From the opening pages of her debut novel, 2020’s excellent The Return, it was clear that Rachel Harrison is the kind of author who could excel at short stories if she chose to write them. Her three novels so far—The Return, Cackle, and this year’s Such Sharp Teeth—certainly prove both her prowess with longform fiction and her knack for crafting memorable, engrossing characters who can endure across hundreds of pages, but there’s something else lurking in the prose of that books that suggests Harrison is just as gifted with less room to run.
As she sketches out her characters through narratives that often unfold in the first person, Harrison reveals an astonishing knack for conveying a great deal about a person with a single clever observation. It can be a comment about their wardrobe, or the way they wear their hair, or even just a short, wonderfully layered remark about the way a person says a certain word, but she also manages to get to the core of a character—what they want, how they see the world, and most importantly, what scares them-with an intense economy that makes her prose perfectly suited to short stories.
It’s no wonder, then, that Bad Dolls, her first collection of short fiction, is full of that same thrilling, brilliant economy. Just as her first three novels proved that she can move easily and swiftly through many different horror subgenres, this slim volume of four creepy, beautifully realized short stories illustrates that Harrison is one of our most versatile and compelling modern horror writers, capable of engrossing you for hours or keeping you up all night with what she does in just a few pages.
As with her novels, each of the stories in Bad Dolls allows Harrison to explore the particular horrors and revelations in the lives of several women as they go through unusual, shocking, sometimes terrifying scenarios. In “Reply Hazy, Try Again,” it’s a flea market Magic 8 Ball with some very strange replies. In “Bachelorette,” it’s a weekend getaway that culminates in an unexpected new tradition. In “Goblin,” it’s a weight loss app that seems to quite literally take over your life. And in titular story, “Bad Dolls,” it’s a riff on the classic haunted doll and what it means for one woman in the midst of grief.
Each story allows Harrison to explore a different realm of horror fiction—cursed objects, physical manifestations of trauma, strange rituals—and each allows her to plumb the depths of those horrors through the eyes and mind of a particular woman at a particular tipping point in her life. It’s these women, and how Harrison fleshes each of them out in the span of only a few pages, who bring Bad Dolls to simmering, thrilling life, and as they emerge from the prose they offer a remarkable study in just how deft Harrison is at wielding her particular voice.
First-person narration allows the auuthor to dig deep into each character’s worldview with the same sense of immediacy and personality that we see in her novels. But what’s especially striking about Bad Dolls is how well the stories serve as a unified piece of work while also standing on their own. Each narrator is different—different fears, different motivations, different perceptions of their people surrounding them—and Harrison’s gift for instant, darkly witty layers for her narrators is on full display in each of their stories. One woman is worried about how she’ll be perceived by an ex, while another is having a new romantic awakening, and still another is trying to put on a brave face in a tense, awkwardly competitive situation.
They’re all distinct, from the jokes they tell to the way they respond to the horrors around them, and yet every story still feels distinctly like a Rachel Harrison story. Her voice is so strong that it threads through each personality inhabiting the worlds of Bad Dolls, and that’s a trick that’s hard to pull off for even the most seasoned of short fiction writers. It’s a testament to the remarkable versatility of Harrison as a horror storyteller, and proof that we should look forward to many more great stories from one of horror’s most exciting contemporary voices.
Bad Dolls is now available from Berkley Publishing.
Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.