Review: The Doll Who Ate His Mother by Ramsey Campbell

Toby Frost

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Jan 22, 2008
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#1
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Following the death of her brother in a bizarre car accident, Claire Frayne is contacted by a muck-raking writer, who claims that he once went to school with the man who caused the collision. With the help of others whose lives have been damaged by the mysterious killer, Claire determines to track the man down and see justice done.

If I had to describe this book in a word, it would be “bleak”. Its setting, 1970s Liverpool, is grim and run-down, full of second-rate housing and naff government social projects. The story is set against a background not of crime, but of poverty. Everything seems to be slowly falling apart: the vibrant menace of “the hood” that you might see in The Wire isn’t here. Doctors sit in flyblown offices, teachers despair, kids are stupid and obnoxious and old women bitterly nurse their grudges. But, as Stephen King observed in Danse Macabre, Campbell has a genuine affection for his characters. Clever, insecure Claire and her friend, the kindly businessman George Pugh, are decent people trying to do what’s right. Even Christopher Kelly, the maniac they are hunting, is as much an object of pity as fear.

Indeed, there is very little gore in this book: most of the horror comes from the sort of stories people tell about the “bad family” on the local estate (I suppose we’d call them “urban legends” now). When the occult appears, it seems ridiculous and pathetic (although, perhaps, somehow real). The true horror is abuse and the misuse of the vulnerable. I think this is far more powerful and unsettling than the more lurid thrills a less skilled writer might dish out.

And Campbell is a very skilled writer. His prose is superb, which does a lot to stop this novel from becoming a depressing slog. His imagery gives the book a kind of surreal, unsettling beauty, as if it was written by someone slightly dislocated from reality. Throughout, there is the disorienting feeling that this could slip into outright nightmare at any point.

So, I would recommend The Doll Who Ate His Mother. It isn’t horrific, at least not in the usual sense, but it is a disturbing and powerful novel: a horror story for grown-ups, if you like.
 
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Randy M.

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Mar 7, 2012
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#2
Good review, Toby. Tangentially -- and inconsequentially -- this and Campbell's The Face that Must Die are among my favorite cheesy horror novel titles, possibly all the more so because they mask quite good novels. Though, as you note, bleak.
 

Toby Frost

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Jan 22, 2008
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#3
Yes - my book has a very cheesy cover showing an evil baby crawling towards the reader! Those titles and covers do rather belie the content. To be honest, all it needs is less plot and it could pass for a literary novel.
 

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