I'd been seeing them.
     The Town of Whispering Dolls follows these ideas from nonfiction into fiction (though I'm not sure that Neville cares all that much about fiction's fictionness or nonfiction's nonfictionness: I noticed a few details reoccurring from her earlier essays in these stories, which was a pleasure).
     I very much enjoyed feeling the presence of Neville's other books in this one, like the factories of her essay collection Fabrication, the presence of weird Indiana and the cognizance of how little it's seen when flown over in a plane (this is a familiar feeling of resentment for this reader, and surely also you, if you grew up in or belonged to one of the so-called flyover states. Neville teaches in Indiana, and while her work certainly doesn't glorify the changing physical and economic landscape of the state, it does make me want to go there every time I read another story.
     I mean, I know this Indiana isn't the real Indiana (and what is that, sir, I ask myself, and have no good answer: it's a fiction we're in, and Neville is mythologizing it. But her Indiana is weird and appealing, filled with grottoes, closed veneer factories, oil welling up in baptismal pools. It's a Tales from the Darkside Indiana but it's also the real Indiana, in which towns are collapsing due to drugs, economic devastation, or environmental catastrophe. So it is the real Indiana, just not (as the Tales from the Darkside intro tells us) as brightly lit.
     What is the difference between the real world and the dark world, anyway? Have I learned nothing else from 2020?
     After having purchased the entire run of Tales from the Darkside on DVD in the first month of the pandemic, I've been slowly rewatching it. It's not very good so far (I'm only through Season 2, so don't @ me). There are a few good ones, but mostly
     The reason I'm telling you about it here is because I get that uncanny flipping feeling from Susan Neville's work that I did from the introduction to Tales from the Darkside, which consisted of a series of bucolic rural scenes presented, accompanied by a creepy voice and a proto-X-Files synth score—

tales from the darkside birch trees

—which then flip into the negative version of itself, and off we go into some weird new 1980s story:

tales from the darkside title

The particular moment I remember most vividly from that introduction is that shot above of moving through a birch forest (it's at the 30 second mark in the video above) just before things go dark, to the point that I can no longer experience a nice walk or drive through a birch forest as anything other than rising tension. To me, all birch forests now flip inexorably into the Darkside. I don't know how many birch forests there are in Indiana, but I have that same flipping sense reading Neville's work, though in her hands the flip is more a doubling-up, the echo of darkness and light, not a complete movement from one to the other.
     In many ways, TFTDS is a poor analog for The Town of Whispering Dolls. Neville's stories are often fabulist, but they're not creepy in the way the show explictly is. Again, I refer you to her linked essayabove (it rules), but I'll pull a couple quotes out from it for you, to give you an idea:

Then [a man] takes an ice pick and stabs the back of the sweet pink babies' heads to let out air. He sticks a gloved and oiled hand down into a mold and pops the baby's heated head out into his hand. He holds the baby's head out to us and asks if we want to touch it...I know it sounds creepy, but for the most part it's sweet, this process....

As I write it now, it seems dark. But it didn't seem that way when we had this conversation. The sky was blue and the day was warm and gorgeous.

It is a beautiful essay, very light in affect, but heavily shadowed too. This is one of the tricks I love from both her essay collection and her stories, how a lightness doesn't preclude the dark, and vice versa.
     Neville's stories are also way better written than most of the Tales from the Darkside episodes: Neville's care for her characters and the complexities of their lives is far beyond anything that TFTDS even tried, which is what makes for such a compelling reading experience: the stories are indeed "both terrible and beautiful music," as Shelley Jackson's judge's introduction to the book notes.
     Neville has clearly gone to pains to avoid the default "creepy dolls" take, which is, after all, a highly boring take. The cover art is odd but not creepy (unlike the haunted doll [literally, that's the brand: Haunted Doll] sitting on my desk staring out my window at night, so it's got to be visible from the street for Halloween. It hangs from a shelf or a windowsill. It has bright red eyes, black nails, red rings around its eyes, eight pointy teeth, and a dirty onesie. Its tongue is out in what I read as a playful fashion, but it could also be deranged. Vampiric, probably. It is disturbing. My daughter finds it almost cute, she tells me, and it is. If it was just scary, it wouldn't do to me what it does.
     I look at it. It's a useful lesson, courtesy of the 7-year-old: it can be cute and scary. It doesn't have to be just one.
     Dolls are empty, and they're not. They hold whatever we see in them: bring terror to a doll and a doll will reflect it back. Bring love, and it will reflect that back too. MH Abrams said something about what art should be: a mirror or a lamp. What if instead we agreed that art should be a doll?
    The Town of Whispering Dolls isn't particularly about dolls at all, though that's its conceit. It's definitely more about the town, the place, the light and dark Indiana, all of which map onto the real Indiana. More often the dolls lead us to drug addiction or to the emptying out of the places where things are actually made in America, as industry collapses and the people are what's left behind.
     Dolls are many things here. Sometimes in these stories dolls are veneers (as in the veneer factory that closes down to begin one story). Other times they're people lost to opioids. Sometimes they're the cutout men that soldiers practice firing on at the Army Base, or the fake Middle Eastern village there that they use for training raids. In another story, the dolls are eggs that kids are supposed to take care of for a day in a school parenting exercise that become the objects of real and desperate care. They're not just metaphors, either: they are dolls, and they are not. They are things and they are gestures. They are presences and absences, which is to say they are both dolls and not, which is also to say they are dolls, which is what all dolls are. That they don't resolve is part of what makes them dolls—and what makes these stories such effective art. [AM]