It’s almost Halloween, so I decided to revisit the book that creeped me out the most as a child–The Dollhouse Murders. And guess what? It spooked me all over again.
The story centers around 12-year-old Amy Treloar, who goes to stay with her Aunt Clare for a few weeks because things are a little rocky at home. Aunt Clare, recently fired from her job in Chicago, is living in the house where Amy’s great grandparents once lived until something terrible happened to them. Although no one in the family seems to want to talk about it (especially not Aunt Clare), that something terrible looms overhead–literally–in the attic, where Amy discovers a haunted dollhouse.
At first Amy is charmed by the dollhouse and all the tiny details that appear to be exact replicas of the real house. But it’s not long before the charm wears off and the horror sets in. Each time Amy climbs the stairs to the attic, there’s something amiss. The dolls seem to to be moving around on their own. She hears strange scurrying sounds and distant wailing. The clues point in a startling direction: The dolls are re-enacting her great grandparents’ murder (gulp).
The dolls eventually lead Amy and her aunt to the murderer’s true identity, a twist that seems anticlimactic compared to the drama and intrigue building up to it. In the end, the whodunnit turns out to be totally random, and there’s no way the reader could ever figure out the why or how before it is revealed. However, I must say that despite the dud of a conclusion, all the scary stuff I remembered from this book proved to be just as scary the second time around.
What I had completely forgotten about is the subplot involving Amy’s sister, Louann. In fact, the reason Amy goes to stay with her aunt is to get a break from the stress of dealing with her special needs sister. Author Betty Ren Wright nails the nuances of this relationship. Amy is both protective of her sister and embarrassed by her. She feels suffocated by the responsibility of watching Louann, yet she’s conflicted when Louann is given more independence.
The Dollhouse Murders has some important lessons about how families so often try to protect feelings by keeping secrets, secrets that end up hurting more than they help. I breathed the biggest sigh of relief for Aunt Clare, who spent her whole adult life suffering with guilt (and probably post-traumatic stress disorder, too), going from job to job, and never finding happiness in a relationship. When she’s finally forced to talk about what happened to her when she was eighteen, I got the sense that even if the mystery hadn’t been wrapped up as neatly as it was, her burden would still have been lighter.
Fun retro detail: In the tradition of my beloved Fine Lines, I put some effort into finding the book cover I used for this post. It’s from the copy of The Dollhouse Murders I owned, with Amy in all her feathered hair glory. Overall, the story itself doesn’t seem that dated, but I did find a couple of time warp moments, including this hilarious scene:
Upstairs in her bedroom, she laid her tape player on her bed and sorted through the stack of tapes to find the ones she wanted. There were other things she needed as well–the Charlie bath powder that had been a Christmas gift from Louann…
Bonus #1: This author photo of Betty Ren Wright with Professor Whiskers pretty much speaks for itself. Okay, I admit it. There’s a chance that might not be the cat’s real name, but I can’t really think of a better one. Can you?
What books did you find bone-chilling and spine-tingling when you were growing up? Have you reread any of them recently?