Wednesday, May 29, 2024

The Doll

The Doll, by Gerard Gormley
May, 1977  Pinnacle Books

Unjustly obscure, this Pinnacle paperback original deserved a better fate. At least it got a great cover illustration, courtesy Bruce Minney (who is credited on the copyright page); it’s a stepback cover, as shown below. And to Minney’s credit, he clearly read the manuscript (or was given good direction by the art director at Pinnacle), as he faithfully details the two main characters in the novel, as well as the bronze statue the protagonist works on, even down to the expression on the statue’s face. 

Coming in at 211 pages, The Doll is interesting in how it melds two disparate tones: the first half of the novel is essentially a love story, one complete with ‘70s-mandatory explicit sex. But the second half of the novel is a dark and disturbing descent into madness. My assumption is Gerard Gormley, who proves himself a gifted author, must have shot for the hardcover leagues but for whatever reason ended up publishing the book through Pinnacle…possibly not the best outfit for this book. I mean a subplot here concerns “The Man,” a Mafia bigwig in Boston, and one keeps waiting for the protagonist to call in Pinnacle Books star Mack Bolan

Opening in November of 1969, The Doll concerns Mark Forman, a thirty year-old sculptor who makes a meager living turning out statues in his Boston penthouse studio-apartment. Gormley well brings the character to life; Forman sports a beard (as per Minney’s illustration), and he’s very serious about his work, living almost a hermetic life. He’s approached one day by his landlord, Lou Pacino, who has a plush job for Forman: Pacino’s acquaintance, a wealthy man, wants a bronze statue made of his woman, and price will not be an issue. 

We already have an indication of the way the novel will be going, given the opening note that the story begins “like most nightmares.” Which is to say, without any indication that it will become a nightmare. But Gormley well establishes the forbidden nature of the romance that will expectedly ensue between Forman and the woman he is to create a statue of: Anna, a smokin’ hot “chestnut haired” beauty with violet eyes in her mid-twenties who is delivered to Forman’s door one day like a package. Gormley also handles the groundwork of the romance well, with the chemistry between Forman and Anna naturally developing and not seeming forced. Both characters are given personalities, and despite being a goddess-level beauty, Anna is easy to talk to and they have a nicely-developed rapport. 

Gormley also isn’t one to focus on the exploitation, which makes the ensuing sex scenes so hard-hitting. For one, when Anna does strip down for some nude sketches, Forman focuses on the task at hand before briefly allowing himself to “marvel at the perfection of [Anna’s] breasts” (size 36, as we learn when Forman takes her measurements), noting further that she is a “visual delight.” But instead the focus is on the chemistry between the two, rather than the exploitation of Anna’s ample charms. That said, the lovin’ doesn’t take too long to happen; but then, the two of them spend full days together alone in Forman’s studio, and one quickly detects that Anna is enjoying her time away from “The Man,” which is how Forman soon comes to think of the mysterious man Anna is the mistress of. 

In a way it’s all sort of like a rom-com or something; on their first day Anna asks Forman if he’s got a lot of girlfriends, but Forman claims he’s more of a shy type and wouldn’t even know how to hit on a woman as gorgeous as Anna, which leads to some role-playing that becomes serious quick for both of them. This leads to them thinking of each other all weekend, complete with Anna making surprise calls to Forman. Some of it is funny, like when Anna gives a tired Forman a massage, which gives him an immediate hard-on. But boy when the sexual shenanigans transpire, no sleazy stone is left unturned; it goes on for a few pages, complete with Anna’s explicit descriptions of her orgasms (“Darling, I’m coming again. Deep inside this time!”) and TMI detail like Forman “gloriously gushing” into her upon his own orgasm. Actually, “gloriously gushing” is used again in the novel; personally I think it should’ve been the title of the book. 

Here's where the “nightmare” angle comes into play, because – you won’t be surprised to learn – Anna’s boyfriend is clearly a high-ranking Mafioso. Anna is tight-lipped about him, but we learn he is not the expected old and ugly guy who could afford such a beauty as Anna, but rather a young and attractive man who happens to be in an unhappy marriage arranged by “the families.” So Anna’s in two secret relationships: one with “The Man,” which is kep secret from the Man’s wife, and one with Forman, which is kept secret from the Man. 

But the relationship with Forman is where Anna’s heart is, and Gormley does lay it on a little thick with Anna and Forman expressing love for each other, even down to ridiculous “foreshadowing” stuff where Anna proclaims how “even death” wouldn’t keep her from Forman. I mean let’s telegraph it a little more, huh? Also, Forman knows he’s getting in hot water because his landlord, Pacino, is becoming increasingly nervous on the project, saying how his friend thinks the statue should be done already – I forgot to mention, but Forman never even meets the Man, the entire project handled through Pacino. And it’s clear that the Man is starting to suspect Forman of intentionally taking his time. 

Gormley also well captures the artistic mindset and the laborious process of making a bronze statue. It’s not overbearing and is handled well, letting us see Forman in action. His goal is to capture Anna’s beauty – and also we learn that her body is so incredible that Forman decides to make it slightly less gobsmacking, so the statue will be more believable! He struggles over the expression for the statue, finally deciding on a yearning, gazing-into-the-distance expression Anna had on her face on that first day, when Forman was doing sketches of her; Forman had asked her to think of her childhood, and that was the expression on Anna’s face when she talked of being a child. This is also the expression Bruce Minney has tried to convey in his cover illustration, so again he either read the book or read this section to do a faithful job of it. 

The nightmare portion of The Doll develops just as naturally as the rom-com portion. Anna is quickly removed from Forman’s life, the Man calling her back – and having Pacino kick Forman out of his studio apartment, as the Man clearly suspects Forman of having screwed Anna. Even though Forman and Anna have no way of contacting each other, Forman not even knowing Anna’s last name, our industrious protagonist figures out a way to track her down…with devastating results. The ensuing sequence is out of a Pinnacle novel, complete with Forman getting beaten near to death by a pair of Mafia stooges. 

But whereas the hero of a typical Pinnacle book would recuperate and then train himself in the fine art of killing, Mark Forman instead tries to get his hands to work again so he can get back to sculpting. The novel gradually becomes more of a sick descent into a damaged mind, as Forman’s brain was injured in the beating, and gradually he loses any connection between fantasy and reality. This is how the titular “doll” comes into the story; Forman kept the wax mold used to create the bronze statue of Anna, meaning Forman has a perfect likeness of Anna…and he creates a life-size latex doll of this likeness. And soon enough he’s shopping for wigs of real hair, gemstone eyes of the same violet color as Anna’s eyes, using spare hair from the wig to create eyebrows and pubic hair, etc. Just a crazy descent into sickness, with the interesting gimmick that Gormley writes it all casually, given that Forman himself doesn’t think it’s sick – he’s just a man determined to get Anna back. 

So yes, the latter half of The Doll concerns a guy in love with a lifesize latex doll, even hollowing out a section in the crotch so that he can “gush gloriously” into it. And the madness is well handled, with Forman coming up with a complete alternate reality of what happened to Anna…sometimes the doll is really her, other times he realizes it’s just a simulacrum he’s made of her, etc. That said, I did find the reveal of what really happened to Anna a little underwhelming, and had wished for more insight into her story, even if Forman had to get it from someone else, like perhaps his landlord Pacino – again, I wanted more of your standard Pinnacle hero, more of a man of action who would’ve gotten the answers he wanted. 

Ultimately The Doll left me with a sick feeling, Gerard Gormley doing a great job of documenting a man’s slipping hold on sanity, but I felt that it was too hard of a punch after the easy, naturally-developing chemistry of the opening half. The book essentially delivers an unexpected uppercut to the reader, and I can’t say I enjoyed the experience…perhaps it would have been more palatable if it had built to a more satisfying climax. But Gormley is determined to tell a dark tale, and clearly his ending is more realistic than the one I would’ve wanted – say, Mark Forman buying himself a shotgun and doling out some bloody payback. 

That said, the finale itself is pretty nuts, dark, and twisted, with a pair of young hoodlums breaking into Forman’s studio and discovering the doll and, uh, having a little sick fun with it. When Forman gets back from an art show and discovers the transgression, he goes ballistic, and given that he’s now a psycho he has psycho strength, smashing out brains and whatnot. It’s crazy and all, but again just so out of sync with the vibe of the first half of the novel. But then as mentioned the novel is really two stories in the same book: a romance for the first half, followed by a hundred pages of a guy falling in love with a lifesize doll and screwing it a bunch. 

But on that note, I guess this element of The Doll was a lot more shocking in its day. Lifesize latex sex dolls are fairly common today; I think I have a couple in my downstairs closet. Just kidding. But didn’t I read a news story a few years ago about some dude marrying a latex sex doll? Crazy, but in retrospect I guess it’s no more crazy than marrying a real woman, is it? I mean at least the doll won’t nag you to death. 

As promised, here’s Bruce Minney’s interior illustration – as you’ll note, my copy has writing on it, but that’s cool. I don’t mind that sort of thing nearly as much as I once did. In fact I think it’s cool that someone named “Lottie” once owned this copy, and liked it so much she even wrote “please return” on it. Sorry, Lottie – I’m keeping it. 


Robert Deis (aka "SubtropicBob") said...

Good review of a book I was unaware of. Thanks! And thanks, too, for showing Bruce Minney's stepback artwork for the inner flap. I'd never seen that and I'm a big Minney fan.

Johny Malone said...

An update of the myth of Pygmalion.