The Doll Who Ate His Mother by Ramsey Campbell

The Doll Who Ate His Mother, Millington Books HB, 1977

Driving her brother Rob home one night, Clare Frayn is forced to swerve into a lamppost when a man suddenly appears in the road in front of her. The accident severs Rob’s arm, killing him, but when the emergency services arrive, they can’t find either the man who caused the accident or Rob’s arm… A few months later, Clare is contacted by Edmund Hall, author of such non-fiction crime books as Secrets of the Psychopaths, The Homicidal Heart, Love Has Many Weapons and Sinister Sirens. He believes the man who caused the accident and made off with Rob’s arm is a local boy he knew from school, Christopher Kelly, whom he once saw bite into a bully’s arm and refuse to let go, and whom he believes responsible for another local crime, in which a man entered an old woman’s house and ate her dog, causing her to die from a heart-attack. Hall recruits Clare and two other people who’ve suffered from Kelly’s crimes to hunt down this monster and bring him to justice.

I think the deliberately lurid title of Ramsey Campbell’s first novel (published in 1976 in the US, 1977 in the UK), is a sort of goad, a backhanded hint that you should look beyond the obviously sensationalistic aspects of the story. This being Campbell, the characters are drawn with too much subtlety to fit neatly into the usual horror categories of victims, heroes, and, even, monsters. And although Kelly does some undeniably monstrous things, this is not, ultimately, a book about how a human being can be a monster. It’s about the very human means by which monsters are not only made, but kept monstrous.

The ultimate source for the evil that’s in Christopher Kelly is the influence of John Strong, a man who believed that:

‘Sometimes, in its evolution, the Universe bears a mind that will grasp and wield its unity; such a mind is mine.’

Bobbs-Merrill, US HB, 1976

Strong had the ability to exert his will over others, and used it to control and degrade anyone who came under his influence. When Kelly’s mother, Cissy, went to him thinking his ‘black magic’ could terminate her unwanted pregnancy, he instead forced her to keep the child and dedicate it to him. Strong, though, is not a character we get to know in Doll except through a pamphlet he wrote (called Glimpses of Absolute Power) and the devastating effect he’s left in his wake. We cannot know the how or the why of him. (‘Of my birth I shall say nothing,’ he writes in his pamphlet.) He represents a perhaps necessary blank wall as far as tracing the ultimate origins of Christopher Kelly’s evil are concerned. All we know about him is that he is the cause of life-ruining degradation and powerlessness in others.

What matters more is how that degradation and powerlessness are sustained by less supernaturally-endowed hands. Mrs Kelly — Cissy’s mother, and the one who raises the boy Christopher — doesn’t have any special powers, but she’s just as controlling, repressive and degrading as John Strong, only she does it in the name of God. Justifying the control she exerted over her daughter, she says:

‘All we asked was that she was home by nine every night, and told us everything she’d done during the day. And what she was going to do the next day.’

And this is when her daughter was a young woman, going out daily to work. Her rejection of the pregnant Cissy is what drives this young woman into John Strong’s hands, and even before Christopher is born, Mrs Kelly has decided what he is:

‘The Devil had made him clever — pretending to be a little boy, waiting for the chance to be a monster.’

John Strong made dolls by which he magically controlled human beings; the likes of Mrs Kelly, by prejudging and repressing at every stage, do their best to make people into less-than-human dolls.

1978 cover, image from Too Much Horror Fiction

The family of George Pugh (whose mother was the old lady who died when she found Kelly gnawing at her dog), though by no means perfect, is the opposite of Mrs Kelly’s approach. The Pugh household allows for both religion (mother Alice Pugh saying grace before dinner) and scepticism (‘George bowed his head, but Clare could see it was a token gesture’) without any conflict, and is obviously nurturing of both its two children, and their pets. George, it turns out, was raised on Shakespeare (‘Everything is in Shakespeare. He makes you feel things as if you’ve never felt them before’), and his parents’ sacrifices were not made in the name of an Old Testament deity, but for the running of a chain of local cinemas. It’s Alice Pugh who, at the end, offers Kelly his chance to rejoin the human race, by convincing him to accept responsibility for what he’s done and hand himself in to the police. But then Edmund Hall, who has consistently made crude, instant judgements about everyone he meets, and who has already made up his mind that Kelly is a monster and must meet a monster’s end, comes blundering along and ruins things.

Bracketing the central horror/tragedy is the subtler and more human tale of Clare, whose self-judgements (having once been told she has ‘stumpy legs’, she’s self-conscious about her every movement) show us a normal human being making herself a little bit monstrous, a little bit unacceptable, in the way so many normal human beings do, while herself being completely understanding of others. She wasn’t raised by anyone as toxic at Mrs Kelly, but we learn that her brother Rob thought their ‘Father and Mother put down everything I was…’, and that this may have made him a little monstrous, too, in the way he makes himself into something he’s not (he fronted an outspoken ‘Working Class Hero Show’ on Radio Merseyside, despite not really being working class, and Clare thinks this made him ‘aggressive, dogmatic, secretly unsure’). We never learn what effect her upbringing might have had on Clare, only that, at the end of all the horror, she finds herself weeping.

‘What is it, Clare?’ Dorothy said.
‘Oh, everything,’ she said indistinctly. ‘It goes back so far.’

And her ‘everything’ can be no way near as horrifying or lurid as Christopher Kelly’s ‘everything’, but it’s still her ‘everything’, which she has to deal with, something that requires, in a humanity-starved, sensation-hungry world, a little extra understanding, a breaking down of judgement and self-judgement, so she can, in her own small way, start to heal.

It’s only, I think, by allowing itself to look beyond its own sensational elements that horror can go full circle into catharsis or healing like this, and its rare to find books in the genre that really try. Particularly rare to find one with a title like The Doll Who Ate His Mother.

The House on the Brink by John Gordon

Cover to 1982 Penguin Plus edition, art by Neil Reed

Walking home after his literature evening class’s end-of-term party, sixteen-year-old Dick Dodds gives in to an impulse to nab a boat and let it drift him down the river. But the dare turns dangerous when he loses the row-boat’s only oar and finds himself being drawn helplessly out to sea. Saving himself, he has to plod through the fens back to dry land, and as he does, he passes a track in the mud that sends a chill up his spine:

‘I stepped into that trail and it seemed to put the moon out. Everything darkened. I went cold and stiff and then I fell. I must have done. I was on my hands and knees just a short distance away from the trail and I could feel the moon on my back.’

He discovers, the next day, that he can still feel the trail as it crosses dry land. Following it, he meets Helen Johnson, who on the night of Dick’s escapade saw something passing her father’s farmlands:

‘It was like a man all tied up, no legs and no arms. But it kept moving. Sort of gliding…’

The two begin an off-and-on investigation of the trail, driven by bursts of impulsive determination from Dick, but hampered by the ups and downs of the pair’s incipient romance. Visiting a local water-diviner, Mrs Shepherd, they learn that they share her ability to detect water running underground, and think at first this explains the chilling effect of the trail, until they follow it a bit more and encounter the thing — ‘A black, smooth, round, bald-headed old post’ — Helen saw that night, which is not a post, but may in fact be the mummified body of one of King John’s men, said to have been charged with guarding the treasure the king lost in the fens hundreds of years ago. And, dead though it clearly is, it moves.

The mystery begins to centre on a young widow, Mrs Knowles, whom Dick knows from his literature class. She believes:

‘My house… has a good side and a bad. The river is on the dark side. Everything it contains is contaminated… And out the back of my house… somewhere in the distance, there is something that when it appears always gives me hope… I call it the Silver Fields.’

Mrs Knowles tells Dick of how she was out walking by the river one day with a friend, local solicitor Mr Miller, when she saw ‘a piece of wood’ that ‘the river had made… evil’, and Dick realises it’s probably the same thing whose trail he and Helen have been investigating. Mr Miller, it turns out, is interested in the legend of King John’s treasure — he tried to talk Mrs Shepherd into using her water-divining powers to locate it — and now Dick begins to suspect Miller of having some sort of unpleasant plan for Mrs Knowles.

What’s notable about The House on the Brink is that it’s not a straightforward kids-investigate-the-supernatural type of story. It’s as much about the moment-by-moment feeling of being a teen on the verge of adulthood, experiencing the world in new ways, entering into a first relationship, getting glimpses of the dark world of adult secrets. Dick is impulsive, at times touchy, at times shy, given to the need to prove himself in sometimes dangerous ways. The book’s terse, poetic style emphasises this feeling of teenage life being a series of intense but fragmented moments of pure experience:

He dropped the bicycle on the verge and turned in the road with his arms outstretched. ‘I am the key in the lock of the world,’ he said. He let himself believe it for a moment. Then he picked up his bike. ‘And I’m also mad.’

As so often happens in YA books, the teens are central to the story because, being caught between the two worlds of childhood and adulthood, they’re free to move between, and look into, other worlds, too.

There’s the worlds of social position, for instance, that the children move between, or are caught by. Mrs Shepherd, the water-diviner, is working class, while Mrs Knowles is obviously very well-off, but both accept the teens into their lives without the class prejudices they might apply to adults. When it’s revealed that Mrs Knowles’s man-friend, whom Dick has already started to suspect of being up to no good, is a solicitor, he feels that ‘He might have known it would be somebody like that’, and I certainly read ‘somebody like that’ to be a judgement in terms of social standing. (Miller is later described as having ‘a long face with a golf-course tan.’) Dick feels that his smaller house puts him in a lower class than Helen (‘Dick’s shame began at the backyard gate. With two bicycles in it the yard was crowded. At her house there was space…’), while Helen feels that, when she goes round to Dick’s for dinner, the Dodds being ‘Town, not country’ puts her subtly in a lower class (as Dick’s father wears a suit, ‘not a farmer’s shirt-sleeves.’). Later, she says Dick can’t ‘know anything about fen people. Real fen people’, because he lives in the town.

Far more explicit are the two worlds of belief in the supernatural and dismissal of it. Helen tells her mother about the thing she saw passing their farm that night, ‘But that sort of thing doesn’t sink in.’ Dick alone of his literature class understands what Mrs Knowles means when she talks of the river being ‘bad’ and the Silver Fields being ‘good’, to the extent that he cycles out one morning to find those ‘Silver Fields’.

Belief in the supernatural is tied to an ability to understand the less intellectual aspects of poetry (Mrs Knowles asserts ‘You have to feel a poem. You can’t analyse it.’), but also being open to emotional instability and madness. Mrs Knowles, standing daily on the balcony of her ‘House on the Brink’, is herself on the brink of insanity, of being lost in the instability of her unbalanced feelings, and Dick at one point puts his and Helen’s involvement in the trail and the spooky old ‘log’ down to:

‘How people’s feelings seem to cross and get tangled. That’s what’s been happening, isn’t it?’

Mr Miller, being a solicitor — a shrewd thinker used to dealing with down-to-earth issues — is Mrs Knowles’s opposite in terms of rationality and intuition, and it’s perhaps because of this that he ultimately can’t save her from her own mental instability, but the kids — who can understand both worlds — can.

In an interview published on the Ghosts & Scholars site, John Gordon says that, in The House on the Brink, he was:

‘…writing about the time in everyone’s life when you suddenly realise that the real world is more mysterious and magnificent than the static wonders of fairy tales.’

Ultimately, it’s a book that shrugs off easy divisions. Its world is not one of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, nor is it one where it’s easy to tell the supernatural from madness, and the implication is that part of growing up is learning to realise this.

Providence by Alan Moore

Providence issue 1, art by Jacen Burrows

Halfway through the run of Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’s 12-issue comic, Providence, I re-read all of Lovecraft’s stories (as well as S T Joshi’s monumental Lovecraft biography, I Am Providence), and suddenly the comic made a lot more sense. It’s not that Moore makes a lot of references to Lovecraft’s work — being pretty familiar with Lovecraft, I’m confident I’ll get most broad-brush references to his stories — it’s that the interplay between Providence and Lovecraft’s work (and life) can be quite subtle, and the deeper you can go into those subtleties, the more connections you can spot, and the more you’ll get out of the series. (The annotations at Facts in the Case of Alan Moore’s Providence helped a lot, too.)

Now I’m going to completely eat my own words about something I went into only a few Mewsings ago. Talking about Alien: Covenant, I said how prequels, particularly those that delve into a series’ background mythology, are pretty much doomed to failure, unless, like Star Wars: Rogue One, they do their best to keep their entanglements with the further reaches of the mythology as minimal as possible. Well, Providence is a prequel to Moore’s two other Lovecraftian comics — The Courtyard and Neonomicon — and it wallows in mythology (mostly Lovecraft’s, but at the end you need to know Moore’s, too). Not only that, but it attempts to make all of Lovecraft’s ramshackle mythology tie up, and — ye Eldritch Gods! — it even tries to explain it all.

art by Jacen Burrows

But, it works.

Perhaps it works because this twelve-issue series isn’t also trying to be a cinema-audience-pleasing ninety minute thrill-ride at the same time, but can take its time to tell the story as it needs to be told. Considering this is a horror comic, very little happens in the first few issues — unless, that is, you’re busy making Lovecraftian connections, in which case the implications will be building. But also, of course, this is Alan Moore, and Moore is particularly good at not only sorting out other people’s narrative tangles, but at adding his own — often awe-inspiring — sense for them to make.

In fact, I’d say Moore is energised by a creative challenge, and the bigger and more impossible-seeming, the better. He stated his aim for Providence in a 2015 article on Previews World:

“…Providence is an attempt to marry Lovecraft’s history with a mosaic of his fictions, setting the man and his monsters in a persuasively real America during the pivotal year of 1919: before Prohibition and Weird Tales, before Votes for Women or the marriage to Sonia, before the Boston Police Strike and Cthulhu. This is a story of the birth of modern America, and the birth of modern American terror.”

The comic follows Robert Black, a reporter from New York who, upon the suicide of his lover (in a suicide booth — this is a slightly different world to ours, in this case owing a little to Cambers’ King in Yellow), leaves his job to pursue his dream (“some day, if Providence allows”) of writing a novel. Scholarly, nervous, and by no means an action hero, Black is the typical Lovecraft protagonist — in all but being both Jewish and gay. Intrigued by the mention of a translated Arab alchemical text that made its way to the US, Black begins tracking down the various individuals and occult groups who have made use of it in their beliefs.

Providence 7, art by Jacen Burrows

These individuals and groups are Moore’s renamed versions of Lovecraft characters, and the main fun of the first half of Providence is in tying up Moore’s characters with Lovecraft’s, and seeing what twist Moore has put on them. Usually, the effect is to emphasise the historical and social context in which their stories are being told, and to — at first at least — make us feel that perhaps Lovecraft’s presentation of them as figures of horror is a misunderstanding because of their status as social, racial, religious, or sexual outsiders. Because of this, Black doesn’t even start to glimpse the implications of what they’re saying (Moore’s dialogue has a wonderful way of playing with double meanings), and I, as a reader, started to feel that perhaps the whole point of Providence was to redeem Lovecraft’s secretive, evil-intentioned cultists from any horrific interpretation at all.

The first character Black meets, for instance, is a Doctor Alvarez, Moore’s version of Lovecraft’s Dr. Muñoz, from “Cool Air”. Like Lovecraft’s Muñoz, Alvarez is seeking to preserve his life beyond the natural point of death, which requires him to live in a controlled, artificially cold environment. He doesn’t hide that he’s doing this, but neither does he state it outright:

“For myself, I must not complain. Here, for a time, I can be comfortable… Life does not trouble me.”

It’s as though Alvarez might be quite willing to admit the truth about what he’s doing, if only Black were to ask the right question. But Black never does, because — who would? Who would suspect that the quiet-voiced, well-mannered Alvarez is actually a walking corpse, preserved by ammonia and low temperatures? Also unlike Lovecraft’s character, Alvarez is fully human, even compassionate, as revealed in a very un-Lovecraftian line:

“…to not love is to waste the existence. Even life is a small matter beside it.”

But there is a real horror, and Black’s journey takes him right to the heart of it. The Arab alchemical text, the Kitab Al Hikmah Al Najmiyya, includes a prophecy of two figures, a Herald and a Redeemer, who are to bring about the end of our world — or its transformation. Moore’s refusal to provide a Lovecraftian moral judgement of his characters extends to a refusal to judge the coming transformation.

So, you start by thinking this Dr Alvarez is, in fact, a pretty nice chap; then that those Innsmouth folk are maybe odd-looking but they’re just folk from a different culture; then that Garland Wheatley (Moore’s version of Wizard Whateley from “The Dunwich Horror”) is, well, dangerously backward, perhaps best left alone, but not a world-shattering evil… Then you find yourself at issue 6, the halfway point, where it is, finally, made clear to Black that he is in the midst of something really bad, and in deep, and it’s way too late to do anything about it.

art by Jacen Burrows

Randall Carver, art by Jacen Burrows

The ideas Moore presents undergo a similar shift. At first, it seems as though he’s presenting Lovecraft’s horrors and his dream-world stories as evidence of a real but separate dream-reality, which brushes up against our world and which can even be accessed by dreamers such as Randall Carver (Moore’s version of Lovecraft’s Randolph Carter, which confusingly is also Lovecraft’s fictional version of Lovecraft himself, which makes it triply strange when Moore presents us with his versions of Carver and Lovecraft living in the same town). Black has a few such brushes, but initially dismisses them as hallucinations. His issue 6 experience, though, is too deeply traumatic to be dismissed even if it can be thought of as a hallucination, and it sets the tone for an increasing bleakness throughout the second half of the series, which on a first read left me with as much a feeling of nihilism as Ridley Scott’s Prometheus did on a first viewing. There’s a real sense, in the closing issues of Providence, just how little human life and our illusions of free will matter in the face of the coming transformation:

“We are words on papyrus, a thousand years ago.”

In its final issues, Providence is at times quite moving — issue 11, for instance with its rapid skim through the history of Lovecraft, his circle, and his growing impact on culture — but, at the end, it’s also terribly bleak. Robert Black turns out to be yet another Moore version of a Lovecraft character, so you know he can’t come to a good end, but in its final issue, Providence brings in characters from The Courtyard and Neonomicon (which I also found horrendously bleak, after its protagonist underwent a similarly horrific and traumatic experience as Robert Black does) and resolves the whole three-title series.

Robert Black, art by Jacen Burrows

Most of the issues of Providence included a lengthy text extract from Black’s diary, and I have to admit that, on my re-read of the series, I skipped these. In part because, although they provided Black’s innocent interpretation of the events in the comic part of the story, they didn’t really add much, as it was pretty easy to guess what Black thought was going on anyway. But also I skipped them because they were pages and pages of single-column, long-paragraph, small-size handwritten text and were just plain difficult to read. Aside from the wonderfully punnish extracts from an Innsmouth parish newsletter in issue 3, I really don’t think I missed much by skipping them.

It’s an excellent series, if bleak, though one I think you really need to know your Lovecraft to get the most out of. As such, it might not have wide appeal, but I’d certainly rank it with the best of Moore’s work, and Jacen Burrows is to be applauded for the amount of work he’s put into realising so many historically accurate locations and Lovecraftian characters, as well as providing some neat visualisations of sometimes transdimensional concepts.

Alien: Covenant

Alien: Covenant posterOne of the things that makes the original Alien so effective is how lean and sleek it is, plot-wise — what you might call its structural perfection. You can’t help but admire its purity. It’s a survivor, unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality…

The original film’s one allusion to a backstory or mythology, the Space Jockey scene, is so brief yet mind-blowing that all it does is hint at what a vast, scary, and utterly unknowable Lovecraftian universe there is behind the xenomorph’s existence. It’s as if, with the Space Jockey scene, the film is saying, “All this stuff with one killer alien is merely scratching the surface of the horrors that are out there.”

Aliens knew what it was doing when it left any question of mythology alone. Like a need-to-know-only military briefing, it stuck to the xenomorph, and the xenomorph only. Anything beyond that was unnecessary to its story. Prometheus changed all that, but Prometheus was trying to be a different sort of film altogether, only tangentially related to the Alien franchise. That wasn’t what audiences wanted, though, so now, instead of a Prometheus sequel, we have Alien: Covenant, a DNA-fused hybrid that promises a return to the Alien franchise proper, but that also wants to keep things going on the Prometheus front. We know the xenomorph is endlessly adaptable, but I can’t help thinking of that pathetic human/xenomorph thing at the end of Alien: Resurrection, that seemed, to me, more unintentionally comic than evolutionarily impressive.

(And why ‘Covenant’? Aside from it being the name of the ship carrying human colonists to the distant planet Origae-6, there doesn’t seem to be any actual covenant involved.)

Alien: Covenant posterI enjoyed Alien: Covenant, but only in a so-so way. I think the trouble with it is that, by this time, the series has picked up so many story elements it feels the need to give the nod to, none of them can get the attention they deserve. There’s the xenomorphs; there’s the Engineers; there’s the synthetics; there’s David (from Prometheus) in particular; there’s the Weyland-Yutani Corporation; there’s its ageing founder… And somewhere amongst all that, there’s the new characters who must be introduced in each film, if only to give them some sort of story before they’re infected, impregnated, punctured, dissolved, burned, torn apart, experimented on, or whatever other gruesome fate awaits them. In a need to be both a prequel to Alien and a sequel to Prometheus, Alien: Covenant spends all its narrative energy running around ticking boxes, doing its best to add its own particular twists (yet more variations on the xenomorph and its ever-mutating gestation cycle, yet more new ways for characters to die), trying to at least hint it’s going to connect with the original film in a meaningful way, while all the time trying to provide some justification for its existence as a film in its own right.

All the scenes that made Alien and Aliens so great get stuffed into Alien: Covenant and hastily run through, but with none of the necessary build-up in character and tension that made them work in the first place. Who is that getting torn apart by the latest variety of xenomorph (a pale, fleshy creature more than a little resembling Pan’s Labyrinth’s eyeless Pale Man)? I don’t know. Which means I don’t care.

Michael Fassbender as David in PrometheusWhere Alien: Covenant does get to create some sort of unique identity as a film, it actually starts to work. The one thing it’s got going for it is the fact that it has two superficially identical synthetics, David and Walter, both played by Michael Fassbender (who is, I suppose, the prequel series’s Ripley, though an anti-Ripley). This is a new situation for the Alien films, and Alien: Covenant manages to do something with it. The trouble is, it only gets round to doing it in the last few minutes, once the film has finished dealing with all the other Alien/Aliens/Prometheus stuff it feels so contracted to deal with. (Perhaps that’s the covenant in Alien: Covenant? A contract between Ridley Scott and his audience who, he seems to feel, need, not a sleek, tense, killer of a film, but a series of ticks against an ever-increasing list of must-have scenes, twists, and backstory updates, however shoehorned-in.)

Prometheus left me reeling at how nihilistic it was. Alien: Covenant never gets round to making any sort of equivalent statement. And I think this is the curse of backstory, or mythology, or whatever you call it, generally. Backstory works as backstory, not as the main plot of a movie. That’s why the Star Wars prequels could never be as good as the originals. It’s great to have, in the original Star Wars trilogy, references to what went on before — the Clone Wars, the Old Republic, and so on — because those throwaway references gave the story-world a bit more dimension, and uncovering hidden past events and family secrets added some counterpoint to the main action of the plot. When Darth Vader said he was Luke’s father, it was a great, though crude, shock moment. But it certainly wasn’t the justification for three new films. (The Harry Potter books/films did it better, in terms of interweaving discovery of past events with present-time plot advancement.)

Star Wars Rogue One posterI really enjoyed Star Wars: Rogue One, and a good deal of that came from its being so free of the tangles of established backstory — certainly, of the ponderous, melodramatic, Gothic weight of the ‘Saga’ of the (let’s face it, majorly dysfunctional) Skywalker clan. Granted, Rogue One took as its kick-off point a detail from the original story — Rebel spies stealing the Death Star plans — but that, and its being set in the recognisable Star Wars universe, was all it took. And all it needed.

Alien: Covenant doesn’t actually add much to the Prometheus mythology, which makes it all the more annoying how weighed down it is by including so much of it. I don’t think it’s going to happen, but what I think the Alien series needs is to jettison this dead weight of trying to build a mythology, and get back to being the sleek, simple but mind-blowing killer beast it used to be, with only the occasional between-the-fingers glimpse of a wider, even more terrifying, cosmic reality behind it all.