I first read Obsession in the late 1980s, as part of my initial burst of Ramsey Campbell-consumption (not literal — I didn’t eat him), when I worked through a local bookshop’s stock of his titles, including those with the horrible photo covers he was blessed with at the time. (Obsession, in fact, had the worst — a woman’s clenched but impeccably-manicured hands covered in what seemed to be soap suds, or perhaps dried potato juice. The book has yet to gain the cover it deserves, I think.)
Obsession was published in 1985, and re-reading it, I was struck by how it in part recalls another book from the same time, King’s IT (1986). Both are about a group of kids from the late 1950s, and a past that comes back to get them in the 1980s. Rather than alternating between the present and the past as King does, Campbell’s novel opens in 1958, then makes a one-way leap to the present. There’s no element of nostalgia, or that whole ‘wonderful world of being a kid’ thing, as with King’s book. Obsession is tightly plotted psychological, perhaps-supernatural, thriller. (It’s a book that proves Campbell is as much a page-turner as a wordsmith.) But the major difference between the two books is their version of evil that the protagonists face.
In 1958, we learn how each of a group of four kids — Peter, Steve, Jimmy and (as with IT, a single girl) Robin — have one thing in their lives they want to be rid of. With Peter, it’s his nagging, controlling grandmother, recently moved in with the family and making everyone’s life a misery; with Steve, it’s a bullying teacher; with Jimmy, it’s his father’s gambling debts; with Robin, it’s a man who’s bothering her unmarried mother. Then Peter gets an anonymous letter offering to help. Writing back, he gets four forms:
“Most of each sheet was blank, not even bearing the box number. WHAT I MOST NEED IS, a line of typescript said, and left several inches of space before the dotted line above the words Without a signature this form is invalid. There was one more sentence. Your price, it said, is something which you do not value and which you may regain.”
The four kids fill out the forms, which are instantly snatched away by the same sort of wind that tears the cursed strip of runic paper from Professor Harrington’s grasp in Night of the Demon. Then Jimmy’s dad wins the pools; the teacher who’s been bothering Steve has a heart attack; the man who’s been bothering Robin’s mother gets run over; Peter’s gran falls down the stairs…
In 1983, things start to go wrong. Policeman Jimmy’s wife is caught in a serious accident, an accident that occurred in an abandoned property supposedly looked after by Steve’s father’s estate agency (where Steve himself works), and as a result the agency gets a bad name and starts losing business; Robin (now a doctor) is accused of dealing in drugs, mostly by her very difficult-to-live-with mother; and Peter hears his dead grandmother, then actually sees her…
But, despite the dead grandmother, who gets a few fright-moments, there’s no equivalent of Pennywise the Clown. The real source of evil isn’t the supernatural, so much as each of the four characters being caught in vice-like situations where only desperate acts seem able to free them. It’s the old saw of being careful what you wish for, or of getting something “for free” when in fact there’s a price, only not one you’d ever have agreed to. It’s in Campbell’s four very human characters, and their very human reactions to the trying situations they find themselves in, that the evil is found.
There’s a case for saying Obsession has no supernatural element at all, despite those glimpses of Peter’s dead and dusty-eyed gran. Peter, after all, sustained a head-injury as a kid and still has powerful headaches. Plus, there’s his guilt at what he did (signing the forms being his idea). Like The Turn of the Screw, Obsession could fit into Tzvetan Todorov’s very narrow definition of “the fantastic”, to be applied only to those narratives where you can’t tell one way or the other if the supernatural is real or a delusion. (The Turn of the Screw is, I think, a very Campbellian tale, all about someone coming unravelled under both psychological and pseudo-supernatural pressures, and, as with so many of Campbell’s books, it’s about how this can lead an at-first “normal” adult to endanger the children in their care — as in, for instance, The Claw, Midnight Sun, and The House on Nazareth Hill.) One of Campbell’s characters even says: “I think the supernatural is just something people invent as an excuse for what they do or want to do themselves.”
At the end — right at the end, and only through a now-crazed, or at least highly-disturbed Peter’s eyes — there’s a glimpse that there may be something larger behind it all, but something surprising, and very much unlike Stephen King’s evil alien spider-thing:
“He’d never put a name to the originator of the forms and of all that had happened since, perhaps because he was afraid to do so, afraid to think he had signed a pact with something so evil as it had seemed to him. Yet what kind of evil was it that had shown him that giving in to temptation led to greater and greater suffering? Perhaps it was precisely the opposite of what he had assumed.”
(At one point in the novel, another character says, “If fear is taking the place of religion, so be it.”)
In his afterword to the latest edition, Campbell calls the book (originally titled For the Rest of Their Lives, but changed by the publisher) “one of my earliest comedies of paranoia”, thus tying it in with other such Campbell novels as The Count of Eleven or The Grin of the Dark, or, come to think of it, just about all of his work. But here, the comedy is utterly straight-faced, and more a non-comedy of helpless despair than the sort of twisted slapstick of The Count of Eleven or, say, the weird Innsmouth-like runaround of his recent novella (like Obsession, set in a seaside town), The Last Revelation of Gla’aki.
In contrast to the other King novel I reviewed recently, Mr Mercedes, Campbell never disappoints when rendering a truly human evil. King’s “Mr Mercedes” is almost as much a monster as Pennywise the Clown: both are, ultimately, evil because that’s what they are, they’re evil. If Campbell’s characters are evil, it’s for the opposite reason — it’s because they’re human: weak, fallible, and caught in an awful situation, stuck in a nightmare logic that squeezes them till they pop. Obsession could be the purest example of this in Campbell’s oeuvre, an entirely situation-driven descent into four personally-tailored nightmares. It’s not one of his major novels, though I say that only because he’s written such good ones. Obsession’s still a nice little read.