“I could open the case, have a peek, and sneak out again. Just a peek. No one would know…”

Uncle Dougie's Suitcase, Alastair Chisholm

New Ghost Stories IV

In the latest of our ‘stories behind stories‘ series, author Die Booth talks about the inspiration behind ‘Phantoms’, which appears in our anthology Crying Just Like Anybody.

Die BoothI always wonder why so many people are scared of dolls. Not dolls in general, but more specifically old ones, the type made of porcelain or wax, with glass eyes and human hair wigs. Maybe it’s the unfamiliarity of the old — you fear what is alien — even though I’d argue that modern children’s toys are every bit as surreal and creepy as antique ones: just look at Teletubbies! Maybe it’s the use of human parts, although nobody seems particularly scared of hair extensions! Maybe it’s the fact that old dolls are proportioned more like people, not like today’s large-eyed, tiny-waisted cartoons made solid: they were just too ‘real’.

‘Phantoms’ started off as a vague notion to update the old horror trope, the Creepy Doll. On various visits to museums and stately homes I’d seen my fair share of toys, and also of figures that weren’t quite dolls but were still human representations. The idea that they were not for play struck me as making them at once a little more potentially sinister. Obstetric phantoms are still used (as far as I know) for training purposes today, but historically were often made using real foetal skeletons as their framework. Well, Dead Babies has to rank right up there alongside Ghost Children and Creepy Dolls as an all-time horror classic. The artists’ lay figure at Packwood House also impressed me — a life-sized dressing-up doll that wasn’t quite a doll would be sure to give readers the shivers.

Now I had my basic inspiration I fully intended to write a horror story about the effect that irrational fear has on people: there is clearly nothing supernatural about these artefacts — they can’t even move — yet they can terrorise people all the same. It didn’t turn out like that, though. I set the story in a curio shop, where these items could feasibly cross paths, and the rest of the tale grew from there. I’m very interested in stories where the obvious ‘villain’ of a piece gains the reader sympathy. It’s too easy to see ‘the monster’ as automatically bad and I much prefer tales where that assumption is turned on its head. Therefore in ‘Phantoms’, the phantom and the lay figure become young Anna’s allies in a fight against her real enemy, school bully Beth. At school, I was always considered strange for my interest in old things, so that’s translated into the story. I decided that the protagonists would be little girls because, as Margaret Atwood shows so effectively in Cat’s Eye, little girls can often be the cruellest and most inventive bullies.

When Anna is bullied, her choice is to ignore or retaliate. Boosted by the new power to terrorise she has through access to the phantom, she chooses to fight back. But is there a point at which self-defence becomes attack and retaliation becomes bullying in its own right? Just as, when rendered familiar, the phantom and the lay figure lose their horror, so an enemy once conquered loses their mystery and power and instead instils a kind of disgusted pity. Beth becomes, like the phantom, broken, and the shine is taken off Anna’s final victory. But at least through conquering her enemy, Anna finally conquers her fears.

— Die Booth

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