"The Haunted Dolls' House" is a short ghost story by the British author M.R. James. It first appeared in print in the March 16, 1923 issue of the magazine Empire Review. It was republished in 1925 as part of the anthology A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories.
The story concerns an antiques dealer named Dillet who acquires a beautiful antique dolls' house for a relatively low price. The dolls' house comes complete with dolls which represent servants and a family made up of two children, a father, a mother and a grandfather. At one o'clock in the morning, Dillet sees a ghostly drama play out in the dolls' house. It shows how the mother and father murdered the grandfather by poisoning him and the consequences of that crime.
Antiques dealer Mr. Dillet sees an antique dolls' house in the second-hand shop of Mr. Chittenden. Mr. Dillet pretends not to be very impressed by the dolls' house. Mr. Chittenden, however, knows that Mr. Dillet does not mean what he says and is simply trying to drive down the price. The two men eventually agree on a price of about sixty guineas for the item. After Mr. Dillet leaves, a conversation takes place between Mr. Chittenden and his wife which reveals that they are both very glad to see the dolls' house go.
The only place in his home where Mr. Dillet is able to set up the dolls' house is on a large table in his bedroom. The doll's house is an exceptionally fine one. To the left of the house is a chapel with stained glass windows and a bell tower. There is a stable to the right of the house. All of the rooms are exquisitely furnished. The house comes complete with dolls that represent eight servants, a father, a mother, a boy and a girl. Dillet discovers another doll, which represents a grandfather, behind the curtains of a four-poster bed. Dillet draws his finger back hastily when he first touches the grandfather doll because it seems to move a little.
At night, Dillet is woken up by the sound of a bell striking one o'clock, even though there are no clocks with bells within earshot of his bedroom. There is no light in the bedroom but Dillet is able to see the dolls' house very clearly. Dillet sees trees around the dolls' house and thinks that he can smell the air of a cool September evening. The night sky appears above the dolls' house instead of Dillet's bedroom wall. Dillet is able to see inside the dolls' house. He sees its occupants move. He cannot hear anything that they say, although he hears some other sounds.
Dillet sees the father and mother in the dining room after a meal. They both look anxious. The father goes to the window and looks and listens for something. The mother takes something from the father and leaves the room. The mother goes into the grandfather's room with a bottle of wine in her hand. A nurse pours some of the wine into a saucepan, adds spice and sugar to it and heats it over the fire. At the grandfather's urging, the nurse goes to the window and makes a great show of listening out for something. She then returns to the grandfather, shaking her head. The grandfather is reluctantly made to drink some of the hot spiced wine. Shortly afterwards, the grandfather sits up in bed, clutches his heart and dies in agony.
A coach arrives in front of the dolls' house. An old man dressed in black and carrying a leather bag gets out and enters the house. The mother and father take him into the dining room. He places some papers on the table. They appear to tell him that the grandfather has already died and he leaves. The father smiles.
Inside the chapel, Dillet sees the grandfather's coffin with a black velvet cloth on it and four tall candlesticks around it. The cloth comes off the coffin and one of the candlesticks falls over. In the children's bedroom, the father plays a prank on his son and daughter by putting on a white robe and pretending to be a ghost. After the father leaves, a strange light appears at the children's bedroom door. A creature enters which, "might be described as a frog - the size of a man - but it had scanty white hair about its head". Screams are heard and there are signs of commotion all over the house. The clock strikes one o'clock again and all is still. A funeral procession is seen in which two small coffins are taken to the chapel.
After his unpleasant nocturnal experience, Mr. Dillet goes to a seaside town on the east coast of England to recover. Mr. Chittenden is at the same resort, having taken his wife there to recover from the experience of having lived with the haunted dolls' house. He and his wife saw the same ghostly drama played out several times. Mr. Chittenden says that his wife thinks that the old man who came to the house in a coach was a doctor. Mr. Chittenden, however, says that he thinks the man was a lawyer because he had some papers with him. Dillet agrees. Both men think that the grandfather was poisoned because he was about to change his will and disinherit the father and mother. Mr. Chittenden says that he does not know exactly where the dolls' house came from because he bought it from someone he did not know very well. He believes, however, that it came from a large country house in the east of England, not far from their current location. He says that he will not take back the dolls' house, although he offers to refund Mr. Dillet's money.
The following day, in a small museum, Dillet is reminded of the dolls' house when he sees a model of a church. A caption for the model says that it was donated in 1877 by J. Merewether of Ilbridge House and that it was made by his ancestor James Merewether who died in 1786. Dillet finds records of the burial of 76-year old Roger Milford of Ilbridge House on September 11, 1757 and of his grandchildren 9-year old Roger Merewether and 7-year old Elizabeth Merewether on September 19, 1757. Dillet visits Ilbridge House. At the chapel, he sees a memorial to the children and learns that they died on September 12, 1757. There are also memorials to the children's mother Elizabeth Merewether, who did not long survive her son and daughter, and their father James Merewether. The monument to James Merewther says that, in his youth, he showed the potential to become a great architect. Ilbridge House looks nothing like the dolls' house and appears to have been built in the 1840s. What look like the foundations of an earlier house lie nearby.
The dolls' house is still in Dillet's possession and he still hopes to sell it to a wealthy American buyer. He now keeps it under a sheet in a loft above his stable.
- Text of M.R. James' "The Haunted Dolls' House" on Wikilivres. The story is in the public domain in Canada but is still under copyright in the United States.
- 2012 amateur short film The Haunted Doll's House on the website of its director Stephen Gray.