The Nameless by Ramsey Campbell

Fontana edition. Cover by Les Edwards.

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.”

MacMillan hardcover. Art by Norm Walker.

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.

Born to the Dark by Ramsey Campbell

Born to the Dark from PS Publishing, cover by Les Edwards

The second book in Campbell’s Three Births of Daoloth trilogy is set thirty years on from the first. Dominic Sheldrake, a child in The Searching Dead, is now a lecturer on film, and married, with a child of his own. Young Toby, though, suffers from “nocturnal absences” — a sort of nighttime paralysis —and when a paediatrician recommends a new treatment offered by the Safe to Sleep clinic, Dominic and his wife are at first delighted, as it seems to work. But Dominic becomes suspicious of the sort of dreams Toby has under the influence of this new treatment, which sound as though they could have come straight out of the journal of Christian Noble, the man who, in The Searching Dead, found a new way to raise the dead.

Set in the 1980s, Born to the Dark recalls aspects of Ramsey Campbell’s 80s novels, which were often concerned with the vulnerability of children, and in particular the anxiety about a parent’s care of, and potential misuse of power over, their child. This, of course, comes about because of Dominic’s stage of life, but part of me looked for, and found, other (perhaps deliberate) echoes of Campbell’s 1980s novels. For instance, there’s the idea of dreams/sleep being studied by an institute or research project and resulting in supernatural forces leaking into our world (as in 1983’s Incarnate). I think it was in that novel, too, that Campbell used the police as an expression of the protagonist’s helplessness and humiliation by a powerful authority, and in Born to the Dark we have the sinister double act of officers Farr and Black, whose darkly cosmic double-entendres are the closest this novel gets to the sort of absurdist horror-comedy of Campbell’s most recent Lovecraftian work, the 2013 novella, The Last Revelations of Gla’aki. Campbell even allows himself an in-joke reference to Rose Tierney (the protagonist of his 1980 novel, To Wake the Dead/The Parasite), who’s mentioned here as being a former lecturer at Dominic’s university’s film studies division.

Providence issue 1, cover by Jacen Burrows

More than The Searching Dead — which mostly concerned itself with dead things lingering too long in the land of the living — Born to the Dark opens itself up to cosmic horror, thanks to the visions Safe to Sleep induces as part of its treatment. And there are hints of a coming transformation or apocalypse, after which human life as we know it will be over forever, though not necessarily extinguished. In this, Born to the Dark reminded me of Alan Moore’s Providence, another 21st century take on Lovecraftian horror which ended in our world being fully exposed to cosmic realities that make a nonsense of life at the human level.

(Born to the Dark also recalls Providence in the way its occultists, like Moore’s, are more willing than Lovecraft’s to explain their beliefs to outsiders. 1980s Britain, with its openness to New Age ideas and alternative medicine, is just the sort of place where the likes of Christian Noble and his family can be open about their cosmic beliefs, and be allowed to practise their esoteric arts as a treatment — even within the bounds of the NHS!)

A slight disappointment, for me, was that the narrator, Dominic, has grown up into a somewhat blinkered adult, who has difficulty realising just how mad his accusations against Safe to Sleep sound to anyone but himself, and can’t understand it when people don’t immediately accept his wild claims as the truth. But it does lead to a heartbreaking admission partway through the novel:

“However misunderstood and solitary I’d sometimes felt as a child, I would never have expected growing up to bring that back.”

It’s impossible to properly review the second book of a trilogy — and an as-yet uncompleted trilogy, at that. Born the Dark takes events on from The Searching Dead and, far more than that first volume (which could, I think, be enjoyed on its own), leaves me feeling we’re heading for a properly Lovecraftian conclusion. Will the ending be quite as bleak as that of Moore’s Providence? The final volume, The Way of the Worm, will presumably reveal all — or, at least, all we mere humans can grasp.

There’s a good interview with Campbell about Born to the Dark at Gary Fry’s website.

Even Stranger Things: A Night for Robert Aickman

Yesterday evening the British Library held an hour-and-a-half talk and discussion about Robert Aickman, in part to celebrate their acquisition of an archive of his papers (which you can read about at the Library’s English and Drama blog), and I thought I’d go along as I’ve recently started a second read-through of Aickman’s stories, thanks to Tartarus Press’s two volume Collected Strange Stories. At the time I bought it, back in 2001, Aickman was hard to find outside first editions and just-as-rare paperbacks, but now he’s completely back in print, in large part thanks to some of the people talking at this event. (The evening was compèred by Richard T Kelly, who curated Faber & Faber’s reissue of Aickman in the UK.)

The first speaker was Ramsey Campbell, who read a short chapter from one of Aickman’s autobiographies describing Aickman’s favourite film, The Blue Light by Leni Riefenstahl. At the end of it, Campbell pointed out that, if you’ve seen the film, you’ll realise Aickman’s summary of it is curiously inaccurate, as though he’d preferred to remember his own, Aickmanesque version of the plot. When, post-World War II, Riefenstahl came to the UK seeking funding for a later film and was vilified by the press, Aickman wrote to her to let her know that some people in Britain still appreciated her talents. She sent him some photos and an invitation to visit the next time he was in Berlin.

Aickman, Campbell pointed out, was a man capable of holding extreme opinions, quite often about subjects nobody else thought it worth having an opinion about. He was also, apparently, one of the best dinner guests you could wish for, not just because he could hold forth on many subjects, but because he had a way of bringing everyone into the discussion. A rare gift.

After Campbell was another speaker who knew Aickman personally, his literary agent Leslie Gardner. Aickman would read some of his stories to her, and apparently one time he stopped mid-read and said, “She’s here…” Aickman, who believed in the supernatural, had detected a presence in the room. The very character in the story he was reading aloud?

Next, Reece Shearsmith read from “The Hospice” — which seems to be the most-chosen story people turn to when trying to explain Aickman’s particular flavour of the uncanny — and I have to say that, hearing Aickman read by a good reader like this can certainly bring out his understated humour, particularly in the dialogue — a very English humour of frustration and social awkwardness, that remains present even in the face of the looming supernatural.

Editor and critic Victoria Nelson followed this with a talk justifying Aickman’s growing position as a 20th century master of the weird tale, of how he, more than, say, M R James, was content to end a tale with a lingering sense of numinous mystery, rather than tying the whole thing up with explanations.

Finally, Jeremy Dyson read from Aickman’s story “Wood”. In the discussion that followed, Dyson provided one of the best insights into why Aickman wasn’t better known. If he’d been, say, South American, and translated into English, he would have been immediately classed as a Magical Realist and would have been lauded, but as he wrote in English, the English literati were dismissive. Victoria Nelson added that Aickman’s cult status could also be down to how he doesn’t quite fit either the literary (because of his use of the supernatural) or horror (because he didn’t provide the expected payoff) camps. Though this, of course, is also probably why he’s still read: nobody else offers what he offers.

My one, blurred photo from the event. Offered as proof I was there, not because you have any chance of identifying the evening’s guests.

Aickman’s reputation certainly seems to be growing — in large part thanks to his stories being so readily available, now — and I’m sure it’s only going to get stronger. For myself, part of the problem I had reading him at first was that I came to him having heard him praised as a master of the horror story, and a first read-through of his stories mostly served to make me realise he wasn’t at all what I was expecting. On this second read-through, of which I’m not yet at the halfway point, I’m hopefully reading him without those preconceptions. Aickman’s are tales of dream logic irrupting into an often humdrum, slightly dowdy-feeling, but very recognisable realism. Some of his stories do work wonderfully as weird horror, and they are usually my favourites. (“My Poor Friend”, for instance, about an MP haunted by a sort of vengeful feminine force — which has, for me, the added bonus of a brief mention of East Grinstead, the town where I live. I’d also recommend “Bind Your Hair” and “The School Friend”.) Some of the others are closer to absurdist fantasy or surrealism and take a bit more adjustment. That Aickman was an original talent, though, is surely inarguable.