Liner Notes: The Dollmaker

Cover by Charlotte Volnek. Neat, huh?

This is the one that was never supposed to be published.

It started as a writing exercise. Something weird and dark that I could use to practice horror. My first records of The Dollmaker consist of an email I sent to myself of the first part of the first chapter, namely the rite Stephen Monaghan uses to bring his first doll to life. It appears in the book more or less how I wrote it (although my editors really helped smooth it out because for certain words I apparently have some variant of Tourette’s). And appropriately enough, the date of the email was Halloween.

The Dollmaker started life as only a series of nightmarish images. I could see certain things perfectly clearly: portions of the very end, the Innocent crawling from the darkness, the Firstborn alone in the house. And that’s what I wrote, isolated scenes with only a vague idea of how to connect them to a larger narrative. It functioned on a sort of dream logic, which is a fancy writerly way of saying it made no fucking sense even if at times it kind of did. I was fine with this, because the book was never supposed to see the light of day, and thus never had to be finished.

Eventually, I wanted to write a book that could be published and start a career in a dying art form that could inevitably end with me dead in a pool of whiskey vomit. And this time, damn it, I’d do it right with an outline and stuff. So I wrote Mr. Blank. And then, for reasons I’ve already gone into, I wrote Undead On Arrival. When that was done, it really felt like I was trying to get an actual writing career going, even though my success to that point could be best compared to North Korea’s space program. Looking for projects, I returned to The Dollmaker with a better idea of how to finish a book. I took what I had, put it in some order, and outlined some connective tissue to try to tie it all together. As it turned out, I had a bit of a trainwreck on my hands. Characters went nowhere, there was no real villain, and I had only the vaguest idea of how everything wrapped up.

What I needed to do was really think about what I was trying to do here: take a nightmare and add a plot. My primary influences were The Hunger and Cat People, a couple of horror films from the early ‘80s and highly sexualized takes on classic monsters. The irony is that both of these films are failures, albeit fascinating ones, more compelling for what they attempt than they accomplish. I would add a Frankenstein tale to complete the trilogy, and use some of the same genre hallmarks, including ‘80s style markers, a hyper violent scene in a strip club, and most importantly, the scuzzy grandeur that makes even such flawed films resonate.

Even more importantly, what the hell was I trying to say? I started with the central metaphor of creation. Normally that requires two people (implying the only difference between human and divine is how many folks creation needs, and explains the Gnostic conception of the creator), but here was one person. Because my protagonist was a man, I had to relentlessly feminize him, both socially and symbolically. And I also knew this would disturb the hell out of any male readers, and disturbing people is sort of a horror writer’s raison d’etre.

Since you can’t actually make wooden people who think, magic had to be part of the story and magic has to have a cost. As soon as it does not, the drama bleeds out of the story. There are tons of different costs, including social, physical, spiritual, and probably others I don’t have the imagination to come up with. I was fascinated by the idea of a formerly unliving object becoming a person. One minute it’s a block of wood; another and it’s a person with thoughts and dreams. This informed the cost. Their souls, for lack of a better term, had to come from someplace, and though I never wanted to definitively answer where, I knew that the cost should be somewhat similar. So I started robbing Stephen of the markers that made him an individual. Anything that could identify him, from his signature to his blood type to his shadow, had to go.

The dolls originally had names. Stephen christened each one, but it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t working. There was something faintly ridiculous, at least in my mind, of these creatures addressing one another by human names. I hit on the solution when I was researching the golem myth. In some stories the creature had the Hebrew word for “truth” inscribed on its forehead. While Stephen would never mar his perfect women with something like that, drawing it on their tongues seemed to be a good solution. And when someone has a marking like that in the language of God, they should have a special connection to the truth. This is where the dolls’ ability of “naming” came from, as well as their certain fatalism.

Brian’s character evolved, or rather devolved, with each draft. Part of the original idea was that everyone was going to have some kind of sexual dark side to echo Stephen’s (showing he’s not quite as alone as he thinks), and some of these made it into the final draft, including Milena’s prostitution, Tyler’s extremely specific and exclusionary sexuality, and of course Brian. He was initially far more innocuous, but as I realized that I needed a villain, Brian turned into Stephen’s dark reflection, and since Stephen was already pretty dark, Brian had to be much worse. So while Stephen was sort of effeminate, Brian had to become hyper-masculine. He took the place of the villain, while his plot pretty much progressed as I envisioned it from the beginning.

The second draft was terrible. I sent it to two readers, one of whom hated it. The other loved it. Said it was the best thing I had written. I was flabbergasted. So I wrote another draft and sent it to more readers. And another for even more readers. The response grew more positive with each draft, although women had a stronger reaction toward it (positive and negative) than men. I had it in the back of my mind to shop the fourth draft, but Undead On Arrival had seniority. A friend sent me a list of publishers who had good reputations, so I planned to query from the top down. The first one only did romances. The second was Muse It Up. I had a look at what the editors wanted, and one said something to the effect of, “I want something extremely dark that will haunt me.” I shrugged and was like, “Well, you asked for it.” After my mountain of rejections for all three previous books, I wasn’t holding out much hope. Until Sunday night after Comic-Con 2011, when I checked my email, finding a message from Muse requesting a simple rewrite before they would accept the manuscript. A little more than a year later, and The Dollmaker was out.

Like I said, this is the one that was never supposed to be published, and it was the first to find a home with a pretty well known small press. So I guess the lesson is, if you feel you have to write something, do it, and worry about where it’ll sell later. I have rewritten it so many times I can’t look at it even remotely rationally, so I hope it’s as coherent as anything like it can be. On that subject, I once tried to explain the book to my wife by telling her, “It’s like one of those sex dreams that becomes a nightmare halfway through.” She gave me a blank look and said, “Yeah, I don’t get those.” And that, creatures, is the whole point.

Check out Erik’s take on Jaws the Revenge or for more from me, have a look at the Liner Notes from my other book.

About Justin

Author, mammal.
This entry was posted in Moment of Excellence, Nerd Alert, Puffery and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Liner Notes: The Dollmaker

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