Welcome back to Paperback Throwback, where I highlight a book from my ever-growing collection of older paperbacks, ‘90s and prior. Come check out everything from Zebra’s line of horror to Scholastic’s preteen Apple Paperbacks, and everything in-between— you’ll know them by their stylishly cheesy covers, flashy plots, and cheap prices.
Join me on this stroll down Literary Memory Lane. Stops include Sweet Valley High, Fear Street, and anywhere else mass market paperbacks may be lurking.
This week’s throwback will have you seeing ghosts.
Betty Ren Wright initially began publishing picture books in the 1950s, but achieved widespread acclaim for her string of middle grade books starting in the 1980s. And there’s a stark difference between these two literary worlds. While her picture books often packaged sunny stories about animals behind bright covers, many of her works for older children fell under a common theme that’s apparent just from looking at many of her titles: Christina’s Ghost, Ghosts Beneath Our Feet, Ghost in the Window, The Ghost of Popcorn Hill.
Wright found a calling and her tales of the supernatural left readers spellbound.
Her most famous book, The Dollhouse Murders, was first published in 1983 by Holiday House before being picked up by Scholastic for its Apple Paperbacks line. It was later reissued in 1995 under the Apple Chillers banner, a collection of classic Apple Paperbacks with a macabre bent.
In it, Amy, on the cusp of turning thirteen, struggles with taking care of her sister, Louann, who happens to have a mental disability. After yet another argument, she’s thrilled when her parents let her stay indefinitely with her Aunt Clare. Everything’s perfect at first: Amy has fewer responsibilities, Aunt Clare’s always baking, and the two even uncover a beautifully intricate dollhouse. However, as her stay continues, a family mystery begins to unravel … and soon Amy’s convinced the dolls are trying to tell her something.
Wright finds the perfect balance of creepy to spread over what, at its core, is a story of family dynamics and growing up. Amy has obviously hit her limit of responsibility as she feels Louann is inhibiting her ability to keep friends—though perhaps she’d feel better if her parents would actually listen to her concerns. It feels entirely natural that Amy is at her breaking point so early on in the book, and it leads to some charming moments as she grows to view her family differently through working to solve a mystery.
Even so, the mystery takes center stage, and Wright infuses a delicious uneasiness that permeates the pages. What starts as a quaint dollhouse quickly shifts into something almost sinister—certainly terrifying for Amy—but that ultimately takes on deeper meaning. Wright doesn’t settle for cheap scares. In the end, her ghost story serves to wrap everything together—and it more than succeeds.
Title: The Dollhouse Murders
Author: Betty Ren Wright
Publisher: Holiday House
Publication Date: September 1983
Classification: Horror, Middle Grade