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.’
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.
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.