Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Kind of Face You SLASH!: Day 4 - Trying to Do Something Positive

This should give you some idea of the realities of being a prolific, venerable, prize-winning and (perhaps most importantly) in print author of horror fiction: in 2000, or 2001, thereabouts, Ramsey Campbell, in order to supplement his income, took a job as a bookseller at his local Borders bookstore. I found this out when I read the acknowledgements page of the Campbell novel that grew out of that experience, The Overnight. I was stunned, and even alarmed, when I read that. As a reader of, and about, horror fiction, I've always been aware of Campbell's name. If you don't read horror fiction at all, you still know who Stephen King is, and maybe Dean Koontz. If you're a little more aware of the genre, you also know Peter Straub and Clive Barker. But I would think that if all you can manage is a casual interest in horror, you're going to know who Ramsey Campbell is. He's been called a "horror writer's horror writer", he's won many prizes for individual novels and stories, as well as any number of lifetime achievement and Grand Master honors. And he still had to take a seasonal position at Borders.

Campbell's first novel was the strikingly titled The Doll Who Ate His Mother, in 1976 -- I have no idea what kind of a splash that novel made at the time, but I know that now it's held up as something of a classic (and it's a novel I really need to re-read). After several film novelizations written under a pseudonym, Campbell returned in 1979 with his second true novel, the also-strikingly-titled The Face That Must Die. From what I can tell, this novel is still regarded by many as Campbell's masterpiece. Of course, that title instantly conjures up visions of cheap science fiction and horror films from the 1950s and 60s -- perhaps Campbell's novel is about a scientist whose face was blown off in some sort of science-based mishap, and while his body died, his face lived on to destroy all who allowed the accident to occur. The Face That Must Die is sort of a strange title for this novel, because not only is it not like those old films, it's so unlike them that the fact that the title will ring that bell for many of its readers seems not to have occurred to Campbell.

What the novel is about is a man named Horridge, a paranoid loner with a bum leg who lives off his disability checks. He believes the world around him is going to rot, and Horridge blames foreigners, drugs, general permissiveness and, especially, homosexuals for this turn of events. He sees threat and mockery at almost every turn, and cant imagine why no one will do anything about it. Near the beginning of the novel, Horridge comes to believe that he might be able to contribute to the cause. In the papers, he's been reading about a string of murders. All of the victims appear to be homosexuals. Going about his daily business, he has cause to pass by a particular boarding house, and in the window of one of the rooms he sees a man's face. That face matches, as far as he's concerned, the police sketch of the face of the murderer. This is enough for Horridge, and he sets about trying to bring this man to justice, first by anonymously contacting the authorities, and later, when that doesn't work, through more extreme measures.

The face Horridge saw in the window belongs to Roy Craig. Craig is innocent of the murders, and he's also (and I just realized that this is a complete coincidence, used in part, excusably, by Campbell to get his plot moving) a homosexual. When Horridge begins making harrassing phone calls to Craig, the fact that the caller apparently knows about Craig's sexual proclivities weighs on Craig's psyche. But Roy Craig is not the protagonist of this novel, though I suspect he should have been. No, that role belongs to Cathy Gardner, a young woman who works at the local library, and is unhappily married to a drug-abusing pseudo-anarchist named Peter. They live in the same boarding house as Craig, and Campbell follows the unhappiness of their home life to almost the same degree that he charts Horridge's spin from paranoid delusion to murder. Of course, the lives of the Gardners eventually intersect with Horridge's, but Peter is obnoxious, and Cathy is a bit of a limp rag. I liked her far more than Peter, but hers is not an especially interesting head in which to spend time.

In any case, as I said, things eventually turn violent, which brings up two points. One, if this novel is going to be categorized by any genre, the "suspense" label seems far more appropriate to me. There are chases, situations where the reader knows something about a character that other characters sharing the scene don't know, long car rides at night where the driver is being forced by a razor-wielding madman to do his bidding...I guess it all depends on how far you're comfortable stretching the definition of the word "horror". In Peter Bogdanavich's wonderful film Targets, Boris Karloff, playing an aging horror film icon, points to a newspaper headline about a series of sniper killings, and says that his brand of high-toned Gothic horror is can't compare to this new kind of real-world horror. And maybe that was on Campbell's mind when he wrote it, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the The Face That Must Die was labeled horror because of the title, and because that's what Campbell writes, almost exclusively. It's also quite possible that my definition of "horror" is narrower than others.

The other point that the violent content of the novel brings up has to do with, well, violence. Up to this point in my reading for this project, violence as it's portrayed in horror has not been something I could really get into, because the stories haven't lent themselves to discussing the topic, but it's obviously a big subject, especially these days, when, for many people, violence is the point of the genre. The Face That Must Die allows me to kick things off, because, for all my problems with the novel (a little more on those in a bit), I have to say that Campbell excels here. One of the murders involves Horridge bashing in a character's head with a blunt object. Here is just about the extent of Campbell's description of that:

Then he struck until his arm was tired. He could tell he'd done enough, by a change in the quality of the blows.

This does two things: it succesfully forces the reader to imagine the awfulness of what has just been done, and it gives you an idea of Horridge's mind and how it effects his morality, how easily it allows him to kill.

The other murder is, in a way, considerably more violent, but still just as restrained. So many modern horror writers absolutely wallow in the minutiae of the killings they described, and it's gotten to the point where many of these writers have fooled themselves into believing that such writing is an essential part of the genre, even though when they are so diligently cataloguing the viscera, they're almost always aiming for the cheap seats. Now, sometimes that sort of writing is, in fact justified. Not only that, I freely admit here and now that I have been, and will be again, an occupant of those cheap seats. A deliberate occupant. But I don't fool myself about why I'm reading that novel, or watching that film, and I know that what I'm experiencing at those times is far more often than not a bastardization of the genre. If you want to get into why I like that stuff despite what would appear to be some very strong objections to it, well, that will probably be a topic for another post.

So Campbell's on his game in those sections of the book. Where the book falls apart for me is when he introduces the completely superfluous gimmick of giving us the same scene from different points of view. The first time Campbell does this -- which also happens to be the novel's first murder -- it actually plays quite well. But then again, we don't really get the whole scene twice. When the first character's point of view ends (and you can imagine at what point it ends), we switch to the other character. There is no repeat of information. Every other time Campbell does this, however, there's no pay-off. The second murder is written the same way, with the result that Campbell ends up telling the reader things we already knew. Later, Campbell treats us to a lugubrious chase (for lack of a better word) that ends with no confrontation of any sort. Okay, fine, but why does Campbell feel the need to essentially give us the entire anti-climactic chase again? And all told, this takes up between 20 to 30 pages. Absolutely baffling.

Then the book ends with a long, by-the-numbers, but, nevertheless, occasionally hard to follow climactic showdown, and I found myself putting the book down with considerable disappointment. There was a reasonably well-done epilogue that added a bit of a sting to what had just preceded it, but in the end I was left with the same impression of Campbell that I've always had, which is that he's a very talented writer who doesn't recognize his own weaknesses, and who complicates his novels with occasional gimmicks and turgid prose. He would benefit from a much clearer eye.


Greg said...

you still know who Stephen King is, and maybe Dean Koontz. If you're a little more aware of the genre, you also know Peter Straub and Clive Barker. But I would think that if all you can manage is a casual interest in horror, you're going to know who Ramsey Campbell is.

Actually, I think the first four you mentioned are known by everyone but Campbell on the other hand is barely known. I know I'm barely aware of his existence and think of him long after I think of the other four.

The Face That Must Die... ...instantly conjures up visions of cheap science fiction and horror films from the 1950s and 60s

And The Doll Who Ate His Mother doesn't?

Then he struck until his arm was tired. He could tell he'd done enough, by a change in the quality of the blows.

Then the book ends with a long, by-the-numbers, but, nevertheless, occasionally hard to follow climactic showdown, and I found myself putting the book down with considerably disappointment.

Those two passages kind of go together. Maybe Campbell could tell he'd done enough, and the quality of his story softened.

bill r. said...

I wasn't really sure what the awareness was of the big names in horror beyond King and Koontz, so I kind of guessed. Deep down, I actually didn't think that many people knew about Straub, despite his success, and Barker's star has waned as he writes out fewer and fewer books. So, like I say, I guessed, and figured I was wrong.

I don't know what The Doll Who Ate His Mother conjures, but it didn't make me think of SF/horror fromt he 50s and 60s. Beyond making me wonder how literal that title should be taken (before I read it), it made me think of a writer trying -- and succeeding -- to knock you out with a crazy title.

The last third of the book really was kind of infuriating. You're right, it did kind of feel like Campbell had achieved what he'd wanted, and stopped caring after that. I'd say it's a consequence of him being a young writer at the time, but I've encountered similar problems with him over and over again, including The Overnight, which is only about five years old.

Greg said...

Yeah, you're right, The Doll Who Ate His Mother doesn't make me think of sci-fi or horror but it sounds like it should. Like it's referring to a cult film from the sixties or something.

For years I saw Dean Koontz's name on the books in the grocery store checkout aisle and assumed he was a romance novelist since that was the majority of books there. It was only after years that I realized he was a horror novelist.

Anonymous said...

I'm kinda in the slightly more than casual interest in horror, Bill ...

I know who Koontz, King, Straub and Barker, and have read all but Koontz, but have not hear of Ramsey Campbell until now.


bill r. said...

Okay, fine, so I was wrong. No one has heard of Campbell except me and three other people. I get it!

Why did I think so few people have heard of Straub? He's books sell very well, after all. Maybe it has to do with the fact that, compared to some of his best-selling contemporaries, he's not that prolific (although, really, he's no slouch), and very few of his books have been made into films.

Unknown said...

I mainly know Campbell from his very engaging column, "Ramsey's Rambles," in Video Watchdog. He's got a very interesting sensibility; I'll have to check out his fiction soon.

bill r. said...

Hey, Glenn, thanks for stopping by. I don't know Campbell's Video Watchdog column (though, coincidentally, I am currently reading Tim Lucas's Throat Sprockets), but I'll bet it's great. He knows this genre inside out.

Will Errickson said...

I recently got a stack of old Campbell paperbacks off eBay. I've always enjoyed (most) of his short stories, but was underwhelmed by his early '80s novel The Nameless (made into a decent Spanish film a few years ago). As for the level of awareness of him by horror fans, I think your assessment is fairly spot-on. However, I read Stephen King's Danse Macabre very early on in my horror fan days--I was maybe 14 or 15--and learned about a lot of genre writers I might not have otherwise come across: Straub, James Herbert, Harlan Ellison, Shirley Jackson, JG Ballard, et. al. But I think Campbell's output in the last 10-15 years has been more suspense-type stuff so newer horror fans simply might not be aware of his stuff.