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The Dollmaker

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Gothic Horror

Tags: Golems, alchemy, voyeurism, Frankensteinish, identity loss, monster identity – man or monster, dark art creation


Stephen Monaghan is a brilliant chemist and gifted sculptor. Unable to love a human woman, he uses his genius and arcane science to create a living woman out of wood. Just one can’t fill his bottomless need, so he creates more and more of these dolls. With each act of creation, he loses something of himself: his signature, his knowledge, his shadow, his voice and finally his blood. His sacrifices produce dolls that do not just move but live and learn, exploring humanity through the humans that inspired their creation. The dolls do not become human, but evolve into creatures with free will and self-expression. By the end, he is more doll than man, and they are more human than human.

304 pages, Kindle Edition

First published August 28, 2012

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About the author

Justin Robinson

36 books151 followers
Much like film noir, Justin Robinson was born and raised in Los Angeles. He splits his time between editing comic books, writing prose and wondering what that disgusting smell is. Degrees in Anthropology and History prepared him for unemployment, but an obsession with horror fiction and a laundry list of phobias provided a more attractive option.

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5 stars
32 (65%)
4 stars
9 (18%)
3 stars
5 (10%)
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3 (6%)
Displaying 1 - 16 of 16 reviews
Profile Image for James.
190 reviews
December 30, 2012
I wasn't sure what to make of this book initially. All I had heard was it was about a guy who made some life-sized dolls he had a disturbing relationship with. Having read it, I can affirm it is definitely a disturbing story about some life-size dolls. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb and tell you that if you don't have a relatively strong stomach for disturbing concepts and gore, you probably won't make it past the first 10 pages. Although, if that's the case, I'm not sure why you would come waltzing into the horror aisle looking for some reading. Your tolerance for disturbing must be THIS high to go on this ride.

It's not all gore though, of course. The truly disturbing scenes (either in concept or graphic detail) really just exist to punctuate a truly great story about losing oneself to obsession, unrequited love, being different and the dangers of bringing golems to life with perverse Hebrew sex magic. I'm not sure how to describe my favorite parts of the book without completely spoiling the plot, but I will say I found the dolls enjoyably imaginative, creepy and alien. And I enjoyed the overall structure and character development of the story. It starts with an introduction to the protagonist, which will give you the unsettling feeling that it is not likely to work out well for him. And after the main characters and their flaws are introduced and set in motion you'll be mumbling, "well, that can't be good." as you keep flipping the pages forward, wondering which weak link will be the first to snap. The finale, when it arrives, is strange, oddly beautiful and terrifying. There's a peculiar kind of fascination in watching Stephen, the dollmaker, lose bits of himself to The Work out of an unquestioned compulsion to create, even as it spirals out of control all around him.

Justin, much like Stephen, has carved a body of words for you, splattered it with blood and gore and brought it to life. Do yourself a favor and dance with it for a while.
Profile Image for Ashley.
4 reviews
January 20, 2020
Finally, a horror book that actually horrifies!

The first ten pages tested my wanting to read this book, but once I got past that, it had its fangs in me. Whilst the subject matter is disturbing and the book sometimes gets pretty graphic, you can't help but want to know what happens on the next page. I started the book earlier today and it kept me so engaged that I stayed up into the early AM hours to both finish it and write this review.

This is a book that I HIGHLY recommend to any true horror fan.
9 reviews
January 14, 2013
I'm not going to lie to you - this book's pretty dark. But if you like real horror (mixed with some philosophical questions about reality and humanity), you're going to love this book. It might keep you up at night, but it's certainly not an experience you're going to easily forget. Nor will you want to forget it, as it's not only haunting, but also strangely poignant and affecting. Robinson's created a truly original story. Do yourself a favor and read it now.
Profile Image for Penny.
230 reviews1 follower
September 6, 2015
An homage to Frankenstein crossed with an erotic nightmare, shot through with shades of Philip K. Dick's eternal question: what does it mean to not be human? This is a dark, disturbing story about love, desire, repression, and the line between fantasy and reality. It is a gripping read with surprising depth, and one of the most creative horror stories I have ever encountered.
Profile Image for Janet Rogers.
4 reviews1 follower
November 12, 2018
Actual rating is closer to 4.5, but some hiccups with the plot or continuity make me hesitant to give it a perfect score.

I got the sense in early chapters that this book would be along the lines of Frankenstein, braced myself for it to play out as a Frankensteinian tragedy. I was wrong. There are definitely parallels- this book is still technically about a troubled genius creating artificial life, and then having to confront the implications and consequences when his creation(s) feel, learn, and evolve. But this story ventures well outside that mold.

This novel takes a fresh approach to the idea of creating artificial life. The stark differences in the dolls personalities and their responses to their different circumstances are this book’s strength. It let’s the story step away from the basic “is it wrong to play God”, and move on to bigger and better things. If personhood isn’t limited to humanity, how should we adjust our moral systems? How do humans and non-humans learn what the others consider harmful, and can we (should we) forgive one another’s learning curves?

It presents the idea of an individuals innate nature, and asks whether it’s possible to redirect, change, or stop that nature, or if we are what we were made to be. It asks the reader questions about what it is to exist as a sentient being. This story takes a nuanced stroll through morality, but doesn’t shy from condemning those who deserve it.

I won’t lie, the emphasis on sex and sexual perversion makes it hard to recommend this to people, as does all the graphic depictions if violence and self-harm. This book goes beyond “not for everyone” and into “not for most people, and even those few need to be in the right head space.”

If you can stomach those elements, accept that there are things important to the characters and not let it too far under your skin, this book has big questions to chew on.
June 14, 2018

Stephen Monaghan is a shy, strange genius living a disturbing double life. One half is a shy, lonely, introverted young man. The second a perverse mad scientist who, to satisfy a livelong obsession, literally bleeds himself dry to create the perfect woman. He creates his dolls from wood, porcelain, plastic, and eventually glass, every act of creation taking a piece of himself along the way. They take on lives of their own as Stephen's work grows beyond anything he could've imagined. One thing is for certain: His creations are changing him. But will they destroy him?

This was a strange read, to be sure.
For the first ten pages, I was seriously considering putting it down because I was legitimately nauseated at what was on the page. After that, things evened out as I was drawn into this disturbing but surprising tale. Robinson's prose is vibrantly unsettling, which helps in depicting the strangeness of the dolls and the depths of dysfunction his characters exhibit. Everyone in this book, in one way or another, has something to hide and he makes sure that we know every nasty detail. I found myself compelled to keep reading despite the horror Stephen inflicts upon himself and others, accidental or otherwise.

Much like the title character, this book is not quite what it seems. Cinema-savvy readers may notice echoes of David Cronenberg's The Fly in an obsessive scientist's self-destruction due to his work while the strong queer subtext of Clive Barker edges in at times.

It is an at times horrific descent into the darkest gaps of a man's desires. Yet it is transformative.

So how will it change you?
Profile Image for Tudor Gădălean.
34 reviews2 followers
September 4, 2019
It's clear from the beginning that Justin Robinson strove to write a really strange book. Sometimes that played to his advantage; other times I feel like it made his writing incoherent.

This is a story about a guy who makes „dolls”. He is a combination of Geppetto and Frankenstein with one big difference: he (always) fucks his dolls in the act of creation. I'm kidding. Not about the intercourse, but about his motives and application. Stephen Monaghan, our wannabe Geppetto, tries to cover his insecurities and his inability to develop or keep a stable relation with most of the human women in his life by recreating them as a new life form. As such, he eliminates their imperfections.

His project, called The Work, starts rather „innocent”, but it develops into a maddening quest that doesn't really have a final goal. In my opinion, this is the weakest part of the book. The motives of the characters are sometimes poorly defined. They're actions don't have a clear internal logic and their reactions are at times contradictory, even in a short period of time. This applies to the humans and the dolls. You can maybe excuse the last one, considering that they are an entirely unique life form. Personally, it kept me from actually loving this book.

Don't get me wrong. This is a solid novel. The writing and the pace are good, the creepiness factor is really high at times and its main idea is downright amazing. Also, the book raises really important questions about inadequacy, identity and societal vs. personal norms. I just felt that the execution (and the ending) could've been better.
Profile Image for val.
71 reviews12 followers
April 12, 2019
It starts out gorey, gets a bit clunky with exposition, but from there you're taken for a ride. I haven't delved much into horror but I thought this was one of the most unique stories I've experienced. The cast of characters that keeps growing and growing is handled well; the dolls each have distinct personalities and motivations that aren't cookie-cutter, which I seriously would have hated.

The main character, in my opinion, is more fleshed out than the awkward-genius mold I expected him to come out of. He reminded me of that Slavoj Žižek quote: "when we get too close to the desired object, erotic fascination turns into disgust at the Real of the bare flesh." You could somewhat empathize with him even after the first introduction to him is bloody and perverse.

There isn't much humor from what I can remember, but this made me laugh since bad things were happening at this moment, and yet:
Stephen fell backward into a chair, knocked it over and tumbled to the floor. He tasted blood. Blood was creation. Suddenly he was hard.

It's honestly better than most of the Stephen King stories I've read, and it's a shame it doesn't seem to have reached a large audience.
Profile Image for Karen M.
584 reviews9 followers
December 30, 2014
“She would not live. Then again, none of them would, not without whatever he had found in the corners of reality.” – The Dollmaker

It started with a poster hung on the wall of his sister’s bedroom and slowly over the years became an obsession that he had to fulfill. He had a need to create a replacement, an image to which he was capable of connecting. Stephen was a genius and would use his genius to create a substitute for what he desired but could not bear to have in his life or his bed. As each creature is completed Stephen seems to lose a bit of himself. They are made with his sweat and blood and the echoes of those Stephen desires but can’t abide in his life. They take on a life of their own while Stephen seems to be losing his. Perfection, all Stephen wanted and needed was perfection but now that he has it, has it become obsessed with him?

Wonderful book which is somewhat reminiscent of Frankenstein and The Puppet Master but yet very different. The author writes in a manner that keeps you drawn into the story, waiting for the inevitable to happen and yet hoping that it doesn’t. I guess the correct word would be suspenseful but it doesn’t quite fit because you know the inescapable ending must transpire but the journey to the end is so worth the wait.

I won this book in a First Reads giveaway.

Profile Image for John Taff.
Author 83 books252 followers
August 19, 2013
Justin Robinson's The Dollmaker is terrific. Period. Extremely original, discomfitting in its gore and blood, but with a strangely sad and poignant heart. I'm going to do it injustice here trying to describe it, but it's sort of like Frankenstein, the Greek myth of Pygmalion (not the musical) and Disney's The Sorcerer's Apprentice (the classic cartoon, not the horrid Nick Cage movie) came together in Robinson's mind (they probably didn't mind you, I'm just trying to describe it). The story is, by turns, gross, vulgar, sad, triumphant, eerie, disturbing, creepy and moving. I don't know if it's meant to be, but it's a great allegory for the artist and art. How much of an artist is poured into his creation? And what does the act of creation itself do to both the artist and the art? Is the artist diminished wit each creation? A lot to think about here in this tight, horrid little tale. Great story, highly recommended!
Profile Image for Leila.
31 reviews
September 4, 2012
This is honestly one of the most disturbing books I've ever read. That said, as soon as I started it, I couldn't put it down. I was fortunate enough to read the book during its draft stage, and I finished it the day I started it.

The story isn't a happy one. The good things that happen are really more like not-totally-horrible things happening. Don't let that scare you away! The story is engrossing and the characters are, for the most part, deeply flawed and realistic. This is not a book for the squeamish, but it certainly IS a book for any horror novel fan looking for something new to fuel their nightmares.

Justin's writing will keep you interested the entire journey, and if you were silly enough to read it at night like I did, maybe you'll find yourself finishing the novel at 2 am, thinking maybe it's a great night to leave the lights on.
Profile Image for Autumn.
28 reviews
February 5, 2017
This book was a train wreck. It started out fairly weak, feeling juvenile and first-novelish. The author clearly grew up around Claremont, California, as did I, and he has that annoying, amateur tendency to relay details that are only meaningful to people who also get the reference. I know all about the Claremont Colleges, and I still found the references irritating and irrelevant. Someone unfamiliar with the area would be completely clueless, and since that level of detail wasn't necessary for the story,it should have been omitted. Still, that's the best that can be said for the whole book. It devolved into a mess of nonsensical, flowery description, and the giving of "new names" to characters who hadn't been developed enough to be relevant. I don't want to spoil it in case someone hates themselves enough to want to read it, but oh dear Lord, it was just awful.
Profile Image for Mana Taylor-Hall.
13 reviews1 follower
February 15, 2013
Dollmaker was, is, unique for me. Book are normally something to be absorbed, for the story to wash over and to be carried along with it. Only after I'm done do I find which images stick with me and define the story. That was not the case with Robinson's Dollmaker. The images, the scenes he created would linger, forcing me to revisit them before I could move on to the rest of the story.

It is a horror that creeps under your own skin and forces you to feel it. Which, with the dark places Dollmaker goes, isn't always pleasant, but is so much a part of the rightness of the story. Dollmaker is a unique story, that touches on the deepest questions of what makes us human. A book that I encourage you to read, and one that I fully intend to read again.
Profile Image for Scott.
42 reviews
March 21, 2013
Not since Micheal Slade's Headhunter and Ghoul have I read something as enjoyably disturbing as Dollmaker. Those who know Robinson only for his humorous slant on conspiracies in his novel Mr. Blank are in for a surprise when they dive into his latest outing. In Dollmaker, Robinson grabs us by the hand and drags us into the darkest corners of urban fantasy, laughing maniacally at our horrified reactions to what he's left there for us to experience.
Profile Image for Ash.
32 reviews
March 29, 2014
Loved it!

I absolutely loved The Dollmaker. It was disturbing, creepy, but most of all, a work of art. There were many parts which were hard to read just because they were SO depraved... and yet I was unable to look away.
The book is slightly choppy at the beginning, but after awhile it is easy to pick up the author's flow.
read this book. :)
Displaying 1 - 16 of 16 reviews

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