Ramsey Campbell is often quoted as an influence by many a modern horror writer, and the fact that I hadn’t read any of his output so far was shamefully hanging from my neck like a dead crow of neglect. So I finally purchased his first book, The Doll Who Ate His Mother second hand from Amazon. Doll is Campbell’s first novel and is quite a short read.
Here’s a brief synopsis: The main character, Clare, is driving her emotionally unstable brother home late one night when a man runs out in front of her causing the car to crash. The jaywalker, surprisingly removes her (by now) dead brother’s arm at the socket and runs off with it! A pretty startling opener there. As the tale unfolds we learn that there are other victims of this cannibalistic opportunist but the police are drawing blanks as to his identity. One day, Clare is approached by a true-crime writer who is going to write a book about the mysterious arm-stealer and believes he knows the identity of the man. From here the plot gradually unfolds as Clare and the writer carry out their unofficial investigation. In the second half of the book, the plot twists and turns become more complex and eventually we learn the reason for the book’s title.
I found the premise of the book intriguing and liked the crime/detective story elements to it. Once the pace starts to build at half time however, the plot starts to get overly complex to my mind and seemed a little rushed. The ending, while being appropriate and avoiding any deux machina trappings felt a little flat to me, mainly because I wasn’t clear why the mc was behaving as she did.
But enough of the misgivings. The real strength of Campbell’s writing, and this shines through despite the above caveats, is his ability to weave characters in with the setting and plot. Firstly, his characters are complex and relatable. There are no clichés and their interactions and dialogue move the story on at an impressive pace. The descriptions of Liverpool are often personified and give the reader a real sense of immersion in the scene. Occasionally, they come across as a little too ‘bolt-on’ in nature and I imagine this is symptom of first book/new author inadequacies. Something that I’m expecting to diminish as I read more of his work.
The writing is very lean and Campbell seems to pay a lot of attention to his prose such that it is stripped back to the essential components. This allows the reader to fill in the gaps themselves and prevents the story from being plagued with info dumps or explanatory internal dialogue. In this respect, I think Campbell may have strayed too far in the show not tell direction as I found the story a bit disjointed towards the end. I didn’t quite understand the motivation of the characters and their reasons for acting as they do. Action scenes also had me looking back at previous pages to follow what was going on.
All in all this was a good read and I’ll certainly be reading more of Ramsey Campbell. This first offering is on a par with Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie, in that it shows an author at their genesis. The fresh shoots of creativity are sprouting rapidly and the massive potential is quite evident. My gut reaction is that there’s enough in this tale to hint at there being a great body of Campbell’s stories to explore, but that this isn’t necessarily his best book.
Star rating – ***