The Face That Must Die by Ramsey Campbell

Futura 1990 PB, cover by Oliver Hunter

Ramsey Campbell’s second novel was published in 1979, though in a version that was edited without his knowledge; subsequent editions from 1983 onwards have the full text.

Most of the novel follows John Horridge, an unemployed middle-aged man living on disability benefit (for a limp he gained as a boy while working for his window cleaner father, whose self-absorption and alcoholism following his wife’s death led to the accident). Having had to leave the house where he grew up, Horridge now lives in Liverpool’s Cantril Farm Estate — an actual place, built in 1965 and renamed in the mid-1980s as Stockbridge Village, in an attempt to give it a new start. Cantril Farm, the scene of riots in the early 80s, was named “one of the worst estates in Europe” by actor & DJ Craig Charles, who grew up there. Certainly, Horridge detests it — but Horridge detests virtually everything: women with jobs, fellow bus passengers, “the shirking classes”, children, modern music, modern everything. He has a particular fascination-hate for homosexuals, and at the start of the novel is obsessing over some local murders of young male prostitutes. Passing some flats on Aigburth Drive (Horridge spends his days wandering the city, to get away from Cantril Farm), he thinks he sees the murderer — an evidently gay man who looks like the photo-fit in the papers. Horridge phones the police, and sits on a nearby bench to watch the arrest — then is horrified to see the police leaving without the man. Later, in his flat, he happens upon his father’s cut-throat razor:

“He pushed the razor hastily away, but kept gazing. The timing of his find—now, when he felt so vulnerable, so desperately in need of self-defence—could not be ignored.”

Star PB, 1979

In Horridge’s world, there are no coincidences. If a man looks like the photo-fit of a murderer, he is the murderer; if a razor turns up, it’s there to be used. As we follow him about — rather too closely, as we can’t help being dragged into his grubby mental world — we come to learn that he often strays into paranoid delusions, increasingly so as the book goes on: everyone’s secretly trying to trick him, and the police, the radio, and the newspapers are in on it too. He gets access to the flats where his intended victim, Roy Craig, lives, even being let in and offered a cup of tea by one of the other residents, who thinks he’s a detective hired by Craig to find out who’s making the anonymous, threatening phone calls he’s been receiving (and of course it’s Horridge who’s been making them). But when he kills Craig, it’s only the start of a downward spiral even deeper into paranoid madness, leading to the need for further killings.

The novel doesn’t only follow Horridge, but also Cathy Gardner, a young librarian who lives in one of the top flats. She’s married to Peter, who has just quit the library service to, he says, finish his studies, but it seems more likely he doesn’t want to work and would rather spend his days smoking pot. Peter is, perhaps, edging into Horridge territory, resentful of having to work, despising the complacency and petty power-plays of his fellow workers, clinging to a belief in the radical politics of the late 60s — along with its fading hippie subculture — but without taking any political action other than to argue unpleasantly with Cathy’s more obviously bourgeois friends. Cathy, meanwhile, wants to start a family, hoping having a child will wake Peter up to life, their marriage, their future. But to do so, she knows, they need to move out of their flat and get a house, though everything seems out of their price range. And then Craig’s murder occurs in the building lobby, and the place feels even less like a home.

There’s a lot, in this novel, centring on anxiety about home. None of the characters really feels at home where they’re living, and Horridge in particular is exiled from any sense of it. Cantril Farm comes across more as a mental state than a place to live, and a bad one at that:

“Hardly a path in Cantril Farm ran visibly straight for more than a few yards; the walks sank into concrete valleys, or plunged straight through the hearts of tenements. The whole place reminded him of the mazes with which scientists tormented rats.”

And though we might be tempted to think this is just because we’re seeing it through Horridge’s warped vision, Cathy later gets a glimpse of where he lives:

“She couldn’t have borne living in such a place. It must be like a cage. She would have gone mad.”

“Cage” is right. Inside Horridge’s flat is no better. Nothing separates his window from the public walkway “except an unfenced patch of grass”, meaning kids are always running up to his window, banging on it, then running off. The rooms

“seemed scarcely larger than interview cubicles, and as featureless. He’d left the walls plain white, thinking they would look clean. Often they made him feel trapped in nothingness.”

Tor 1985 PB, art by Jill Bauman

He revisits the house he grew up in, only to find it, mid-demolition, an empty shell. Some animal or person has even used one of the upstairs rooms as a toilet — which might well be a metaphor for how Horridge views his life. Later, he returns to it again, thinking he might hide out in it, shell though it is, but by this point it’s been completely knocked down. He feels “as though his innards had been ripped out.” Home — a place to feel safe, a place to be oneself in a hostile, confusing, or at least challenging world — is, in this novel, absent, yet the removal of even this remnant of a home-that-once-was is infinitely painful.

Horridge’s relation to home, then, is to be alienated in his current dwelling, while nostalgically longing for a past he can never return to. Cathy’s need for a new home is more future-oriented — she wants to save her marriage, move on and have a child — but feels just as trapped, and just as unsafe, where she is. For both, their current dwellings — no longer feeling like homes — have become traps, and in Horridge’s case at least it’s a trap that’s squeezing his already unstable mental state well past the crisis point.

Scream/Press HB, from 1983, with J K Potter cover

Starting with the first complete edition of The Face That Must Die — the 1983 hardback from Scream/Press — this novel has come with a substantial autobiographical introduction from Campbell, “At the Back of My Mind: A Guided Tour”, which outlines what had been happening in his life before the writing of this novel, focusing on his mother’s undiagnosed schizophrenia. The novel itself was hard to place with a publisher, and Campbell writes of how “of all my stories [this] seems the one most prone to provoke unease or worse… There’s no doubt the book is very dark.” Which feels like an understatement, coming as it does from a horror writer. But perhaps its the underlying hopelessness, rather than the bursts of psycho-killer horror, that have this effect.

Perhaps now, when we’ve had the likes of American Psycho with its unrelenting exposure to the mind of a deluded psychopath, and when Campbell himself has developed his paranoiac prose style to wrap his readers in a whole gamut of states of unease, The Face seems less strikingly dark, but it retains, even as a horror novel, a feeling of underlying pessimism, a sort of relentless grubbiness to its world, and not just as seen through Horridge’s eyes. Something about its alienated style, its dowdy realism and feeling of the bleak gaps that divide people’s hopes, relationships, and entire realities, fits in with the sort of British horror/crime films that were produced earlier in the 1970s — often tawdry-feeling serial-killer thrillers, the likes of The Fiend, Assault, Revenge, The Black Panther, The Offence (particularly the first half hour, before the stage adaptation kicks in) and Hitchcock’s Frenzy. There was just something in the film stock, the newsprint, the concrete estates — a high-contrast bleakness that took the 1960s colour out of life. In all ways.

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