Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Book Review: The Doll Who Ate His Mother by Ramsey Campbell

Published: 1976

Synopsis: It was a freak accident. The man had suddenly stepped into the road, and the brakes had failed. Clare could only steer wildly, the car finally crashing into a tree and on to the kerb. Now her brother Rob was dead, silent in the passenger seat, slumped against the door. He died of massive head injuries. But there was something else, something that at first she couldn't uite grasp, that seemed inexplicable. His right arm was missing. Gone. Someone had taken it.

My Thoughts: Like most people who have read this book in the last 20 years, I was coerced to track down this book thanks to Stephen King's glowing review in Danse Macabre. During my search, I have encountered several very interesting interviews with him (including his contribution to Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown) and have found his views and philosophies on horror fiction to be congruent with my own. He understands the unique insights and experiences that horror/weird fiction provides. He doesn't shy away from the fact he is a horror writer - he revels in it - something I respect and applaud in the face of literary genre snobbery.

So naturally, when by chance I happened upon The Doll Who Ate His Mother while actively searching for Ramsey Campbell books at the Brisbane Lifeline Bookfest, I was beside myself. It is this perceived kinship I felt for Campbell through media which is probably responsible for the fact I wasn't blown away by this book. Don't get me wrong, it was a very strong first novel but its didn't tingle all my horror-nerves simultaneously. I just created expectations it couldn't match.

The second disservice to the book comes from its blurb, which dulls the effectiveness of the first scene. Which is why I have no problems spoiling it here. The first chapter introduces us to the protagonist (kind of) Clare, who accidently kills her brother in a car accident. At the scene of the crime, a mysterious figure who was partially responsible for causing her to crash makes off with her brother's severed arm. This ghoulish act comes as a shocking reveal in the chapter, but is already given away in the first sentence on the back cover. But I guess it's a good way to sell the story.

As for the character of Clare, I called her a protagonist with the qualifier 'kind of" because, while she was a fairly well developed character, she wasn't a powerful force in shaping how the story progressed. She acted more of a witness or as a tourist in the story - listening to other characters stories and finding clues without actually deciphering them herself. This might not have been Campbell's intention as not every chapter was set through her point of view, but overall I felt she was the character the reader was supposed to identify with. She was also the absolute last character to piece together the mystery in a terrific climax to the story, which I won't spoil.

I enjoyed Campbell's writing style, especially when it drifted into hallucinogenic territory. Right in the beginning, Clare sees a line of babies walking along a rooftop, but when she looks back at them they have turned into cats. I've heard this style become even more pronounced in some of his later novels (which might also explain his admiration for David Lynch. Note to self: Do an Eraserhead review), and writing horror that drifts in and out of the realm of dreams and nightmares is, in my opinion, a noble pursuit.

It is not a difficult read to get through, sitting comfortably at 280 pages in small paperback. I am eager to read more of Campbell, though I'll probably indulge in his short fiction before picking up one of his novels again for no reason other than his short fiction has been so widely praised. It is definitely not the genre-shaker that King suggested it might be, but it is a worthwhile and enjoyable read.

3.5 out of 5 (though I only paid $2.50 for it at the book fair)


  1. Thank you very much, Tom! Actually, you value the book more highly than I would! Still, I had to start somewhere as a novelist...

    1. Wow! Thank you for legitimising our little blog by commenting on this post. I have Thieving Fear sitting on my Kindle, so I'm doubly excited to read it now. I would have proof-read this article a lot more thoroughly if I'd known you would read it...

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