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.”


The Travelling Grave and Other Stories by LP Hartley

Valancourt Books cover

Although The Travelling Grave was first published by Arkham House in 1948, most of the stories it collects had already appeared in LP Hartley’s British collections Night Fears (1924) and The Killing Bottle and Other Stories (1932). It was reviewed (if that’s the right word for a piece in the publisher’s own magazine) in the Arkham Sampler for Spring 1924:

“Mr. Hartley’s book can be recommended especially to those readers who like to be led casually into a setting and story and brought up short, face to face with terror and horror. Mr Hartley succeeds in doing this time after time, and doing it so well that I cannot offhand think of any other contemporary writer who managed this effect quite so memorably.”

I came to The Travelling Grave thinking of it as a collection of ghost stories, but they’re not ghost stories — even those with ghosts in them (or, really, walking corpses) — so much as contes cruels, whose focus is on the method of delivering each tale’s particular moment of comeuppance or revelation. Hartley plays an artful game of laying out everything a reader needs to anticipate what’s coming — all, that is, but the final detail, the who-it-happens-to, or how-it-happens.

Arkham House cover, art by Frank Utpatel

The perfect example is the lead tale, “The Travelling Grave”, which introduces what I like to think of as a literal plot device, in the shape of a mobile, mechanical coffin that is not only self-burying, but will also gather up and kill — snatch and despatch — its occupant. As its owner Munt, a collector of unusual coffins, says:

“But it’s very quick, and it has that funny gift of anticipation. If it got a fellow up against a wall, I don’t think he’d stand much chance. I didn’t show you here, because I value my floors, but it can bury itself in wood in three minutes and in newly turned earth, say a flower-bed, in one.”

The tale begins by introducing us to Hugh Curtis — “a vague man with an unretentive mind”, making him sound like perfect victim material — who’s persuaded by an acquaintance to spend the weekend at Munt’s house. When Munt realises Curtis hasn’t told anyone else he’s come, and is unlikely to be missed for some time if he disappears, it of course sets this collector thinking about fully testing this latest addition to his collection. But, of course, things don’t quite work out the way Munt — or the reader — expects.

Hartley’s first book, the collection Night Fears, which contains some of the tales later collected in The Travelling Grave

Those tales that do have ghosts — and the supernatural impinges on the majority of these tales — don’t look too deeply into the nature of the supernatural. Hartley’s walking corpses are there to exact retribution, sometimes deserved — as in “A Visitor from Down Under”, whose protagonist learns you can’t escape a crime committed on the other side of the world, especially if your revenger is (a) dead and (b) capable of using public transport — sometimes not deserved — as in “Feet Foremost”, where the new owners of an old haunted house inadvertently re-activate its ghost (despite the house having been redesigned long ago to prevent such an occurrence) simply because they neglected to inform the servants — but don’t really betray much of the metaphysical workings behind these revenants’ ability to linger beyond death as they do.

Hartley’s tales can’t help sounding comical in summary, but this, and the humour evident in this stories — he’s a witty stylist — do nothing to ameliorate their horror. As Jack Sullivan in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural says: “humour in Hartley’s work is not so much a relief from horror as another dimension of it.” And the humour (like the horror) is there at the verbal level, too, in Hartley’s way with macabre word-play. To give an example, the speaker here is one of his revenants, a masked walking corpse who (the reader will have already guessed) only a short time before put a bullet through his brain:

“I was always an empty-headed fellow,” he went on, tapping the waxed covering with his gloved forefinger, so that it gave out a wooden hollow sound — “there’s nothing much behind this. No brains to speak of, I mean. Less than I used to have, in fact.”

This mix of humour and terror — in particular, the way it’s both at once — and the way such double meanings create an air of intense anxiety in the very substance of the narrative, reminds me most of all of Ramsey Campbell. Both writers use language to create an all-pervading sense of unreliability in the world around their protagonists, creating an air of anything — and most likely any scary thing — being about to happen.

PB edition from 1959

The thing that most stood out for me, in fact, is Hartley’s inventiveness at revealing the inner state of his (often highly anxious, though just about managing to keep it contained) protagonist’s psyches. In “A Change of Ownership”, for instance, Ernest, approaching his own house in the dark, starts imagining all sorts of inventive situations, conversations and meetings, all of them fanciful and designed to distract him from his fear of entering this empty house, but all of them somehow working their way round to latch onto the reasons for that fear. It’s Ernest’s effort not to think about what scares him that lays it bare.

Early on in another tale, “The Cotillon”, we learn that the protagonist, Marion Lane, is preoccupied by guilt about a recent relationship she only pretended to take seriously. Rather than simply saying she feels guilty, Hartley gives us this:

“She extinguished the light, but the gramophone within her went on more persistently than ever. It was a familiar record; she knew every word of it: it might have been called The Witness for the Defence.”

1951 HB release

It might seem a commonplace nowadays to liken worrying thoughts to having a record playing in one’s head, but I can’t help feeling it was new when Hartley wrote it, and its inventiveness brings home both the force of Marion’s worry, and the very modern (when Hartley was writing it) world in which this scary story is about to play out.

I note this aspect of modernity because Julia Briggs, in her history of the ghost story, Night Visitors, criticises Hartley for this very reason:

“Hartley showed courage in introducing motor cars, a radio broadcast and a plane crash into his ghost stores, but they also created further problems for him.”

But, to me, Hartley’s use of the (to him) modern world just highlights the unfairness, cruelty, and horror of the horrors, when they turn up. Everyone else in, for instance, “The Cotillon” with its “brightly-lit modern urban scene” (as Briggs puts it), is having fun at a masked ball, and this just isolates Marion all the more, as well as making Hartley’s skill at introducing his walking corpse all the more notable, for it’s against this air of fun and modernity that things come to seem so very unfunny.

But the modernity of the “internal gramophone” idea also brings home Marion’s very real worries. This isn’t a distanced character like, say, Professor Parkins in M R James’s “Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come To You”; this is someone I, at least, can relate to. And I suspect Hartley’s ability to evoke characters with obsessive anxious worries is too widespread in his stories — and too inventively and effectively evoked — not to have been based on his own inner life. Time and again we get characters struggling with worries before the supernatural element even hints at turning up. Henry Greenstream in “The Thought”, for instance, begins his tale with a habit of counting the number of times his latest worry intrudes into his thoughts when he goes for a daily walk. Jack Sullivan, again from his entry on Hartley in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror, notes that “The technique here of intensifying fears into actual supernatural visitations became, in later stories like ‘The Thought’ and ‘A Change of Ownership’, a Hartley trademark.”

Before reading The Travelling Grave, I mostly knew Hartley from the 1971 film (by Joseph Losey, who also did The Damned) of his most well-known novel, The Go-Between, and as a respected reviewer who was thoroughly capable of intelligently reviewing both the literary and the fantastic (writing positively on Stapledon’s Star Maker, for instance, and an insightful and mostly positive review of Lindsay’s Devil’s Tor). But I’d been meaning to read him for a while, and I’m glad I finally did.