The Nameless by Ramsey Campbell

Fontana edition. Cover by Les Edwards.

Successful literary agent Barbara Waugh is working late in her office when the phone rings and the voice on the other end of the line says, “Mummy.” At first she thinks it’s her assistant’s daughter, but when she says, “This is Barbara Waugh herself speaking,” the voice says, “Yes, Mummy, I know.”

But Barbara’s daughter Angela, born thirteen years ago, is supposedly dead. She was taken from her daycare centre by a man purporting to be her uncle, and the police found a body they were sure was hers (though it was too badly injured for definite identification). Barbara, whose husband died in an accident just before the birth, has spent the intervening nine years living with the loss and guilt of what happened, but now it seems she has even more reason to feel guilty: all that time, her daughter was alive and in the hands of a cult.

The cult are a group who take up residence in a series of derelict houses, moving constantly. They seem to be linked to a group in California that “one of Manson’s women had described as worse than the Family”, a group whose leader believes the worst murderers in history had all “been driven to experience the worst crimes they could on behalf of something outside themselves”. To better serve this “something”, cult members relinquish their names, becoming indistinguishable parts of “the Nameless”.

Ramsey Campbell’s 1981 novel The Nameless is about an archetypal fear. The cult are described at one point as being “into some very bad things, black magic and torture and that sort of stuff”, and this may sound rather vague but, really, that is the point. They are the embodiment of the most primal of parental anxieties about what may happen to a child, and the sort of hands they might fall into. And though it digs into some powerful themes, The Nameless is not so much a considered exploration of ideas as it is a cry of pure anxiety, a nightmare confrontation with the deepest fears centred around parenthood, nurturing, and creativity, and the vulnerabilities these things open you up to.

Family has always been a powerful theme in Campbell’s work, where it can be a sort of psychological crucible from which people emerge damaged and humanly flawed, or, sometimes, as monsters. This was addressed in his earlier novel, The Doll Who Ate His Mother, though that book only focused on one end of the equation, the effect their upbringing had on the novel’s adult characters. The Nameless is more about the other side of the equation; it’s about parenthood, and how having a child opens you up to a whole new set of fears and vulnerabilities.

Barbara Waugh feels she failed her daughter by going back to work and leaving her in someone else’s hands, even if only during the working day. Now she finds that Angela has fallen into the worst hands imaginable, a cult of sadists whose aim is to serve the darkest of forces, and to turn its members into inhuman monsters. There’s a sense, in The Nameless, of families as separate, embattled units, with some, like those of Barbara’s author-client Paul Gregory, or the family of cult-escapee Iris, driven to being suspicious of all outsiders and loyal only to themselves; or of failed families, such as that of Barbara’s friend Ted Crichton, whose divorce has led his wife, Helen, to use their daughter against her former husband in a not-so-subtle emotional conflict. And, of course, cults are a sort of family, too. (Evident in Campbell’s reference to the Manson “Family”.) The Nameless seek to erase the most obvious thing that binds a family together — their shared name — but another family Barbara briefly encounters is a somewhat more harmless occult group in Glasgow, the Undying Light, whose members seem to have achieved unity through a similar loss of individuality:

“…they looked manufactured by whatever factory produced families for television series, a fresh-faced young man and woman between an older couple, all their instant identical smiles gleaming.”

MacMillan hardcover. Art by Norm Walker.

After the deaths of her husband and daughter, Barbara has focused on her career, in which she “mothers” her authors and “midwifes” their books, and creativity is another theme in The Nameless. Writing a book and sending it out into the harsh world of publication is a way of opening up one’s vulnerabilities, and Barbara, as a literary agent, is on the forefront of that moment of first contact between a writer and the world. The Nameless seem to attract people with artistic abilities, and what the cult do could be seen, in a very twisted way, as creative or expressive. But the point about the Nameless, perhaps, is that their own particular (perverted) form of creativity is for their own consumption alone. The young woman journalist Gerry Martin, who infiltrates them, finds drawers full of photographs and films, no doubt of their own, or others’, acts of torture and murder, but when Barbara looks through a house previously inhabited by the cult, she finds only the ashes of these photos and films. The cult don’t share their work; they consume it themselves, then it’s gone. Stifled or thwarted creativity is another of the book’s themes. (Of Barbara, thinking of all the rejected novels she handles, Campbell says, “It unnerved her to imagine how much frustrated creativity there might be in the world.”)

It’s as though The Nameless is presenting, in nightmare form, the anxieties of a very human dilemma: on the one hand, there’s the vulnerability that having children, or producing creative work, opens you up to, through the possibilities of loss, rejection, betrayal, manipulation, and exploitation; on the other, there’s the idea that a highly embattled and secret creativity can, through being divorced from the stream of human contact, find itself serving dark, inhuman powers. Creativity, and family, make you vulnerable, but to be vulnerable is to be human; to turn away from that vulnerability is to turn away from your humanity, and to do that is to serve the darkness.

The Nameless was released as a film in 1999, as Los Sin Nombre, from Spanish director Jaume Balagueró. It drops the (relatively minor) element of Angela’s psychic abilities and adds another twist to the ending, while generally upping the pace and incorporating some truly gruesome effects. I can’t feel it has the same psychological intensity as the novel, nor the same focus on a mother’s (here an editor, Claudia, played by Emma Vilarasau) anxiety to find her lost child (and the many female roles in the novel are pretty much reduced to just Claudia, whose active role is also somewhat reduced, for much of the film), but it does have the occasional good creepy moment.

Year King by Penelope Farmer

Cover to Year King, art by William Bird

After A Castle of Bone, Penelope Farmer’s next novel was Year King (1977), and, in keeping with its protagonist’s age (eighteen), is more an adult than a YA novel, certainly compared to the not-yet-teens of that earlier book. Nevertheless, it’s about a stage of growing up: the struggle to leave home and break free of family ideas about who you are, and so to properly find yourself on the road to adulthood.

At the centre of the novel are Lan and Lew, twins of quite different characters:

“Lew playing rugger and excelling at work, Lan developing a reputation for being mildly way out… playing the guitar a little, having professedly anarchic friends, his hair over his shoulders…”

Lew is away at Cambridge, Lan is struggling with history studies at a local university while living in the basement at home. Although this gives him a certain amount of autonomy (the basement has its own front door, and its own kitchen), he’s nevertheless finding his mother’s presence too much. A lifetime of casually belittling judgements have left him ultra-sensitive to her moods (which Lew, who could play their mother like a harp, pretty much protected him from, before), and one day he takes her car and drives to a cottage the family own in Somerset, and starts spending as much time there as he can.

Although it takes him a while to adjust, Lan comes to love the rural community more and more:

“I am an alien, Lan thought. And then: but I love it. I must be stark raving mad. I love it all.”

He decides to give up his studies and gets work on a local farm. His long hair (the local men refer to him as “her”, though mostly joshingly) sets him apart from the community, but he starts to find himself accepted — with exceptions. One in particular being a middle-aged man, Arthur, for whom Lan feels “a strange, ancient antagonism”.

There are subtle mythic forces at play. One is to do with the land itself. Lan looks at its hills and dales, and though they’re overwritten by the “male lines” of hedgerows, feels, “underlying all of it, meet, receptive, yet in its own way just as strong, refusing to be eclipsed, the soft, lush, swelling shape of the countryside itself; like a woman laid widely…” And when he meets a young American woman of his own age, Novanna, staying with her aunt at a nearby farm, he takes the difficult first steps in building a relationship with her, though he has none of his brother’s ease with women.

Lan’s troubled relationship with his twin is another thing. His resentment of a lifetime of being compared to his (always more capable) twin has left him unsure of where the boundaries between the two of them lie. Now, suddenly, he finds himself at times literally slipping into his twin brother’s body:

“The outside, the crust, was wholly Lew, controlling Lew’s nerves and Lew’s responses; yet right at the centre lay this inappropriate kernel, this little hard obstinate nut which was Lan’s mind, Lan’s thinking.”

The valley isn’t a refuge from his family — no distance could be, because he carries its influence too much within him. Nor is his relationship with Novanna, which also has its troubles. Lew visits on his scooter, and instantly and easily chats Novanna up, and is the first to take her to bed. Lan’s mother asks him back, wants to know what’s happening with him and his studies, asks who’s going to pay the bills at the cottage, insists on having the use of her car. (There’s a younger sister, too, Bronnie, who comes to visit — an island of un-trouble amidst the rest.)

Penelope Farmer, photo by Jill Paton Walsh, from back cover of Year King

Year King has an air of other books I’ve reviewed from the same era. The way Lan slips into Lew’s consciousness without any warning recalls, for me, the way Donald in William Mayne’s A Game of Dark slips between worlds mid-sentence; the fact that Lan is experiencing what it’s like to exist in the body of a more sportily capable, masculine male makes me think of William Rayner’s Stag Boy; but there’s also Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, and Year King’s suggestions of ancient mythical patterns being played out in modern times.

Lan and Lew, for instance, are named after twins from Welsh mythology (Dylan and Lewis, or Lleu Llaw Gyffes — who has his part in the Blodeuwedd story Garner uses). More important, though, is Lan’s relationship with the land — his becoming, in a way, the “Year King”, as described in Frazer’s The Golden Bough, “the incarnation of a dying and reviving god, a solar deity who underwent a mystic marriage to a goddess of the Earth.” (from The Golden Bough Wikipedia page.)

As the year waxes into summer, Lan wins Novanna, and his place in the valley, from both his rivals (Lew, and Arthur, who I take to be, perhaps, the existing valley “Year King”, as he’s a local authority on farming matters), and everything seems to be going well as he works on the land. Then, as the summer changes back to winter, his fortunes wane. His sense of who he is — his resistance to that flickering into Lew’s body — was strong in the summer, but now he flips into Lew’s body more and more as the year approaches its end. When his brother comes down for an end-of-year visit, Lan is convinced the two must fight some sort of duel for psychological survival in a family whose boundaries aren’t at all healthily defined. As Novanna says:

“You’re all hooked up, you know, all of you, still. I’ve never known anything like your family. Like junkies, all of you.”

The mythic references in Year King are more understated than in Garner’s book, though it’s true they nevertheless represent a very real danger Lan could fall into, particularly at the end, in his final confrontation with Lew, that takes place “literally in the bowels of mother earth (and symbolically in utero)” (as a contemporary Kirkus Reviews review has it).

It’s far less tense and intense than The Owl Service, more lyrical and slower-paced — something fitting the 1970s ideal of taking a rural retreat in order to find yourself. (It feels, to me, very much in line with the folk-rock 70s that Rob Young covers in Electric Eden.) But also it’s timeless, in its tale of a young man’s struggle to find himself against the pressure of subtle, but nevertheless psychologically constricting familial patterns. Farmer is excellent at representing those subtle tensions without ever having to blow them up into major dramatic scenes (it could, after all, be the very lack of confrontations between the characters that cause them so much trouble). And the fantasy element — Lan slipping into Lew’s identity — is handled with just as much subtlety. It’s never central to the book, but is nevertheless essential.