Toy Story’s eerie concept of sentient, self-propelled toys is terrifying, if you really think about it, but at least Buzz Lightyear and his friends aren’t a malevolent bunch. However, ranging from gory and disturbing to sad, sweet and epic, this collection of playful nightmares may inspire you keep those action figures and favourite childhood toys under lock and key until the sun comes up. Just to be sure.
And wait, isn’t that Barbie looking at you funny?
Inside the Boxes by Jeff Strand
A man visiting his loving grandparents uncovers some deeply disturbing secrets about his childhood. Tongue in cheek but dark as hell, a great opener to the anthology and perfectly hitting a tone of repressed unpleasantness and corrupted innocence
Down in the Woods Today by Emily C. Skaftun
Very unnerving twist on something so familiar and cute. It’s midsummer in the woods, and of course, the teddy bears must have their picnic. But pagan-esque rites make monsters out of children’s loyal friends. This is definitely the stuffing of nightmares.
Dollhouse by Craig Wallwork
A clever take on the ‘haunted dollhouse’ scenario. I think we’ve all learned by now that if you find a perfect miniature replica of everything in your home, including its occupants, then you either run away or burn the thing. Fast. Eerie and upsetting, an excellent story.
Poor Me and Ted by Kate Joney
A damaged character’s disturbing reaction to grief. This story cleverly strangles you with your own heartstrings, twisting into an all too plausible and horrific payoff.
A Little Crimson Stain by Joe McKinney
A rare antique collector thinks he’s hit the big time when he discovers a valuable collectible doll packed away with a creepy picture of a dead girl. However, he soon learns that some toys are best left lost. Effectively spooky, and very visual.
I Heard it Through the Grapevine by S. S. Michaels
Brilliant story. A young boy hides in the attic to escape his abusive, violent father, only to receive help from a truly unexpected source. With plenty of gore and suspense, it’s still almost too ridiculous to work, but it totally gets away with it.
Dreams of a Ragged Doll by Cate Gardner
A girl follows her dream to a weird circus, although it’s all so surreal it’s hard to entirely catch the point of it all. It seems to be a bad dream about rag-dolls and human stitches that snap, and the imagery is uncanny and painful. There’s a real sense of unravelling reality as her sanity, and limbs, get snipped away.
Attic Dog by David Raffin
Wonderfully sad and very strange. Creates a beautifully desolate atmosphere of dust-strewn, forgotten spaces and the creeping, lonely decay of a long abandoned toy. Also there’s an alarming possible future for the ‘attic dog’ himself, if he ever gets out again.
When Harry Killed Sally by Lisa Morton
A concerned mother is driven to the brink when her daughter keeps destroying all her playthings, and then she hears a bizarre scratching sound in their attic. An enjoyable slice of ‘creepy child’ horror.
Living Doll by Piers Anthony
An excellent story that reads more like an exotic, yet classical fairytale. It’s a charming and beautiful piece of work, even if it isn’t technically horror. With plenty of magic, sorcerers curses and heroic quests, it maintains a tough, down-to-earth streak that stops it getting too syrupy.
The White Knight by Aric Sundquist
Children can get a bit lost inside their dangerous games, with very ominous consequences. Also, never listen to a talking stuffed blue cat, especially one that talks about real curses. An important lesson learned from a deceptively fluffy story.
The Doll Tree by Amelia Mangan
Eerie, very visual piece which carries you to some vivid yet surreal places. More about atmosphere than action, this takes you on a strange, dreamlike journey and leaves some horribly uncanny imagery festering in the brain.
A Little Terror by Phil Hicks
One of the most memorable stories here, and sickly funny. A boy mutilates his sister’s toys and turns them into a fearsome monster. If only lightning hadn’t struck the attic on the very same night. The good sort of nasty, with a knowing trickle of molasses-black humour.
Give it a Name by Gary McMahon
This modern day Rumplestilskin story has an inevitable ending, and the final reveal doesn’t entirely ring convincingly, but this is a well managed, unforgiving update of a sinister storybook classic.
Discarded by Nancy Rosenberg England
A short tale, where a boy trapped in an attic is spooked out by a legion of sullen, soulless dolls. Creepy at first, but it feels like it lets a little too much light in at the end.
Googly by Jeremy C. Shipp
Not as wantonly surreal as a lot of his work, but very involving and powerful. A young boy must decide what his parents want of him after they lock him in the empty attic with only his long dead sister’s bones for company. Things only get worse for him after that. Great ending, too.
Rubik’s Cube by Melanie Mascio
Can you lose your mind to a 1980s fad? A man twisted up over his responsibilities becomes increasingly averse to reality, and works through this by obsessively trying to solve the classic toy, while he also wonders just what happened to his Smurf puppet? Unusual, in a good way.
A Brightly-Coloured Box Full of Stars by Dorian Dawes
A man is led to an ordinary door on an ordinary street, where a witch promises to find him what he longs to rediscover. The trouble is, there’s always a price to pay. Very sinister with a rich and chilling payoff.
The Tea-Serving Doll by Mae Empson
The second story in the collection to channel fairytale wonder over real horror, this is still very beautiful. Beguilingly combines the plight of Japanese immigrants, family betrayal, slavery and mysterious heirlooms. This was a rather charming and well mannered finish to a seriously impressive anthology.