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.”
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.