Tuesday, July 14, 2015

The Doll Who Ate His Mother (1976) by Ramsey Campbell

All right, back to the book reviews, finally!

I was on a 70s horror novel kick for a while there. It just kind of happened, but I’m glad. I’m really interested in this era from a number of angles. It does seem to be the birth of modern horror and Campbell is one of the granddaddies of that movement, albeit slightly lesser known outside horror fan circles than bestsellers like Stephen King and James Herbert.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from a book with this title (and with the lurid campy cover of the paperback copy I picked up second-hand).
I was hoping it would at least be some pulpy fun, if not especially well written. Well, you know what they say about books and their covers. This debut novel is gorgeously written. I’d have to say the prose is downright literary. Campbell’s style evokes his English ‘realist’ forebears such as, say, Graham Greene, but with a tendency more toward the visionary-tinged realism of someone like William Golding. Indeed, Campbell’s hyper-poetic evocation of the novels’s Liverpool setting harkens back to the Edwardian ‘dream-punk’ (as distinct from Victorian steam-punk) of G. K. Chesterton. Chesterton was a strong proponent of nightmare and his wild evocations of early 20th century London often tended toward the monstrous. Campbell fuses that kind of darkly weird poetic vision with a dirtier 70s vibe to yield a seedy fever dream of urban gothic and grotesque (updating Arthur Machen’s early urban horror while he’s at it).

The cityscape quite literally swims by the readerly eye for the entirety of the novel in the oft-recurring orange sodium-light glow of street lamps. (It's a quality of light I have personally experienced many times living here in Britain, and it is indeed eerie and unearthly).
Clare drove by, into the flood of light. 
The light covered everything, thick as paint. It sank oppressively into the car, filling it with shadows that moved like submarine vegetation as the lamps sailed repetitively by. Clare resisted an urge to drive faster, to be free of the light, but she felt it clinging stickily to her. She squirmed. She shouldn’t have driven without sleep, after all. 
The light soaked the three-storey Georgian houses behind their stone walls and bulging orange hedges. Pools of it lay on the roofs of the line of cars which barred Clare from the kerbside lane. Ahead, along the edge of the central reservation, trees and tree-coloured lamp standards bunched, pulling lingeringly apart as they approached. Around the high lamps, papery orange leaves were tangled in bright branches like orange web. Soon be there now, Clare told herself. She might ask to sleep on the couch at Rob and Dorothy’s. At the ends of pedestrian crossings, globes on poles pulsed:  orange, orange, orange. (p. 16) 
There’s something cinematic about this, and in a very fresh way it seems to me. It’s no wonder the novel contains a quiet, nostalgic side-theme about the transition from an older era of movies (and local independent cinemas) to the contemporary one.

The novel is rife with material to interpret from the perspective of the ‘object-oriented ontology’ of the likes of Graham Harman and Timothy Morton. Every surface and object seems to be moving of its own will in the narration. ‘George’s spectacles blinked as a car went by on the park road’ (p. 74). ‘Cars squeezed past cars, vans hung open outside shops, buses muttered impatiently’ (120). Everything we take as either subservient or irrelevant to human life seems animated with its own oblique purpose in the novel: ‘the flaw in the window glass that pinched thin everything that passed before letting go with a jerk, the tobacco smoke trickling down the stairs… the folding doors, which parted with a gasp of relief’ (p. 36). Often the objects are coming toward the human characters rather than the characters approaching the objects. ‘The house rushed at him, twin windows peering over the downstairs bay, long eyes above a longer snout’ (pp. 151-152). Or the objects act upon the characters in unexpected ways: ‘The convex mirror overhead sucked up their heads from their dwindling bodies’ (p. 113). Indeed, it seems there aren’t really any ‘inanimate objects’ at all in the novel. Admittedly, some of the story's characters are not as three-dimensional as others, but this only enhances the emphasis on non-human objects (plus it kind of fits the novel’s pacing).

The horror elements are subtly done, not overwhelming, and in a manner that keeps you off balance the entire time, a very effective way to keep the reader trapped in the narrator’s nightmare. Like the aforementioned 70s authors, succinct but explicit sex and profanity pepper Campbell’s text but the violence is handled differently. Campbell’s horror feels the most authentically Lovecraftian in tone out of any of the 70s stuff I’ve read so far. He’s all about the very, very slow and elided reveal, with an increasingly creepy build-up and a quick scene change whenever the actual horror is finally unveiled in all its hideous grotesquery. And it is indeed hideous and grotesque (not to mention gross). Some of the most memorable horrors of the tale are given almost no description at all. He manages to put the whole gruesome and fearful thing right in your face with the barest suggestion, practically forcing you to fill in the details on your own, involving you in the evocation of the horror. Quite a trick! And tricked is just a little bit how you feel, conned into tainting yourself with someone else’s sick and twisted nightmare. You get your hands dirty.

Also like Lovecraft (and Arthur Machen before him), Campbell’s novel explores the theme of metaphysical mystery (specifically occultic in this instance) still being with us in urban modern times, though we try to suppress it. To my surprise, Doll is also very Christ-haunted (to borrow Flannery O'Connor’s term), and we are notified of this early on. Just after the orange-lit driving passage noted above, we witness:
A tree, a tree, a lamp standard, a gap in the reservation. She glanced at Rob’s orange face, staring solemnly at her. [...] He frowned at her, even more solemn. Behind his head, Christ leapt from the wall of a church, tattered arms clawing high, fleshless ribs blackened by the sodium light. She started and turned back to the road, still snorting. A lamp standard, a thick tree. A man stepping straight into the path of the car. (p. 17) 
And that statue of Christ never stops leaping at that street of the scene of the macabre crime throughout the narrative. In the last scene the protagonist sees a sign saying 'Come unto me all you who are heavy laden' and begins to cry. (Cryptic spoiler: I’m now wondering if the whole tale is perhaps a sort of anti-Eucharist. Wow. That really adds to the hideousness. You’ll know what I mean if you read it.)

This is pretty wonderful stuff and now an official pattern is set: I’ve been meaning to get round to reading Author So-and-So (King, Barker, Herbert, Bishop, etc.) and now that I’ve finally read something by them, it turns out they’re amazing and I need to read everything they’ve written. It’s a very nice surprise. I kind of thought I’d encountered nearly all the authors that were really going to wow me, but I’m now over that notion. I realise this jacked up world so chock full of cultural tripe is also replete with good artists (so many that I’ll never get properly acquainted with all of them in my lifetime). Shades of Pascal, people, shades of Pascal. All that to say, Ramsey Campbell has entered my personal pantheon of horror writers well worth pursuing. A guy who can so deliciously blend Chesterton and Lovecraft into modern urban horror is guaranteed a place.

 Up Next: Stephen King's Revival (2014).