I was reading Henry C. Mercer’s November Night Tales (1928) because I knew that at least one character appeared in at least two of these spooky stories. I wanted to see if perhaps this Charles Carrington fellow might be an occult detective in some form.
Yes, it turns out that Carrington acts as a ghost hunter in “The Dolls’ Castle,” though he’s more or less an astonished bystander in “The Blackbirds.” (He doesn’t appear in any of the other stories. Another character named Pryor, a painter, also appears twice. While Pryor faces the strange and even the supernatural, he’s much more a victim than a detective.)
“The Dolls’ Castle” is a fairly interesting story, one worth hunting down. The whole collection is reviewed very nicely by G.R. Collia on her The Haunted Library site, where she concludes with information on finding reprints of the book. I’ll look more specifically at the only tale there that comes close to qualifying as occult detection.
How is it that dolls, intended to be adorable, can so easily become unsettling? Is it because they are and aren’t human? Because they refuse to fit neatly into our well-segregated categories of species, including and especially our own species? Regardless of the answer, Mercer recognized that dolls could be every bit as scary as ghosts. Once Carrington — a playwright who gives ghost hunting a go — and his buddy arrive in the basement of a house alleged to be haunted, they stumble upon something disturbing.
There, propped close together against the dingy plaster, an unaccountable array of diminutive figures, — dolls, in various dresses and of many sizes and kinds, startling, repulsive, — seemed to gaze at them from the shadows. The slanting rays of evening . . . showed the havoc of moth and damp upon the tattered costumes, mouldy hair, and glassy-eyed faces rotted into paintless knobs.
Ghostly children also play a key role in the story, which ultimately features one of the greatest fears any parent can experience.
One weak spot in the tale, though, is its ending — and I also noticed this with the earlier stories in the collection. The first two tales, for example, end with accidental fires ignited very clearly by the writer’s hand more than anything intrinsic to the narrative. A later story employs a shipwreck to bring closure. Mercer handles the finale of “The Dolls’ Castle” a bit more adroitly: a subsequent investigation contradicts that Carrington and his friend ever saw those menacing, decaying dolls. A rational explanation for the playwright’s mistake is given, but by then, Carrington is too shaken by all he’s seen to ever play ghost-hunter again. This is a step or two away from the “was it all just a dream?” ending used by writers who’ve painted themselves into an inter-dimensional corner. Despite this unresolved resolution, “The Dolls’ Castle” stands as one of the stronger works in the book.