Size / / /

Cabinet of Wrath coverCabinet of Wrath by Tara Campbell is a delightful (and to some, frightful) romp through the world of discarded dolls, treacherous toys, and the feminist leanings these inanimate objects can evoke when we take a few seconds to really think about how Barbie might feel about being unable to walk or hold her head upright. Released in 2021, this short story collection banks on nostalgia, emphasizes it with stock photos of broken dolls, and still manages to not come off as too creepy or too preachy. This fact alone makes it a compelling read; Campbell’s sharp prose and vivid imagination allow for the reader to step inside her distinct world while conjuring their own childhood frights and delights through painted-on eyes. In many ways, Cabinet of Wrath feels more like a novella (or even a short story cycle a la Denis Johnson’s Jesus’s Son [1992]), since each story visits and revisits the same world of childhood dolls and often builds on previous themes, characters, and franchises. Each story’s doll is therefore familiar yet strange, ubiquitous yet utterly unique—and terrifying to those who have not cared for it in some manner. Even if you’re not a doll person (in childhood or adulthood), you know this world. You may even be afraid of it.

The collection’s cover, title, and multiple unsettling images make the reader anticipate another version of Annabelle or Chucky, and Campbell’s words as nothing more than cheap horror—but there is a distinct element of play in this work that undercuts most of the fear (at least my own) and enlivens the work. I enjoyed this collection precisely because it was playful; it just so happened that so much of the playfulness also involved quite a lot of grotesque body horror and a persistent feeling of impending doom. Campbell appears as a sort of a weird-fiction feminist Lovecraft (if there can be such a thing), if he met Jack Ketchum’s world of eerie irregularity and sharp prose. After reading the collection, there was part of me that longed to dig out my old dolls so I could have invisible tea parties again or drive that dream car—but there was also another part of me that wanted to exorcise anything resembling a doll. Not because I was afraid necessarily, but because I was now curious as to what hidden worlds are beyond the veil of plastic and blonde hair. What sort of rant would my Barbie give me (as here in “Malibu Lacey”) and what adventures into the woods (as in “Fairbanks”) would they take me on?

The collection’s first story, “The Box,” evokes a sinister world where the discarded dolls of yesterday now live in a toy box and wait for replacement. There is a hint at convalescence with the matriarchal figure at the helm, but it is a promise that never delivers quite what the reader suspects. I won’t spoil the story–but it’s an excellent opening for the overall tone and scope of the work as a whole. Fittingly, it is followed in this stage-setting by the next story, “Midge”—which proves to be the standout in the collection. The story manages to take all the threads of the narrative and spin them into a message about what it means to be animate vs. inanimate, an object vs. a subject, and a person vs. a thing. Its title character is the long-forgotten Barbie-friend from the 1960s called Midge. In her first edition (more on the many others later), Midge’s hairstyle evokes a housewife yet her dress belies the 1960s renaissance that was happening for women’s rights. She is at once free yet confined. She is popular—with Barbie as a friend, who wouldn’t be popular?—yet she is discontinued while Skipper and all the other friends remain.

It’s Midge’s second revolution that stands out in my personal experience (being a kid of the 1980s who had a lot of Barbies), since that/s when she became completely controversial: Midge was the Barbie that became pregnant. In Mattel’s “Happy Family Line” she came with a magnetic womb that could produce a newborn. This sounds amazing in principle—a way to teach kids about the birds and the bees, a way to show them their mothers in another light, a feat of engineering alone—but it became way more controversial in practice. Many claimed Midge promoted teen pregnancy; many criticized her for not being married. With the state of the US the way it is now, it’s no wonder all this happened in the way back when. But for Midge, while was reconfigured a couple more times, most people simply forgot about her.

Except for Tara Campbell. (And me, because despite having a lot of Barbies, and even some Skippers and Stacys, I never had that pregnant Midge doll, and I wanted her). Campbell’s story about Midge resonates with me the most—and I think best encapsulates what she wants to say overall about dolls and femininity and horror—because of her forbidden element and general grotesquery, but also how contradictory her whole situation is. Barbie, Skipper, and even Ken are not realistic depictions of embodiment. Barbie would die if she was our size with her proportions. So why care about a pregnant doll so much? Because, beyond the politics, I’m curious—as Campbell clearly is, too—about what happens to all those kids, all those discarded dolls, who are pregnant but now will never have the baby come out. Where does that life go? What happens outside the bounds of franchises? And beyond the realm of typical play?

That’s what Campbell explores in “Midge” and in many other of these stories. After all, it’s not just Barbies that children mime the sexual act with. In “The Box,” a Bratz doll asks, "What if my human’s brother smashed me and Ken together when she wasn’t looking?" (p. 6); there are other toys here, some that are dolls and others with fur and paws, who find themselves in the same predicament. As the matriarchal figure Mother Holly explains to the Midges, their pregnancy, if left unchecked, can prove to be downright disastrous. Campbell writes (from one of the expectant doll’s perspective):

the eggs would continue to grow inside of us, gradually straining our seams with their mass. If they hatched, they’d consume whatever stuffing they found, or pull a doll’s hair back inside through the holes, eat every bit of us up from the inside. Still growing and ravenous, they’d worm through our seams or pop off our limbs, or chew their way out of our skins—even plastic—and if that happened, no one in the playroom would be safe. (p. 6)

The protagonist in the final story “Pino”—a clever retelling of the story Pinocchio—wonders if his children will be "flesh or wood," and if his wife will be okay during the birth. The haunted single line—"Would there be splinters?"—is enough to evoke fear in anyone (p. 96). This fear is magic to me because, when we are overburdened with so many creepy images of dolls—and so many other stories that use the doll’s face for cheap thrills and jump scares—Campbell does something completely different. And it is truly effective.

The curious hands of children—who, ultimately, only mimic the adult world they see around them—are removed in many of Tara Campbell’s stories, but the consequences of children’s play remain intact. What to do with a doll that can become pregnant? “Midge,” “The Box,” and even “Pino” attempt to answer this question from the perspective of dolls, rather than their owners (and that term, too, is explored and challenged—look no further than “Becky” and “Malibu Lacey” for that).

Not all the stories hit a home run. The weakest story in the collection (for me) is “Fairbanks.” The writing is incredible, the characters are interesting, but the premise of being kidnapped by dolls lost its luster for me about halfway through. It’s one of the few that’s from an otherwise human perspective, and as we have seen Cabinet of Wrath shines when the dolls and toys are the focus. “Fairbanks” is also one of the longest in the work as well (it was previously published in The Bourbon Penn, known for its bizarre and strange fiction), and I personally think Campbell shines when her prose is short. She is a master of flash fiction—see her website for all her recent publications and many links to her flash pieces—and it is through that medium that I first discovered her work. I currently have two boys under two years old, and so, if I get the indulgence to read, it’s shorter works. Perhaps, then, my own attention span is to blame for the fact that I can’t remember much at all about “Fairbanks” other than the main character’s need to retrieve her pills (and the other little things we think of when we are away from home) [1]. This is contrasted with the “little things”—like dolls—that we don’t think can ever harm us. It’s a strong story when I reread it now, but it wasn’t one that wholly fit in among the collection’s crisper and sharper works.

Still, by and large this is a remarkably consistent collection. Particularly recurrent are its inherently feminist themes. Of course, these will be obvious since it is published as part of the Conversation Pieces series at Aqueduct Press (a devotedly feminist SF publisher); but Campbell does not make the common mistake to equate femininity with feminism or femaleness with feminism. She writes of dolls, and the enchanted landscape of childhood where dolls make up the vast population (at least in her toy box), but she does not limit her examination to women-born-women or even women/girls entirely. There are male dolls here, and male protagonists (in “Becky” and “Pino”). If one of them features in “Spencer,” the only other story that does not entirely resonate with me, this ill omen was probably a function of the fact that it came right after “Midge,” and I wanted to believe that Spencer was another discontinued doll. Spencer and Pino are both male dolls, then, but they are equally consumed with the same fears of abandonment and monstrosity that the female dolls suffer from. What is autonomy? What is embodiment? Likewise, the protagonists of “Fairbanks” and “Becky” are human, a woman and a man, and yet they, too, are both experiencing the same fear of being overtaken by the creatures they once took care of. When does care before control? When does it become confinement? These are feminist questions with feminist themes, regardless of what’s between the legs of the protagonists. Campbell manages to transcend the bitter and especially fragile lines of gender with her questions, but it’s how she answers these quandaries with stories written in the landscape of childhood toys—covered in pink and blue and nothing in between—that makes this collection an especially compelling achievement.

Cabinet of Wrath is a wonderful and playful romp through the land of dolls which I can therefore highly recommend. Its creepy cover can make this book seem terrifying on the surface—my husband is one of those people who will not, absolutely never, watch a horror movie featuring a doll and will certainly not buy dolls used—but there is so much intellectual play going on here that I found it difficult to be afraid of these dolls. In fact, it is the things that happen to these toys—unwanted pregnancies, being torn apart, enlisted into creepy fantasies without voice or agency—that are truly terrifying. Of course, they don’t just happen to dolls, or to little girls and women. They happen to everyone. That is why it’s scary.

Endnotes

[1] I really think this collection is good for parents. They may only have a stray few minutes to read, and Campbell’s short and crisp stories will not fail to amuse for five minutes of blissful silence. After you finish, these stories in particular will definitely make you look at kids’ toys in a new way; but they should also make you look at your own memories of play, and delight in that nostalgia, for another five blissful minutes of semi-silence. [return]



Eve Morton is a writer living in Ontario, Canada. She teaches university and college classes on media studies, academic writing, and genre literature, among other topics. She likes forensic science through the simplified lens of TV, and philosophy through the cinematic lens of Richard Linklater. Find more information on authormorton.wordpress.com.
Current Issue
30 Jan 2023

In January 2022, the reviews department at Strange Horizons, led at the time by Maureen Kincaid Speller, published our first special issue with a focus on SF criticism. We were incredibly proud of this issue, and heartened by how many people seemed to feel, with us, that criticism of the kind we publish was important; that it was creative, transformative, worthwhile. We’d been editing the reviews section for a few years at this point, and the process of putting together this special, and the reception it got, felt like a kind of renewal—a reminder of why we cared so much.
It is probably impossible to understand how transformative all of this could be unless you have actually been on the receiving end.
Some of our reviewers offer recollections of Maureen Kincaid Speller.
Criticism was equally an extension of Maureen’s generosity. She not only made space for the text, listening and responding to its own otherness, but she also made space for her readers. Each review was an invitation, a gift to inquire further, to think more deeply and more sensitively about what it is we do when we read.
When I first told Maureen Kincaid Speller that A Closed and Common Orbit was among my favourite current works of science fiction she did not agree with me. Five years later, I'm trying to work out how I came to that perspective myself.
Cloud Atlas can be expressed as ABC[P]YZY[P]CBA. The Actual Star , however, would be depicted as A[P]ZA[P]ZA[P]Z (and so on).
In the vast traditions that inspire SF worldbuilding, what will be reclaimed and reinvented, and what will be discarded? How do narratives on the periphery speak to and interact with each other in their local contexts, rather than in opposition to the dominant structures of white Western hegemonic culture? What dynamics and possibilities are revealed in the repositioning of these narratives?
a ghostly airship / sorting and discarding to a pattern that isn’t available to those who are part of it / now attempting to deal with the utterly unknowable
Most likely you’d have questioned the premise, / done it well and kindly then moved on
In this special episode of Critical Friends, the Strange Horizons SFF criticism podcast, reviews editors Aisha Subramanian and Dan Hartland introduce audio from a 2018 recording for Jonah Sutton-Morse’s podcast Cabbages and Kings which included Maureen Kincaid Speller discussing with Aisha and Jonah three books: Everfair by Nisi Shawl, Temporary People by Deepak Unnikrishnan, and The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar.
Issue 23 Jan 2023
Issue 16 Jan 2023
Issue 9 Jan 2023
Strange Horizons
2 Jan 2023
Welcome, fellow walkers of the jianghu.
Issue 2 Jan 2023
Strange Horizons
Issue 19 Dec 2022
Issue 12 Dec 2022
Issue 5 Dec 2022
Issue 28 Nov 2022
By: RiverFlow
Translated by: Emily Jin
Issue 21 Nov 2022
Load More
%d bloggers like this: