American writer Norman Prentiss just won the Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in Long Fiction, and the year before he snagged it for Short Fiction. In between these two career milestones he appeared in Black Static #20 with this elegant and disturbing story.
Told from the perspective of Cheryl Ann, the story begins with the introduction of the doll – ‘Her father told her that it was an antique doll that rich folk would put on a fancy shelf behind glass.’ And immediately we have a source of tension, because while the doll is evidently a collectible Cheryl Ann is only a little girl with a more ‘hands on’ approach. She and her father argue about the doll, and eventually the girl gets her own way, with a comment made about how the father used to fight with Cheryl Ann’s mother, who got fat not from eating and went away.
Each night Cheryl Ann sleeps with the doll, Miss Rose, held close in her arms, and of course the doll is damaged. Cheryl Ann’s father cannot repair it, but he offers an acceptable solution to Cheryl Ann’s dilemma; wrap the doll in a pillowcase, so that Cheryl Ann cannot see it and is thus able to convince herself that it is not damaged at all.
A stray dog, named Miss Charlene by Cheryl Ann, dies giving birth to a litter of puppies, and Cheryl Ann witnesses her father putting the puppies in a bag and taking them down to the creek, only she isn’t quite sure what she has seen and the full implications don’t register. While playing she pulls a heavy sack from the creek, weighted down with stones and containing ‘seven soft shapes’.
Cheryl Ann starts to worry about Miss Rose – ‘The doll’s shape wasn’t right any more’, and her sack is becoming increasingly dirty and unsavoury. When the first day of school arrives she wants to take Miss Rose with her, but her father won’t allow such a thing. At school, with her unfashionable clothes and strange ways, Cheryl Ann becomes a target for bullies. During break they steal her pack, but the boy who opens it and looks inside ‘got sick, all over his pretty ironed shirt and thin blue tie’. Pandemonium breaks out in the playground and a teacher is summoned, ‘and Cheryl Ann knew her Daddy would have some difficult questions to answer’.
Initially, this story presents us with an almost idyllic picture of a flawed family unit, the lone father trying to cope with a young daughter in the wake of the mother’s desertion, and making a half decent fist of it. Cheryl Ann’s father is kind to her, brings her presents, helps to make things better when they go wrong, and the girl appears appreciative of this even if she does sometimes ‘try it on’ and test the boundaries of parental authority.
But as the story progresses, a somewhat less rosy picture emerges. Cheryl Ann is being left on her own all day. He starts to drink and talk to himself, while the girl stays in her room. On one occasion he lashes out, hitting the girl, and although he’s instantly sorry and hugs his daughter to him for Cheryl Ann the experience isn’t exactly reassuring – ‘His shirt was rough and wet with sweat. It almost smothered her, like a bag placed over her nose and mouth.’ He claims that he’ll be glad when she goes off to school, but all the same he forgets when the first day of term is and takes Cheryl Ann a week late, and presented in such a way that she gets picked out as ‘the smelly new girl with the smelly backpack’.
In reality, what we’re confronted with here is a dysfunctional family badly in need of outside intervention, and part of the story’s strength lies in the way Prentiss gradually reveals this, leaving the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. We get to see that there are two sides to the coin, that the man isn’t necessarily evil; the things he does may well be so, but they’re down to neglect and an overwhelming burden of misery (or possibly guilt) rather than simple malice. Despite everything Cheryl Ann loves her father, and there is that in him which merits love. Things are not black and white.
Cheryl Ann, however, is not a reliable narrator. Miss Rose serves the role of ‘imaginary friend’, someone Cheryl Ann talks to and confides in. The doll is very real to her, and there is the suggestion that this is slightly more than the usual childish attachment to a cherished object. The girl has an ability to become ‘detached’ from her own identity, so that when she does something wrong, when she disobeys her father, she behaves as if she hasn’t really done these things, only imagined what it would be like – ‘If she did follow’ her father to the creek. And at times Cheryl Ann seems slightly confused about what she’s done, as if the lines between fact and fiction have become blurred for her – ‘She couldn’t quite remember what she’d put in the pack, or even which bag’. And also, her understanding is that of a child, so she doesn’t entirely grasp what is happening and why when her father takes the newborn puppies to the creek, though the reader knows full well.
Hanging over everything is the absent mother, who went away when she got fat but not from eating, as Cheryl Ann puts it. But there are hints that something else happened – Cheryl Ann’s father yells at ‘a crumpled up picture he pulled from his wallet’ and her mother appears to have left her personal possessions behind. An idea that Cheryl Ann returns to several times is that people ‘get rid of nice things just because they’re bored of them’ – it’s applied in connection with both Miss Rose and the puppies her father takes to the creek. And, in closing, she speaks of ‘when Mummy went away and didn’t go away’.
The mystery of the mother is central – did she die, possibly in childbirth, and leave the father grieving, or perhaps he killed her in one of those moments of temper we bear witness to. The narrative certainly suggests the latter in its closing section, though again it’s told from Cheryl Ann’s perspective, and she is not reliable.
The central theme here is denial. Cheryl Ann hides her doll from view, rather than deal with the damage she has inflicted. As long as she doesn’t open the sack she pulls from the creek she can pretend that the puppies are still alive, ‘Eyes open, and smiles on their hungry mouths’. And at the end, in the very last line of the story – ‘As long as the pack stayed closed, the contents could be whatever she imagined them to be.’ Not knowing is a form of comfort for Cheryl Ann, a way to avoid the truth.
The opposite is true for the reader. For us the horror is in not knowing, in wondering what else could be in the pack that so appals those who look inside. ‘For certain, it wasn’t just Miss Rose, and not just the puppies that drowned either.’
But if not those things, what then? There’s the rub.
And there’s the horror.