Claire Mysko - author, speaker, consultant

Retro Review: The Dollhouse Murders

October 29th, 2008 · 16 Comments

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?

Bonus #2: Little Willow tipped me off to the fact that there is a Dollhouse Murders movie. Has anyone seen it?

What books did you find bone-chilling and spine-tingling when you were growing up? Have you reread any of them recently?

Tags: Books · Retro Review

16 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Little Willow // Nov 2, 2008 at 4:18 pm

    I’m glad to have inspired you to re-read this book! Now I want to as well. I don’t own it. Sigh. I’ll make a library request when time allows. :)

    Did you watch Are You Afraid of the Dark? on Nickelodeon? They had a great dollhouse episode. The protagonist had to go into it to figure things out and save her friend, who was becoming a porcelain doll bit by bit the longer she stayed there. It was SO good - better concept and writing than acting, I thought, but I really liked it.

    I always liked to pretend that my stuffed animals and dolls had events while I was off at school for the day. I always always liked spooky stories. Those two things combined in The Dollhouse Murders. I thought it was such a neat mystery.

    I wasn’t (and still am not) easily scared. I checked out The Dollhouse Murders many times from the library and read it again and again. I did the same with all of the fabulously creepy and/or ghostly mysteries from the 70s, 80s, and early 90s, written by authors like Betty Wen Wright, Lois Duncan, Richie Tankersley Cusick, and Mary Downing Hahn. (Note: As I write this comment, Claire, I realize it’s lengthy, and it very well may turn into a post at my own blog!) I remember having to talk a librarian into letting me read The Westing Game because it dealt with murder and she thought I was too young to read it, et cetera, et cetera, then I read it anyway and it became one of my favorite books!

    I had also forgotten about the sister in The Dollhouse Murders. Ooh. Yet another reason to re-read it!

    I recently posted about my favorite Lois Duncan novel, I Know What You Did Last Summer, at my blog and at the SparkNotes -> SparkLife book blog.
    I think Professor Whiskers would be a purrfect teacher.

  • 2 admin // Nov 7, 2008 at 12:14 pm

    oh, I LOVED the Westing Game! That’s going on my re-read list immediately.

  • 3 Sammy25 // Dec 4, 2008 at 9:53 am

    Loved your review…I read this book years ago (same cover lol). As a kid I loved the book I found it so creepy and the plot was perfect for me as a kid. I’m glad you reviewed the book. I think I’m going to have to reread it…and I’ve never read the Westing Game. I had it I just never read it…now I think I have to!

  • 4 admin // Dec 4, 2008 at 11:38 am

    Hi Sammy, Thanks for stopping by! Looking forward to checking out your blog.

  • 5 kaylee // Jan 15, 2009 at 11:48 pm

    i love thise book

  • 6 Elizabeth // Feb 12, 2009 at 12:55 pm

    Oh my god, do I remember the dollhouse episode of “Are You Afriaid of the Dark?”! Or actually, I’m not sure if I even remember an episode, or just the creepy, creepy dollhouse shot from the opening credits.

    Anyway, I’m writing my own blog post about The Dollhouse Murders, and do you mind if I take the image of the cover you scanned? I’ll attribute it to you. It’s the cover from my childhood and I was glad to be able to find the image online.

  • 7 Nostalgic affection or genuine book ardor?: The Dollhouse Murders « Underage Reading // Feb 19, 2009 at 10:15 am

    [...] the blogger from whom I stole the image of my original ’80s cover notes, the resolution to the book’s central mystery is really anti-climactic and a bit lame. I also [...]

  • 8 Claire Mysko // Feb 20, 2009 at 7:04 pm

    Hey Elizabeth, just checked out your blog and the review. Thanks for the link back!

  • 9 Elizabeth // Feb 26, 2009 at 12:13 am

    Hey, no problem! I’m glad I found your site when I was searching for the Dollhouse Mystery cover.

  • 10 Ian Johnson // May 22, 2009 at 11:49 am

    How cool. I can’t believe I found this blog. I was just looking to see if I could find “The Dollhouse Murders” online so my daughter could read it one day. I loved this book when I was a kid. It really was pretty scary. If you want to chase down your childhood a little more with another good suspense/horror book then make sure to check out a book called “The View from the Cherry Tree”. That’s another great read. It has a really great murder scene of a mean old lady being hung by the neck from her window with the strap of her binoculars. If my memory doesn’t fail me, I believe her eyes even pop out. Good stuff!

  • 11 Tiffany // Oct 20, 2009 at 12:58 am

    I read a book similar to this one years ago in elementary school, and try as I might I am still not sure if this could be the one. I will know for sure if you tell me that there are apples involved? Like the house is on an orchard maybe, or at least there’s an apple tree? And I know the publisher is Apple Books lol, but I’m looking for a book with apples in the plot.

  • 12 Natalie // Oct 21, 2009 at 11:45 pm

    Never read this one, but “Ghosts Beneath Our Feet” still spooks me, and I love the fact that as an Australian I have a “Commonwealth Edition” of it, which is really cool! It’s metric, basically. :) That Scholastic thought highly enough of it, and actually went to the trouble (!) of metricating it spins me out, to be honest. All of which makes me pine for it, I have no idea where it is! In a box, alone, and in the dark, and unloved. Sob.

  • 13 Sonia // Dec 13, 2009 at 10:03 pm

    I loved this book, but it scared me so much! It had to go in a box under my bed when I was done reading it. “The Ghost Next Door” is out of print now but was really good too. Thank you for your post on this!

  • 14 shana // May 12, 2010 at 1:20 am

    I have not read this book but I have seen the movie I loved it, i have been trying to find it on dvd but it was never made, i wish they would put it on tv again.

  • 15 savannah wuttke // May 14, 2010 at 5:58 pm

    today at school we watched the movie and it was…………………..AWSOME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!PEACE[:

  • 16 Miss Raven // Jun 26, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    Kind of tardy to the party, but I was thinking about this movie today for the first time in years and ended up at your blog.

    When I was a kid, they rented VHS tapes at my library along with books, and some maniacal librarian had stuck The Dollhouse Murders tape in the kid’s section. I think I was 8 or so at the time. My mother let me take it home. All was well and good, but then I watched it.

    This movie scared me so badly I didn’t sleep for a week. I didn’t read the book, but the movie was absolutely terrifying. I still vividly remember portions of it that give me the chills decades later. I was so scared I would lie in bed crying. It was awful.

    It may be a “young adult” book, but the movie is not for kids. I was reading young adult books by 3rd grade but even at an advanced level of comprehension the movie was too much. Maybe if you see it for the first time as an adult it’ll be campy and silly, but I’m not sure where to find a copy.

    … I’m going to go hide under my bed for awhile.

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