The Early Novels of Ramsey Campbell

by Arthur B

Combining striking horror narratives with autobiography and real life observations, Campbell's early novels are still worth reading today.
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Ferretbrain contributors tend to have favourite authors they like to lavish attention and praise on: Kyra has Catherine Fisher and Sarah Monette, Dan has Cassie Clare and J.K. Rowling, and I have Gene Wolfe and Ramsey Campbell. Continuing my ongoing project of reviewing as much of his stuff as I can get my hands on, here's the lowdown on his early novels, from his 1976 debut The Doll Who Ate His Mother to 1983's Incarnate. Click on the handy "Ramsey Campbell" theme tag above the comments section if you want to see my other Campbell reviews on FB.

After presenting August Derleth with a first draft of The Inhabitant of the Lake and Other Unwelcome Tenants which was laughably bad, if the story from it reprinted in Alone With the Horrors is anything to go by, Campbell took Derleth's advice to concentrate on the familiar to heart, and injected a hefty dose of social observation and autobiography into his fiction. This approach transformed The Inhabitant of the Lake from a screamingly terrible Lovecraft pastiche to a competent Lovecraft pastiche with the occasional flash of originality, and after refining his prose and burning Lovecraft in effigy Campbell mastered the short story with efforts like Cold Print and the stories collected in Demons By Daylight. The same approach would shape his early novels; many of them focus both on his observations of life around him in Liverpool and his own autobiographical preoccupations.

In particular, the figure of his mother would be constantly present. As Campbell explains in his introduction to most recent-ish versions of The Face That Must Die, his mother suffered from an extreme mental illness, not unlike paranoid schizophrenia (though armchair diagnosis of this sort of thing is obviously difficult and pointless). This illness first affected Campbell when he was very young, when his mother decided his father was trying to harm him and prevented Campbell from talking to his father for twenty years - even though they lived in the same house. As Campbell tells it, it took him a while to accept that something was deeply wrong with her behaviour - young children tend to assume their parents are behaving reasonably, after all - but by the time she had convinced herself that television presenters and radio announcers were sending her coded messages there was little room for doubt.

Campbell discusses in the same preface how she slowly lost her ability to care for herself and to communicate; he recounts an incident where she complained of "houses" following her across town, it took Campbell a while to realise she was using "houses" to refer to cars. She would eventually become a complete hermit, utterly distrusting the world outside her house and convinced that strangers were meddling inside her house too. This decline coincided with the beginning of Campbell's literary career, and the early novels reviewed here were written in her final years and in the immediate aftermath of her death. It is no surprise that her situation informs all of them; through his relationship with his mother - and perhaps, if I'm not reading too much between the lines, his own fear that he might be prone to similar illness - Campbell gained an understanding of the paranoid mindset that he has used extensively across his entire writing career, but in these five books the "mad mother" practically becomes a Campbell trademark. Coupled, at their best, with equally harsh and uncompromising social commentary, the stories which never come across as exploitative, insincere, or sensationalist; Campbell has lived some of these horrors and his ability to express them and the sensitivity with which he does so is admirable.

And most importantly, most of the time there's a gripping story to be enjoyed as well. With the arguable exception of The Claw, Campbell never slips into autobiographical navel-gazing; both the angry politics and the sympathetic exploration of mental illness are kept firmly in their place as manservants to the narratives, which I suppose I should start discussing now.

The Doll Who Ate His Mother


Campbell's first effort at a novel came in 1976, and it's very clearly a first effort. In many respects it reads more like an extended short story than a full-length novel; the characterisation is shallow (and occasionally disappears entirely), the plot is decent enough but can't quite satisfyingly fill the page count, there's only one subplot of note (vague fumbling gestures towards a subplot, if we want to be uncharitably honest), and Campbell spends the story's most striking image a good 50 pages before the climax.

That said, Campbell makes up for his neophyte clumsiness with sheer enthusiasm. Having braved NaNoWriMo last year, I can confirm that the best way to make sure you keep writing a book is to kick back and enjoy yourself, and you can tell that Campbell is having a hell of a lot of fun here. To fill out the page count he takes out all of his enthusiasms out for a good spin (well, most of them - Lovecraft was still banished to the back of the toy closet at this point). Struggling independent cinemas, paranoid and cruel mother figures, swipes at Catholicism, and a passionate love for Liverpool (both Campbell's home turf and the setting of the story) are proudly on display here, and all would recur in Campbell's writing forevermore.

The Doll also has an excellent opening. Main protagonist Clare is driving her radio DJ brother Rob home one evening when a ragged figure stumbles out into the middle of the road in front of them. Clare swerves to avoid him, her brakes fail, and the car ends up wrapped around a tree. And when the ambulance arrives Rob is dead - and someone has stolen his arm. A few months later, Clare still hasn't gotten over it when Edmund Hall, a wonderfully arrogant and manipulative true crime writer, informs her that he believes the accident was caused deliberately - and that the culprit has been involved in other deaths. At its heart, The Doll Who Ate His Mother is a pulpy serial killer mystery with escalating supernatural interventions, and a serial killer who doesn't seem to actually murder any fellow human beings so much as cause their deaths by accident at the prompting of an unseen force.

The Doll is reasonably low-key and realistic book if you ignore all the murder and occultism; Campbell has obviously been thorough with his research, sometimes a little too thorough - there's a coroner's inquest scene which is doubtless very accurate but is rendered slow and cumbersome by the author's desire to show off how well he'd done his homework - but there's one glaring exception, and that's the characters. Only Chloe has any depth at all, and the segments written from the bad guy's point of view are completely cartoonish and sensationalist; every other character in the story is more of a caricature than a real person, a host of middle class stereotypes chasing after the antagonist with torch and pitchfork.

The Doll reminded me a lot of The Inhabitant of the Lake, actually - the prose is miles better, the story is more original, and the Lovecraft obsession is kept under control, but at the end of the day in both books Campbell is clearly learning has he writes. Three years later, the lessons of The Doll would bear fruit.

The Face That Must Die


If the villain of The Doll was a caricature of a serial killer, the antagonist-protagonist of The Face That Must Die is the real deal, as Campbell explores paranoia in one of the most thorough and relentlessly uncompromising manners I've ever seen. Our knife man is John Horridge, a troubled young man who becomes fascinated by a series of murders of gay people in Liverpool, not least because he is himself incredibly homophobic and fears that people will mistake him for a homosexual. When he encounters someone who he believes resembles the identikit picture the police have of the suspect, he becomes convinced that the man in question, Roy Craig, is the killer - but can't convince the police to do anything about it. When threatening phone calls fail to make Roy crack and confess the terrible crimes that Roy is in fact completely innocent of, Horridge sees no alternative to take the law (in the form of a wickedly sharp straight razor) into his own hands...

Horridge is completely insane; the narrative leaves no room for doubt about that. The twist is that the difference between Horridge and normal people is only a matter of degree. Horridge is not a cartoon psychopath; he doesn't hallucinate constantly or have a loud clear voice in his head saying "Kill them! Kill them all!". He's simply a guy who frequently has trouble understanding situations and so tends to assume the worst. The radio isn't badly tuned, it's just that there's secret messages interfering with the station. That woman isn't just complaining generally about things to the newsagent - she's mocking Horridge knowing full well he can hear everything she says. That man didn't just want to use the toilet, he was checking Horridge out with the intent of raping him. It's not that the unappealing council estate Horridge lives in is slightly badly designed - the architects actively designed it as a prison camp in order to confuse and bewilder poor Horridge. Just about everything confuses and bewilders Horridge (especially, but not exclusively, gay people and people he misidentifies as gay), and when he's confused, he feels threatened.

The thing is that all of us can end up feeling confused and threatened under the right circumstances, and often it's quite natural to jump to weird paranoid conclusions. Oh shit, I just dropped my change - is everyone on the bus laughing at me? That barman looked at me funny when he served me my drink - have I gone and offended him somehow? Someone got hacked to bits with a straight razor in the hallway of the dingy block of flats I live in - is one of my neighbours a serial killer? The thing which makes Horridge sick is that he is perpetually in this sort of state, but every single character in the book has similarly paranoid moments (especially once the killing starts). Roy Craig is convinced that he has wasted his entire life, that he doesn't belong in the heterosexual world or in the gay scene, and that he'll never find anyone who feels the same as him. Cathy is convinced that her husband Peter no longer loves her, while after the first murder Peter worries that the police will bust him for drugs possession if they search his flat. Conventional society is stuffed to the gills with far-right-leaning bigots who hate and fear anyone who isn't like them, like students and homosexuals and black people, whilst the counter-culture is stuffed to the gills with far-left-leaning bigots who hate and fear anyone who isn't like them, like policemen and people with money and adults who don't read comic books. Both cultures are equally crass and vacuous. Human beings constantly misread each other's intentions and moods, act inappropriately, and kick off cycles of paranoia and recrimination and blame that leave everyone worse off. Give everyone a straight razor and sooner or later everybody will start cutting.

Grim depictins of Britain in the late 1970s aren't exactly rare, of course, but The Face That Must Die also provides some nice twists on the serial killer genre. Whilst Horridge clearly faced difficult circumstances earlier in life, they don't exonerate him at all: unlike pretty much all of Thomas Harris's serial killers, Horridge isn't crazy because bad things happened to him earlier in life, he's crazy because he's sick in the head and misreads situations, so when bad things happened to him earlier in life he responded badly and ended up more broken than he already was. We can't even trust Horridge's memories of his background; he says his father was an evil old drunk, but a friend of his father's seems to think the old guy did well enough raising Horridge on his own, and while Horridge really ought to know better than his dad's mate we know full well that Horridge will read the worst into any situation.

There's another cliche that Campbell sidesteps; when I began reading I was mildly concerned that there'd be a big plot twist where it turns out that Horridge is in fact the murderer he begins the novel worrying about (the one who is actually killing gay people, rather than anyone he randomly decides is gay). No such revelation occurs. It is possible that Horridge is the original killer, after all: even though he seems to be the sort of guy who misinterprets situations as opposed to forgetting about them entirely, there is one part where he is briefly surprised to find a body before remembering who it is and why it's hidden in the wardrobe and what he's done to it. At the same time, at one point someone is arrested for the original murders - but they also confess to one of Horridge's kills, so either they are the original killer and they're simply mistaken or lying, or Horridge is the original killer and the arrested man is delusional, or neither Horridge nor the arrested man is the original killer and the guy is still out there.

These ambiguities - whether Horridge's upbringing was a nightmare or not, whether Horridge has killed before the novel starts - force us to accept that we'll never know the answers to those questions, and accept Horridge as he is when we find him, rather than trying to analyse where he came from beforehand and how he got there. This enhances Horridge's position as a sort of grotesque everyman, a caricature of the absolute worst aspects of British society at the time of writing. At one point, as if to drive home the point that what is true of Horridge is also true of society, one of the other characters points out that being in the Royal Family must be an awful lot like being schizophrenic, since you spend your entire life living in absolutely contrived, artificial situations. Whilst the social commentary can occasionally be a little blunt (there's no scene where Horridge batters someone to death with a copy of The Daily Mail, although that would totally fit the agenda), Campbell never forgets that he's also meant to be writing a tense, suspenseful psychological thriller, and the climax manages to be intense and exciting without turning into a Liverpudlian Friday the 13th. As Campbell's first genuine masterpiece, The Face That Must Die is pretty much essential.

To Wake the Dead/The Parasite


Proudly bearing a recommendation from Stephen King, To Wake the Dead is easily the most commerical of Campbell's offerings to date, which doesn't stop it being completely batshit weird. The prologue sets up the story; a young girl and her older friend go out one night, telling the girl's parents that they are going to see the new film by that young Elvis Presley. In fact, they and their friends (all of whom are older than our little protagonist) break into an abandoned house in order to conduct a ouija board seance with someone who is supposed to have died there. Naturally, things get very scary very rapidly ("I AM EVERYWHERE HERE", announces the spiritual presence), and the kids flee - accidentally locking the young protagonist in the room. The older kids all run off (some to get help, some to avoid trouble), leaving the girl alone, at which point something happens to her that we aren't clearly told.

When we next meet the protagonist, she's grown up, got married, and become Rose Tierney, a successful academic lecturer and writer of popular books of cinema criticism alongside her husband Bill. (This gives Campbell another chance to flex his movie-geek muscles, as in The Grin of the Dark.) Life couldn't be better, until on a factfinding trip to New York Rose is attacked by an unseen assailant in their apartment building. Diana, an occult-dabbling acquaintance of the Tierney's American literary agent, saves her, and whilst Rose is recovering in Diana's apartment she has a flashback of the attack, and appears to recall having an out-of-body experience during it.

It is this incident which begins to bring about a change in Rose. At first afraid of her newfound abilities, she soon exults in them - but it becomes brutally apparent to the reader that this power doesn't have Rose's best interests at heart; as a result of her experiments her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, straining her relationship with her husband and making her ever-more disconnected from the normal world. This sets the scene for a story that is at many points more reminiscent of Dennis Wheatley than Ramsey Campbell, drawing on a mix of real-world occult beliefs and conspiracy theory rather than the aberrant psychology and cosmic irrationalism that tends to inform Campbell's work; this, the lack of a psychotic mother figure, the toned-down social commentary and the strong American connection all suggest to me that Campbell was consciously trying to write a book with popular appeal (and which would sell to the American market) after the ragged Doll and uncompromising Face.

That said, Campbell doesn't entirely abandon his pet themes; Rose's increasing withdrawal and isolation, written entirely from her point of view, is once again highly reminiscent of Campbell's own accounts of his mother's paranoia and alienation, although it is far more sympathetic and Rose never sinks to the depths that John Horridge does. The relationship narrative between Rose and Bill is as important as the horror story narrative involving Rose and her powers, and both strands reward re-reading. The first time I read the book it appeared to be maddeningly slow, with lots of incidents with no relevance to the main plot, but as usual with Campbell pretty much everything is relevant (although not always in the way you'd think). Having read heaps of his books between my first reading of this and my second, I am well aware that you need to read his stories with a paranoid eye, always striving to imagine what might be happening under the surface. If To Wake The Dead has any flaw, it is that the opening chapters (if you ignore the prologue) are sufficiently low-key that they don't really give the reader enough prompts to adopt this sort of mindset whilst reading - that, and the ending is a bit hasty and heavy-handed, and also seems particularly violent and unsubtle compared with the rest of the novel. Campbell himself has said that he feels that writing the book solely from the point of view of Rose was a mistake, since it required a constant escalation of the events she encounters until things began to get out of hand. That said, I'm glad he tried the experiment, because if he hadn't learned from this and mastered the first-person-only form then we wouldn't have The Grin of the Dark.

The earliest editions of this novel, published as To Wake the Dead, have a different ending from the later versions, entitled The Parasite and with minor alterations originally intended for the American market, although the differences are slight - only the epilogues are different, and they both end on a downer, although the ending of The Parasite is a bit more stark and unforgiving than that of To Wake the Dead. The alterations are of sufficiently small scope that it's not worth worrying about them - if you want to read the book, grab whichever edition happens to be available.

The Nameless


To my knowledge, The Nameless is the only one of Ramsey Campbell's many novels to have been filmed. This is a shame, but at the same time I could see why this could be the case: out of all Campbell's stories I have read so far, the most straightforward after The Doll Who Ate His Mother. The Nameless gives the reader the impression that Campbell is having a rest, and who can blame him: based on the introduction to The Face That Must Die, The Nameless must have been written at around the same time that Campbell was orchestrating his mother's move to a house closer to his own, in order to make it easier for him to look out for her and to get her out of the surroundings that had become, to her, intensely threatening, a process that would have been incredibly distracting even if Campbell's mother hadn't had her own unique problems.

The Nameless revolves around Barbara Waugh, a literary agent whose daughter Angela was abducted and apparently killed nine years ago. Waugh is wracked with guilt over the abduction, not least because she had somewhat resented her daughter preventing her from advancing her career as much as she would like to. With the disappearance of Angela, Barbara has become a free agent (Arthur, Barbara's husband, died before Angela was born), and now she's in charge of her own agency. She's almost over it when she starts getting phone calls from Angela trying to get her to meet her, and she soon comes to believe that Angela is in the clutches of a sinister cult who abandon their names and allow themselves to become the vehicle of a nebulous alien will which demands torture and mutilation towards a hidden end.

The edition I read was the revised version of 1985, but even with revisions this is still less polished than any of the other Campbell novels I have reviewed to date. There is a prologue set in San Quentin jail in 1940, and a brief intermission during which Barbara goes to New York, both of which seem to serve no purpose except to ensure that part of the action happens in the States; presumably the publisher wanted to court an American audience. It is, incidentally, during these segments that the cult's nature is spelled out most clearly, which I feel was a mistake, although fortunately Campbell manages to avoid setting up a situation where he needs to explain what the forces that the cultists are opening themselves to are actually working towards. While striking, the climactic confrontation does not quite match the power of the book's most enthralling sequences, which are those where Barbara (or one of the various people she recruits to help her out) is creeping about alone in one of the cult's abandoned safe-houses, coming across little apparently-meaningful signs and manifestations that point to the cult's activities. Perhaps the best aspect of this book is the way in which Campbell convinces the reader that the cult is working towards a specific purpose, and gives the reader a few intuitive pointers to that purpose, but never states it outright, and in fact the story isn't about that purpose at all but about Barbara dealing with her guilt and coming to terms with her resentment of her daughter.

Unfortunately, The Nameless is merely an entertaining read, not a gripping thrill-ride like The Parasite or Incarnate or a potent literary work like The Face That Must Die or Obsession.

The Claw


Written under his "Jay Ramsay" pseudonym, The Claw (also known as Night of the Claw) combines Campbell's recurring exploration of his fractured family background with a new theme in his writing that, according to Campbell, began to be explored in The Nameless: the stresses and strains of being a parent, and specifically Campbell's fear that he would not be equal to the task of being a father.

Oh, and it's also about an evil leopard claw from Nigeria that makes people kill their children. When the claw is uncovered in Africa, the anthropologist who discovers it finds himself succumbing to its baleful influence, and in a desperate attempt to get rid of it boxes it up, addresses it to the institution in England he works at, and gives it to a visiting English writer to take home and post. Naturally, when the writer gets the thing home circumstances conspire to prevent him sending it away, and soon he finds himself haunted by a blood-soaked figure, and finds that his attitude towards his daughter is going from irritation to bad temper to outright hatred. After one incident, in which his wife becomes convinced he intends to harm their daughter, the author realises that things are getting out of control and leaves, heading back to Nigeria to find a way to lift the curse from himself; meanwhile, the claw stays in Norfolk, and begins to get to work on the child's mother...

Now, this isn't the sort of thing that's without precedent in horror - it's a bit like The Monkey' Paw, only the claw doesn't grant wishes (aside from maybe "I wish my damn kid will shut up") - but writing a story with a "sinister artifact comes from out of Africa, wreaks havoc" plotline requires a certain amount of sensitivity if you're to avoid accusations of racism, especially if you're relating the artifact to the Leopard Society, a West African secret society reputed to practice cannibalism, and which Edgar Rice Burroughs had Tarzan fight once. In the introduction to the edition I read, Campbell explains he was concerned to avoid racist interpretations of the book, and therefore worked on a subplot where sinister British occultists try to acquire the thing for their own ends, but he eventually dropped it when he decided it was a needless complication to the story. To be honest, I don't think the story is racist; the claw and the madness it inspires are ultimately portrayed as being just as unnatural in Africa as they are in Norfolk, and the Nigerian academic who helps the father find a means to break the curse is not a faceless token black guy but a well-rounded character who plays a vital role in the story.

But to be honest, out of all of Campbell's early novels this is the one where the plot is the least relevant, a paper-thin excuse for him to explore his family issues. In none of his other early novels does he construct a situation which parallels his own family background so closely. His mother first forbade contact between Ramsey and his father when Campbell Sr. took young Ramsey on a short-cut over some train tracks, prompting Mrs Campbell to jump to the conclusion that he was trying to hurt the kid; a similar miscommunication (albeit this time with actual supernaturally-influenced malice on the side of the father) causes the author in the story to be banished from the family home. And just as with Campbell's mother, the irrational overprotectiveness exhibited by the mother in The Claw (which isn't completely unlike that exhibited by the killer's grandmother in The Doll Who Ate His Mother, or the single mum in Incarnate) ultimately has destructive effects on all concerned. This purging was doubtless influenced by the circumstances under which the novel was written; the year after The Nameless was published his mother died, following a complete collapse of her ability to take care of herself.

This is an interesting turning point in Campbell's writing: whereas previously, in the likes of The Face that Must Die and To Wake the Dead he was writing from the point of view of someone losing their mind, in what seem to be attempts to understand his mother's illness, here he also write from the point of view of the child of a mentally ill person, essentially granting the reader insights into his own psyche rather than trying to understand someone else's. As unaverse as Campbell is to including autobiographical details in his stories, it is still impressive to see just how open he is in the sequences told from the point of view of the daugher, which seem to be written from bitter experience. And yet Campbell shows great sensitivity in how he blends the mother's and the daughter's points of view throughout the story; the mother's cruelty ultimately stems not from direct malice, but from a simple inability to understand her own child, and the child's confusion and suffering stems as much from her inability to understand her mother's actions as it does the actions themselves. In the story, of course, it is the claw which makes the child's actions seem wilful and disruptive to the mother, just as in real life Campbell's mother's illness would ruin her ability to understand the motives of others. But at the same time Campbell taps into the same idea that Roald Dahl and others used to play with - that grown-ups in general aren't very good at remembering what it was like to be a child, and as a result end up both failing to understand their own offspring and behaving in ways which seem arbitrary and unfair to kids. You can't, of course, blame all the terrible things adults do to children on miscommunication, but The Claw makes the case that we can blame an awful lot - but we can also get past these miscommunications if we work at it. Tying a pulpy plotline to a serious examination of emotional abuse is a dangerous game to play, but "Jay Ramsey" manages to do it without the whole thing blowing up in his face, and that's extremely impressive.

Incarnate


In Incarnate Campbell moves away from the first-person model used in To Wake the Dead and The Nameless and tells a multiple-protagonist story of a group of people overtaken by their dreams. Without giving too much away, the central premise of Incarnate is that dreams are not meaningless brain-farts, but are in fact as real and as powerful as anything we experience in waking life, and can potentially sweep the thin veneer of rationality we've imposed on the world aside to leave us adrift in chaos. (There are similarities between this and the similar cosmic threat in The Grin of the Dark.) Ten years after a hastily-aborted experiment in prophetic dreaming, the former participants find themselves being slowly drawn together for a strange and terrible purpose; at no point does anyone say "the sleep of reason begets monsters" (thank God), but by the end of the book we're all thinking it.

Campbell isn't just using the multiple-viewpoints technique to pad out the novel - instead, he provides us with each of the protagonists' experiences with the sinister force out to manipulate them from their own point of view - and because this force works through people's dreams (whether they're aware or asleep) each protagonist ends up facing very different manifestations. One former research subject encounters someone who appears to be one of the psychologists from the experiment, who ends up pushing him deeper into the mire of murderous paranoia he's sunk into - his bits are a bit reminiscent of The Face That Must Die, but that's no bad thing. Another finds herself having extended waking dreams that are nigh-distinguishable from reality, in which she gains insight into the police brutality case she and her television colleagues have been investigating - and through which she gains a strange sort of power over the officers being investigated. Another finds herself in the clutches of the mysterious medium Sage, who uses her dreaming powers to bring people back from the dead. All of these incidents are part of the same phenomenon, like bits of the elephant being groped at by the blind dudes, but only we as the audience get to see the whole picture.

Campbell generally makes wise choices when it comes to picking viewpoint characters. Every chapter centres around one of the participants in the experiment (all of the research subjects, and one of the experimenters), but it's not always the participant themselves who is the protagonist. One of the ex-subjects became mentally unstable after the experiment, and went crazy entirely when the father of her child left her, becoming yet another manifestation of Campbell's own mother in his fiction. Her segments are not told from her point of view, but from the point of view of her daughter, who feels ever more trapped, unwanted, and isolated as her mother succumbs to madness, these segments clearly drawing on Campbell's experiments writing from a child's viewpoint in The Claw.

In addition to this, Incarnate sees a partial return of the social commentary of The Face That Must Die, which tended to stick to the background in The Parasite and The Nameless. Again, conventional human beings going about their daily business have a disturbing tendency to be narrow-minded right-wing bigots, but there's a different emphasis this time: in Incarnate, a blinkered world-view is a shelter, a defence against the seething chaotic forces that manifest in dreams. Like waking life itself, it is less solid and real than dreams are, but for those who lack the rational mindset required to forcibly impose order on the universe it is a safe set of delusions, a holding pattern that is difficult for the eldritch horrors to unravel simply because said horrors have no place in the mindset of people whose main fears are homosexuals, crime, and social disorder.

The improvement over To Wake the Dead and especially The Nameless is striking, and it seems to have been critically well-received at the time, the book winning the British Fantasy Award in 1985. Incarnate isn't perfect - the ending is somewhat rushed, and we really didn't need the scene where the two former researchers from the experiment sit down and talk explicitly about precisely what the sinister threat from beyond actually is, and it occasionally feels like you're reading five different Ramsey Campbell stories running in parallel, but it still remains one of the more powerful of his early works.

The Bottom Line


The two gems of this period in Campbell's work are clearly The Face That Must Die and Incarnate. The Face is a stripped-down, lean, angry and vicious book, quite unlike anything he has written since but no less powerful for it, and Incarnate shows him both perfecting the themes and experiments that preoccupied his early career and beginning to move beyond them; Obsession, his next book, is a more mature and calmer story which, to my mind, represents the start of a new stage in his writing. To Wake the Dead/The Parasite is also a lot of fun. The Doll Who Ate His Mother and The Nameless are notably inferior to the other books in this selection; The Doll at least has a youthful energy to it, and can be forgiven a few missteps because it was his first novel, but The Nameless has no such excuse. The Claw, while striking, is both extremely personal and, oddly, also quite bland as far as the plot is concerned.

I would like to thank Ramsey Campbell very much for explaining the differences between To Wake the Dead and The Parasite during the course of writing this article.
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Comments (go to latest)
http://sistermagpie.livejournal.com/ at 00:58 on 2009-03-08
This was a fascinating read! You definitely made me want to go out and find some of these. The one I remember the most was "The Doll Who Ate His Mother"--I never read it, but you don't soon forget that title when it's always on the racks at the supermarket when you're a little kid. I think I've only ever read a few short stories by RC, but you made these sound worth picking up. And presumably his later work too. Thanks!
Arthur B at 02:24 on 2009-03-08
Minor correction: I said above that The Nameless is the only one of Campbell's novels to be filmed, but his later Pact of the Fathers was adapted as Segundo Nombre in 2002.
Wardog at 09:48 on 2009-03-10
Wow, your fanboyish love for Campbell warms my jaded heart.

But here's an important question not yet covered by any of your articles: in a fight between Ramsey Campbell and Gene Wolfe ... who would win?
Arthur B at 09:54 on 2009-03-10
They don't need to fight. I have enough love for both of them.
Wardog at 10:53 on 2009-03-10
I didn't mean in a fight over your sweet sweet love - I just meant in general. My money would be on Wolfe, he looks like he could pack a punch.

I'm sorry I've derailed your thoroughly excellent article with random frivolity.
Arthur B at 11:14 on 2009-03-10
The thing is, if Wolfe and Campbell had a fight then Gene would break out his allegory-fu and Ramsey would swing in with his oblique-kwan-do style, and nobody would ever realise anything was happening until they read it over a second time, and even then nobody would agree on who'd won.
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