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Literature / Small World (Tabitha King novel)

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Small World is a 1981 horror-thriller, the first published work by Tabitha King.

Mild-mannered Mad Scientist Roger Tinker has used some government-funded Applied Phlebotinum to build a Shrink Ray, which may actually be a portal into a parallel dimension. That was before Roger was caught in a government lay-off. Now living at home in his mom's basement, he has nothing but time on his hands—time to perfect his invention, time to scheme ways to make money from it, time to dream of other, even more mad inventions. But first he needs a patron.

He finds one in Dorothy "Dolly" Hardesty Douglas, the wealthy, spoiled daughter of a former U.S. President. Now middle-aged, bitter, and having either lost or alienated her little remaining family (as well as nearly everyone who's anyone in Washington D.C.), Dolly's sole remaining passion is miniatures, and the jewel of her collection is a carefully restored, meticulously detailed Doll's White House. But the Doll's White House, while perfect, is empty. What it really needs is an occupant...

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Tropes:

  • Alpha Bitch: Dolly, or at least she once was. She'd like to be again, but people are just so uncooperative.
  • Asshole Victim: From the little we see of her, Leyna Shaw doesn't seem like a very pleasant person, but we quickly come to sympathize with her situation.
  • Big Beautiful Woman: Lucy is on the chunky side, but still very attractive (to the point that Roger privately nicknames her "Juicy Lucy").
  • Brilliant, but Lazy: Roger, who has discovered a functional key to alternate dimensions, can't think of any better way to make money from it except for what amounts to scalping black-market miniatures.
    • Possibly Lucy, although hers is less laziness and more complacency: she doesn't want to design commercial toys or hire a full workshop to produce on a large scale—although she easily could—because she's content with her small house and her small business. Meanwhile the rest of the world counts her amongst the top miniaturists alive and her signature on an item elevates its value tenfold.
  • Broken Treasure: Leyna destroys the Doll's White House—and herself—as an act of revenge against Dolly.
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  • Cuckoo Nest: Where Leyna believes herself to be after awaking in the Doll's White House. She believes she's suffered a major head injury after being struck by a car.
  • Disguised in Drag: The book opens with Roger in very detailed drag as he attempts to steal the Princess Dolly painting from a museum.
  • Disney Villain Death: Dolly falls from the window of her highrise.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Roger overlooks a lot of Dolly's sociopathic bitchiness because he's enraptured by their sexy-times.
  • Doting Grandparent: Dolly to Lucy's kids, though it's anyone's guess how much of it is genuine affection, how much of it is an act to goad Lucy, and how much of it is Dolly's need to acquire and possess everything. We get a pretty definitive answer in the end, when Dolly kidnaps the children, shrinks them, and locks them in the dollhouse.
  • Double-Meaning Title: Small World reflects both the miniaturized world inside the Doll's White House and the myriad of connections that link all the characters (i.e. a world in which everyone knows everyone in some way).
  • Downer Ending: Lucy's children are shrunk by the minimizer. There is no way to reverse the process, and the only person in the world who understand how the minimizer works—Roger—has also been shrunk. Nick and Lucy volunteer to be shrunk as well in order to care for the children, while Nick's aging father will tend to the tiny family's needs. However, there is a Hope Spot, as Roger is being supplied with the necessary equipment to research and develop a device that might restore them all, and the book's final line implies that either he was successful or at least that the tiny group managed to live a happy life together regardless.
  • Earthy Barefoot Character: Lucy, a down-to-earth, motherly artist. We get a lot of descriptions of her bare, dirty toes.
  • Eccentric Artist: Sartoris, who in this universe is a name alongside Van Gogh or Picasso, becomes so fed up with fame and success that he buys a barren island only accessible by helicopter and lives there with only a housekeeper, painting in private in a tiny bungalow just this side of poverty and refusing to show or sell any of the masterpieces he's created in the past twenty years. (In spite of this, Sartoris is one of the more pleasant characters in the novel so long as people aren't bugging him about the artwork.)
  • Embarrassing Nickname: Dolly hates the name Dolly, to the point that using it functions as a Berserk Button.
  • Evil Is Petty: Dolly. She has Roger murder an elderly woman in a terrible way (death by minimizer isn't pretty) solely to steal the woman's priceless antique necklace, then minimizes the necklace because it's so distinctive she can't even wear it herself. She then goes on to minimize her own grandchildren (while knowing that the process is irreversible and that it causes major physical and psychological trauma) in order to blackmail their mother into restoring the ruined Doll's White House.
  • For Science!: In spite of everything, Roger is a bonafide scientific genius who is motivated in large part because he's discovered an incredible new concept of...well, everything, but lacks the money to pursue it further.
  • He Cleans Up Nicely: Roger starts off as an uncultured Fat Slob. When Dolly realizes that she needs to keep him around for a while, she puts him on a weight-loss regiment and upgrades his style so that he doesn't embarrass her in public. At first he resents it, but then he starts to appreciate the perks of being buff and suave for the first time in his life.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Roger, after realizing that Dolly is about to go too far, warns Lucy about the minimizer and tells her where to find her children. He even takes a shrink-ray bullet for Lucy and Nick.
  • Incredible Shrinking Man: Not even really a spoiler, since it becomes inevitable from the premise that this is where this is all headed. The only real question is who?
  • Living Doll Collector: What Dolly inevitably becomes.
  • Mouse World: Played with in surprising ways. For example, one of the reasons for Leyna's prolonged confusion—and why she believes herself to be insane rather than catching on sooner—is that as a tiny person, her perception is forcibly twisted: the weave of a bedsheet is as large as a web of closely woven ropes to her, and goes on for miles in all directions; landmarks like walls and ceilings are literally too far away for her to focus on them, giving the impression that she is simply standing in a White Void Room whenever she is out of the Doll's White House.
    • Also played with more mundanely by the miniature enthusiasts. Hey, did you know you can make a doll's table lamp from a coffee creamer container? You will after you've done reading this!
  • Murder Makes You Crazy: Implied to be what happens to Dolly, even though she never directly kills anyone.
  • My Beloved Smother: Roger's mom, exemplified in a flagrantly passive-aggressive letter where she attempts to guilt him into leaving his (alleged) high-paying, prestigious job in order to move back into her basement on the other side of the country.
  • No Animals Were Harmed: Horribly subverted. To see if the minimizer works on living beings, Roger steals neighborhood pets and shrinks them. After examining them for ill effects, he flushes them—still alive—down the toilet.
  • Our Presidents Are Different: During the 1950s, the United States had a President Hardesty. Though President Hardesty was in office in 1950, it's unclear which if any real president he replaced, since Truman (who was the real-world president in 1950) is established to have existed in this timeline. The current in-universe president is Matt Johnson, replacing Real World president Ronald Reagan.
  • Public Exposure: One of Dolly's more infamous exploits is a nude portrait she posed for when she was only fifteen and her father was still in office.
  • Rape as Drama: Dolly's torment of tiny Leyna culminates in a humiliating, terrifying sexual assault. Imagine being molested by a giant who can pin you down with one finger.
  • Shout-Out: To The Shining. The elevator in the Doll's White House reminds Leyna of the haunted elevators in the Overlook Hotel. Not surprising, since Tabitha King is the wife of author Stephen King.
    • In another scene, Lucy spots the life-size model dinosaur outside the Dalton as it appears and disappears on a misty morning, another reference to Stephen King's short story "The Mist."
  • Silver Vixen: Though pushing fifty, Dolly is still a looker with a fabulous figure.
  • Spoiler Cover: The cover of every edition of the novel shows a miniaturized Leyna. The only exception is an extremely limited edition published by Cemetery Dance in 2017, which shows a traditional pistol-style shrink ray that isn't even in the book.
  • Statuesque Stunner: Leyna Shaw, who stands 6'7" in heels and is an object of lust for the entire D.C. press pool.
  • Tabloid Melodrama: Every major event in the book seems to be ironically chronicled by V.I.P., an in-universe tabloid covering D.C. gossip and social life. Since Dolly is the daughter of a former President and a major drama queen, V.I.P. adores her and gleefully covers all her comings-and-goings.
  • Unfortunate Name: Mere pages from the end of the book, just before the climax, Lucy informs Roger that "minimizer" is the brand name of a girdle. Up until that point, he'd thought "minimizer" was a cool sci-fi name he'd made up. The delayed reveal, coupled with Roger's comically childish disappointment, makes it come off as a "Shaggy Dog" Story.
  • Virgin-Shaming: Dolly secretly mocks Roger for being a virgin while taking perverse pleasure in relieving him of the problem.
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