Thursday, June 18, 2009

Summer Reading: THE DOLL WHO ATE HIS MOTHER (1976) by Ramsey Campbell

Cue up Bill Evans' "Quiet Now" in the mp3 player for this one. In fact, if horror writers like Peter Straub (think "Pork Pie Hat") like to tie their works to jazz, then we must think of Ramsey Campbell as the Bill Evans of horror. Just as Bill Evans marked a softer contrast to the harder-edged bop of his time, Ramsey Campbell takes a different route from that of many of his contemporaries, eschewing overt shocks in favor of creating a building sense of dis-ease in his reader, in this case starting with a traffic accident. Clare, the driver of a car in bad need of repair, learns that not only has the accident killed her brother, who was sitting in the passenger seat, but that at some point during the aftermath, someone stole the arm from his corpse. From there, Campbell introduces Edmund Hall, a crime writer, who calls upon Clare to help him search for the culprit. Operating on hunches and circumstantial evidence, Hall suspects that Kelly, an old school-mate, committed the act, leading to narrative that takes increasing diabolical turns, culminating in the story of a magician in the black arts who manipulated pregnant women with a collection of dolls. From there, we learn how the titular doll "ate" his mother--a truly macabre moment in the novel.

In DANSE MACABRE, Stephen King reserves a few pages for discussion of this novel, and while passing decades have robbed it of some of its freshness (Satanism and black magic seem almost quaint in horror novels now), King aptly likens Campbell's narrative structure to that of Bram Stoker's DRACULA in that Clare and Edmund partner with others, including a cinema owner, to pursue their quarry, much like the "committee" formed by Mina, Seward, et al in Stoker's text. I'd add that both novels share a somewhat anti-climactic ending, where their respective conflicts are resolves in a somewhat abrupt, even convenient manner. Still, in the case of THE DOLL WHO ATE HIS MOTHER, Ramsey Campbell succeeds in capturing a decaying urban landscape, punctuating the haunted mind of his "monster." Campbell provides an awkward (and easily detected) twist about his true identity, but the terror of his circumstances still has the power to affect the reader, as we see a monster perhaps not so much born as created. Now out of print, THE DOLL WHO ATE HIS MOTHER can still be found online in relatively inexpensive used paperback editions.

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