By Ramsey Campbell. London: Century, 1976.
Judging the works of the past is rarely a straight-forward task. Some movies, pieces of music, books, works of architecture, and the like come across not only as a product of their time, but also as dated. When we reminisce about the past we not only long for a time that was more innocent, we often judge it from our perspective as a time more naive—“didn’t they know how silly they looked?” Some try to contextualize a work and treat it as an object of study, but in so doing the enjoyment found in the immediacy of experience is dulled. Others disregard as trivial those works that don’t qualify as “timeless classics,” but the project of categorizing something as “timeless” is hardly free of ideology.
This is merely a preface to a few remarks about Campbell’s The Doll Who Ate his Mother, a novel from 1976 that has in some ways not withstood the so-called “test of time.” The novel carries the subtitle “A Novel of Modern Terror” and readers of the book expecting such will likely be disappointed. The novel’s possible shortcomings are numerous: the characters are not terribly likable, the “villain” is not difficult to spot, there are few graphic scenes of violence or more subtle scenes of psychological terror, and the villian’s special “trait”—cannibalism linked to Satanism—didn’t strike this reader as that shocking or fear-inducing. Hence, some might wonder why Stephen King praised it in Danse Macabre and why it was nominated for a World Fantasy Award (1977).
Anyone familiar with suspence and horror in the late 60s and 70s will think of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist, for example, and recall that Satanism was a common trope of the times, as expressed elsewhere in the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare(s) of the mid-70s and later. That is to say, Campbell’s novel fits in nicely with its decade. Labeling Doll a “horror” novel rather than a novel of the 70s may be the problem in evaluating it.
A great deal of the disappointment contemporary readers might experience with Doll can be explained by way of misplaced expectations regarding the novel’s subtitle; too many focus on terror instead of modern. Read not as a piece of genre fiction but rather as a story of a group of people brought together in modern, post-industrial Liverpool, the novel fares much better. We have a cast of disaffected characters (a teacher [Clare], a cinema owner, an author [Edmund], and our villain), none of whom feels much passion; even Edmund, the most sanguine of the leads, is less a man of action and passion than he puts on: he’s a coward who lives through his books. The villain is curiously distant emotionally when on the hunt; not in the fashion of a sociopath, but more like someone on Prozac.
This inability of anyone to feel much—pain and anger are both muted—is central to Campbell’s story. Dorothy, the wife of Clare’s (dead) brother meddles and wishes to help as only a co-dependent can, but her lack of true empathy blinds her to what those around her truly feel. The grandmother (Mary Kelly) expresses a cool rage, but it is filtered through religious conviction. This emotional distance makes it difficult for the reader to like any of the characters, but at the same time Campbell refuses to spend page after page “describing” characters in order to draw the reader in, simply to knock them off a few pages later; this is not pulp. Much in the book captures the mood of the era and the location; it is filled with people who are only acting their way through life; even those who attempt to leave Liverpool are drawn back to it, and a subtle pessimism underlies the whole novel. The younger generation, that of the protagonists (and here we must included the slightly older cinema owner), has been damned and damaged by its parents, grandparents, and by its youth-hating teachers. It is a generation that feels the force of fate and determinism, and it is by stepping on and crushing his own (voodoo) doll (by acccident) that the villain frees himself from his fate. Finally at the end Clare can break down into tears, and perhaps this is the bright spot of the novel.