December 21, 2017
Behind The Doll Funeral: Of parents, forests, and secrets (An instance of the past revisiting the present)
by Kate Hamer
The year is winding down, and we’re officially on hiatus. But, seeing as how internets gonna internet, we’re using this time to look back on some of our favorite posts from 2017. This one, from Kate Hamer—author of The Girl in the Red Coat and The Doll Funeral—looks at how the second of these came about. “The past revisiting the present” indeed! Originally published on August 15.
The Doll Funeral begins with a secret revealed. Ruby Flood finds out on her thirteenth birthday that she was adopted as a baby, but her reaction to this is not quite expected — she runs out into the garden, lifts her head up to the storm clouds, and sings for joy. After her first dreadful thirteen years the news has finally given her hope for the future. So begins the hunt for her birth parents, but, as with any mission such as this, there are dangers: delve into the past and all sorts of secrets begin to surface. The search will eventually lead her to her birth parents, another family, and a body, although none of these in ways she could have anticipated!
I’m always fascinated by the dynamics of family, and the central question of this book is: What is family, and what does it mean? When Ruby sets out on her journey she becomes literally haunted by the past and by previous generations. Still, one question always burns bright in her mind: Can she make her own family? Do you have to live the life that’s been handed to you by the past or, if you are prepared to fight, to go through terrible trials, is it possible to forge a new identity, a new future, and a new family for yourself?
This sense of place was crucial for me in the novel and much in the story springs from it. I’d tried to set the story in several places in the UK without success — in the South Wales valleys and in a place called Pendle just outside of Manchester. Somehow, though, it always felt like there was something off kilter, something missing. While we were visiting the little town of Monmouth, on the border between England and Wales and itself interesting, full of medieval buildings and associations with ancient kings, I saw a sign for “The Forest of Dean.” I crossed the ancient stone bridge that led into the forest canopy and I could’ve cried because I knew straight away that I’d found the location that my story had been in search of.
The forest for me was a perfect metaphor and backdrop for this story. Forests feature predominantly in North European fairy tales and are places full of shadows that at once provide shelter, hide threat, and are the repositories of secrets. One of the characters in The Doll Funeral articulates it like this: “Who knew what was out there, buried at the foot of trees, being covered year on year by another layer of leaves.” Forests are the perfect places for hiding things, be they emotions, predators, or bodies. If there is a fairy tale parallel to the book it would be Snow White, the young woman who is sent out into the forest to die, who finds methods of survival despite everything. Ruby has a beauty all of her own and, like many teenage girls, develops a relationship with the mirror in her household (just as Snow White does). But forests in folklore, film, and literature also play host to the supernatural. It’s easy to understand why if you’ve ever walked alone in one — by day they are mysterious places, and by night they can become terrifying!
In many supernatural tales, the theme of the past revisiting the present and not leaving it alone is the prevalent one. In The Doll Funeral, the hauntings that are most potent are the ones by family — often in the form of the revelation of family secrets. How often are hauntings in literature perpetrated by conscience or family or both? Shakespeare summoned spirits and apparitions as easily as he’d write an everyday domestic scene and that is part of their power. They are both parts of the fabric of the world and the outward indicators of torture of the mind. Banquo’s ghost appears to Macbeth and to Macbeth alone, yet he does not doubt its presence. Hamlet is a dutiful son, yet when his father’s ghost appears to him and demands revenge for his murder Hamlet remains torn — does he trust the supernatural messenger or not? That the visitation is from “the ties that bind” makes it highly potent. These spirits represent in some ways the deep presence of developmental relationships within the psyche, a kind of hidden programming. That’s certainly what I was interested in exploring in The Doll Funeral — “the real ghosts are family,” says one character. It’s about those events and relationships that we can never fully lay to rest — and the ways that we survive them.
Kate Hamer is a winner of the Rhys Davies short story prize. She is the author of the novels The Girl in the Red Coat and The Doll Funeral, both available from Melville House.