With a title seemingly ripped from tabloid news headlines, The Doll Who Ate His Mother was Ramsey Campbell's first novel and leagues away from the Lovecraft-inspired short stories with which he'd made his name. Campbell first parted ways with the Gentleman from Providence in the collection Demons by Daylight (1973) and continued to forge ahead with his own unique, if often maddening, style of skewed reality and malevolent urban blight. Despite having noted time and again here on Too Much Horror Fiction about my - and plenty of other folks' - hot-and-cold feelings about Campbell's output, I have a fair collection of his stuff published by Tor in the 1980s, when he was one of their leading lights, and I wanted to try his novels from the beginning. Stephen King also wrote favorably of Doll in his Danse Macabre, and although I certainly don't agree with King all the time, this novel seemed like an essential horror read from that vintage '70s era.
Another cool thing about Doll is that it's in the fine tradition of bold, tasteless horror titles: Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 2,000 Maniacs, I Spit on Your Grave, Night of the Living Dead, et al., titles without ambiguity or allusion. Which is odd because Campbell is known for being a disturbingly quiet and reserved horror writer. So how does the novel itself stand up against its eye-catching title - or at least its creepy, evocative cover art (Tor edition with art by Jill Bauman, August 1985, at top)?
That most prosaic of real-life horror opens the novel: the car crash. On a drive through the night streets of Liverpool, young Clare Frayn survives the accident uninjured, while her brother Rob - a local radio celebrity - is killed. A man had stepped directly into the road in front of them, causing the accident, and witnesses see him running off cradling something in his arms. And the police are horrified to find that Rob's arm is nowhere to be found. Clare is soon visited by Edmund Hall, a real asshole of a sleazy crime writer, who thinks the man seen running from her accident was Christopher Kelly, with whom he'd gone to boys' school. Kelly was a fat, bullied child, but known to have fits of cruelty and violence. Hall wants to track him down and write a book about him, and enlists Clare's help. Soon they also add cinema owner George Pugh, whose mother was also killed, as well as hippie actor Chris Barrow, who lost his beloved cat to the monstrous Kelly. They muddle through the "case," hoping, bickering, afraid; no heroes they.
Campbell gives us glimpses of Kelly's background life and childhood, his mother's dalliance with black magic, his grandmother's utter terror of him. Slowly the four amateur sleuths get closer and closer to the truth as they probe the ugly, dank, broken-down estates of Liverpool. This is the kind of decaying setting Campbell can be both good and bad at illustrating; his descriptive powers are effective but jarring, displacing the reader from the narrative. There are a few satisfying moments of horror, but usually at a remove and not terribly graphic or shocking, while one rather major character is kept off-stage almost entirely. The climax is set in the muddy earthen basement of a condemned building where Clare confronts Kelly and other secrets that speak of the black magic that spawned our killer.
The earth gaped at him, its lips crumbled, glistening. At the bottom he could see a doll. It was a woman with a swollen belly. A mouth was emerging from the belly. At once he knew it was him in his mother.
When I began reading Doll I was half-expecting to be underwhelmed and confused as I often am with Campbell's fiction; in fact, I happily finished reading it in about a day. The narrative is fairly strong and the build-up doesn't lead you to expect a shattering finale (as The Nameless seemed to), the atmosphere is appropriately dour and grim, and the characters are distinctive (especially Kelly's horrid self-pityingly religious grandmother). The Doll Who Ate His Mother is not a forgotten classic but a passable, enjoyable read for horror fiction fans - and thankfully does explain that glorious and tacky title.