The Claw by Ramsey Campbell

Fontana PB

The Claw (first published simply as Claw in 1983, as by Jay Ramsey, for Richard Bachman-like reasons) could be said to form the middle of a thematic trilogy of early novels from Campbell, about parenthood: The Nameless (1981) is about the sheer anxiety of what, out there in the world, might prey on a child (mad cults, kidnappers and killers); The Influence (1988) is about the generational influences within a family that might prey on a child (mental illness and passed-on cycles of psychological abuse); The Claw, meanwhile, is about the physical abuse a child might suffer from their own parents. Like The Nameless, The Claw employs a zero-subtlety approach in using the supernatural to enact its theme. In the former novel, an evil cult kidnaps the main character’s child and inducts her into a life of ritualised, nihilistic murder; in The Claw, meanwhile, there’s an evil artefact (which belongs to an evil cult) that causes parents to have murderous impulses towards their child. The Claw of the title, then, is like a supernatural version of Hitchcock’s maguffin. For Hitchcock, the maguffin was the thing — the secret formula, the microfilm, whatever — that both the baddies and the goodies want and the protagonist has, which causes a lot of chasing around. Here, the Claw is the thing that unleashes in its main characters what, in some real people, doesn’t need any supernatural cause at all. The advantage of a supernatural maguffin, though, is it doesn’t require any deeper motivation for that behaviour — and, when it gets destroyed, the behaviour goes away. Not so in real life.

1983 Futura PB

The story opens in rare territory for Campbell: overseas. In Nigeria to research his latest spy thriller, Alan Knight meets a British anthropologist, David Marlowe, who offers to drive him to the airport when he returns home. Once there, he asks a favour. The post from Lagos being what it was, he wants Alan to take a parcel back to England, and deliver it to the Foundation for African Studies. Alan agrees, and (he’s a bit of an idiot, considering he writes spy novels) only finds out when he’s passing through UK customs that it contains a potential weapon: a four-taloned metal claw. Fortunately, he’s let through, and that weekend, the Claw remains at the coastal Norfolk home he shares with his wife Liz and six-year-old daughter Anna. But he soon makes the trip to the Foundation in London — only to find he’s unaccountably left the thing at home. There’s worse to come, though. The Foundation’s Dr Hetherington tells him that David Marlowe has brutally, and for no apparent reason, murdered his wife and daughter — and that the Claw is an artefact belonging to a cult known as the Leopard Men, whose initiation rite requires its members to murder a young girl of their own blood. Incensed he was duped into letting such a repugnant thing into his home, Alan goes back, only to find it has been stolen. But its influence has started to take hold: suddenly unable to write, he starts getting tetchy with Anna…

The Claw’s effect isn’t only limited to the Knight family. A local man with a childlike mentality is found having killed, with his bare hands, one of the goats that graze the cliff near the Knights’ house. (Which inevitably sets up the idea of victims as scapegoats, but this doesn’t seem to have been developed.) Meanwhile in the Knight household itself, Alan’s growing hostility towards his daughter gets worse until he receives a phone call from Nigeria. Isaac Banjo, a translator at the University of Lagos who helped Marlowe in his researches into the Leopard Men, knows what’s going on, feels guilty about his part in it, and wants to help. Alan, though, has to come to Nigeria to put an end to things. This he does, but that leaves Liz alone with Anna, and Liz is also beginning to fall under the influence of the still-missing Claw.

St Martin’s Press US HB, 1983

I have to say that, though Ramsey Campbell is one of my favourite writers, this is not a book of his I’d recommend, unless (like me) you’re intent on reading all of his novels. And usually, with a writer whose work I know, I can still get something out of a lesser novel by considering it in terms of the development of their themes, or of their craft, and so on. And perhaps part of the problem is that I couldn’t do that for most of The Claw. The characters just don’t have the sort of depth Campbell usually endows them with. And this is particularly notable in a novel which deals with such a difficult central theme. Parents with violent impulses towards their children are repugnant as characters, and a lot has to be done to make it worth spending time with them. When Alan and Liz begin looking on their very young and vulnerable daughter with irritation and worse — “Liz watched her, loathing her babyishness. How could she once have loved and been proud of this child?” — they become very thin as characters, with no self-examination or awareness (necessarily so, I suppose, because of the demands of the plot). And there are too many chapters, it seems, in the middle of The Claw where we’re in the presence of Liz and Anna, and Liz is on the verge of violence towards Anna, and Anna is terrified, and nothing much else is going on. There’s one moment where I thought the novel was going to start engaging with its own themes in a more explicit way, when the hippie-ish barman, Jimmy, at one points says: “The absolute authority of parents is fascism in the home.” But this line isn’t examined any further, and that’s the last we hear of Jimmy as a character.

The strand of the story where Alan is out there in Nigeria investigating the cult — and investigations like that would normally make a novel, for me — are sketchy and unconvincing. (Campbell’s chapters set in Lagos are excellent evocations, I think — though I’ve never been there, and, it turns out, neither had Campbell. But when Alan and Isaac head into the jungle, it all starts to feel like low-budget scenery.) To top it all, the Leopard Men aren’t that interesting as a cult (certainly not as nihilistically evocative as the previous book’s Nameless). They feel a bit under-thought out, even generic, a bit obvious. Africa — Leopard Men. Marlowe — Heart of Darkness. Evil, cursed artefact from foreign shores. Even worse: “There is a legend told throughout Africa that the last Leopard Man will come from a far land and destroy the power of the claw.”

1992 Tor cover, art by Tim O’Brien

There may be a reason for this. (There are probably many — such as how difficult the subject must have been to write about.) Campbell says in his afterword (appended in 1992, when the novel was reissued under his own name) that after it was initially submitted, the manuscript went through some revisions. One of these was to add chapters from young Anna’s point of view, something he says he didn’t include in the first version. And these are the chapters where the book really comes alive. Faced with suddenly hostile, even alienating parents, Anna is the character in this novel who is allowed depth, and of course it’s a depth that’s all about sheer terror:

“She couldn’t tell anyone about mummy, it was too horrible a thing to say, so much so that it paralysed her mouth. The more she tried to say it, the less able she was… She was trapped inside herself.”

Or, my favourite line:

“The stranger who pretended to be mummy was made up of teeth and nails.”

When it came out in the US as Night of the Claw, Kirkus Reviews said it was “an overlong but steady, creepy, discomforting chiller—thanks to a subdued style, shifting viewpoints (including that of confused, terrified Anna), and richly detailed backgrounds.” Perhaps my own reaction is down to knowing Campbell could do so much better, as he does in Incarnate (where parental abuse isn’t a major theme, but is part of at least one of the characters’ stories), The Influence, and his later novel The House on Nazareth Hill. I can’t help wondering if his adding chapters from Anna’s point of view aren’t something of a breakthrough moment in his craft (even though he’d written short stories from a child’s point of view before, in Dark Companions — though that collection only came out the previous year.) Certainly, the final chapters, where Anna escapes from her increasingly hostile mother and flees across a confusing coastal landscape at night to take refuge in a house that proves to have been the scene of an even worse Claw-inspired act of parental violence, is pure Campbell: the nightmare journey, and in particular the nightmare exploration of an empty-but-not-empty house.


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.


Fellstones by Ramsey Campbell

Fellstones, a village “up near the lakes” named for the seven stones standing in its green, is where Michael Dunstan spent most of his childhood, living with his adoptive parents, music teachers Rafe and Winifred Staveley, and their (unmusical) daughter Adele. Michael was adopted by the couple when, at the age of five, his parents were killed in a car accident — an accident he has felt guilty about ever since, as they were coming to collect him (from the Staveleys) at the time. The couple, though, were only too glad to take him in, because Michael is a musical prodigy, with a pitch-perfect singing voice and a flawless memory for music. But Michael never liked the performance aspect of his gift, and came to resent the pressure from his adoptive parents to devote himself entirely to music. After getting into university to study English (rather than the College of Music the Staveleys expected him to go to), he cut himself off from them altogether, reverting his name to Paul Dunstan (Paul being his middle name), to avoid their finding him.

As Ramsey Campbell’s latest novel opens, Paul is running the music department at a branch of the chain bookshop Texts, and in a relationship with a fellow employee, Caren. It’s here Adele approaches him suddenly one day, asking him to put differences aside and visit the Staveleys once more. They’re getting old, and (she implies) perhaps haven’t much longer to live — but of course, when he gets there they’re in perfect health. It was a subtle ruse, the first of many to draw him back to Fellstones.

The Staveleys want him to attend the Fellstones festival, an event he doesn’t recall from the time he grew up there. The festival, though, was never an annual event — it aligns with a somewhat more obscure cycle — and, the Staveleys tell him, the festival did occur in his childhood. Or, rather, it almost did. It was due to occur, but his refusal to sing in it meant, for some reason, it had to be cancelled. It was shortly after this his parents died.

Paul (whom the Staveleys continue to call “Michael”, meaning the novel is shot through with a subtle tug-of-war over his identity) allows himself to be persuaded — first out of politeness, but increasingly because of a series of events that conspire to keep him in, or returning to, Fellstones as the day of the festival approaches. Meanwhile, he comes to learn about the nearby ruin of Starward Hall, and the 17th century magus Bartholomew Kingseen who once lived there, and who dreamed of using a power from the darker reaches of the heavens to grant himself immortality.

The Way of the Worm, cover art by Les Edwards

Family, in both its positive and negative aspects, has always been one of Campbell’s most enduring themes, as has that teetering point between longing to be part of something and fear of the loss of one’s individuality. That latter theme is often presented, in Campbell’s fiction, in terms of the draw of some personality-absorbing supernatural entity (in the concluding volume of his Three Births of Daoloth trilogy, for instance) or a cult (as in his early novel The Nameless), but here cult and family are at their most indistinguishable. The techniques the Staveleys use to bring Paul back into the fold — a combination of lovebombing and guilt-tripping — are straight out of the cult recruitment playbook, as is their need to cut him off from all other relationships, such as with his girlfriend Caren. All done subtly, of course.

Subtly, so Paul won’t just walk away. But the question of why he doesn’t consider walking away — at least until it’s too late for him to do so — remains a bit of a puzzle. Although he is the only point-of-view character, we never really get a glimpse of how he feels about the situation of reuniting with his adoptive parents — who, we know, he left because they “were too determined to turn me into one of them… Too much like them and not enough like me.” But there isn’t really much of that “enough like me” in Paul’s current life to enable him to resist them. His job at Texts (which verges, really, on another sort of cult, with its morning sales mantras of “Boost your books… Books must boom… Goods are good”) is clearly a battle to retain some sort of self-expression in a world of commercialised dumbing-down, while his relationship with Caren is far too easily relinquished for it ever to have meant anything. (Underlined by her complete lack of understanding for what Paul must be going through when his adoptive family make contact with him again after many years.)

It’s only near the end, I think, that (in a moment that relies on context, so hopefully this isn’t a spoiler) we get a glimpse of the deeper reaches of Paul’s inner life and why he has allowed himself to be so easily taken in again:

“How could he be any more powerless? All his life since early childhood has led here; it’s what he has always been for.”

And this, for me, is the height of horror in a novel that certainly has its fair share of the cosmic weird — Adele’s tales of “Mr Jellyfingers” and his friends not least among them.

Music as a source of contact with the supernatural has featured in Campbell’s work before (in one of my favourite of his short stories, “Never to be Heard”), as well as in works of the classic writers of the genre, such as Algernon Blackwood’s The Human Chord. The mix of Michael/Paul’s being adopted, alongside an air of folk horror about this novel, chimes in with Campbell’s The Kind Folk, while the theme of loss of identity, and in particular having one’s creative talent taken over by forces from one’s past, was a significant element in Campbell’s 2021 novel, the non-supernatural, dark anxiety-comedy Somebody’s Voice.

But, I have to say, the one cultural connection that kept popping into my head throughout the novel was my favourite line from (in my opinion) Christopher Guest’s best mockumentary, A Mighty Wind:

“I have come to understand as an adult… that there had been abuse in my family. But it was mostly musical in nature.”