Thursday, 24 March 2011

THE NAMELESS BY RAMSEY CAMPBELL

I've never been altogether satisfied with the few novels by Ramsey Campbell that I've read. He tends to be subtle to the point of reticence, a quality which can work within the concentrated span of a short story, and often does, but which seems to lead to horror novels that shield themselves from the consequences of their own central conceits. I'm not a gore-hound, but I do like a build-up of weird atmosphere and if possible a truly bizarre irruption of the numinous into a horror story. That's probably why I like writers like Thomas Ligotti, Laird Barron and W.H. Pugmire, all of whom are masters of atmosphere, weirdness and outré imagery in their own diverse ways.

Campbell is sort of the flagbearer of modern British horror; he is also a devotee of Lovecraft, even a member of the extended Lovecraft Circle through his early correspondence with August Derleth, who published a 15-year-old Campbell's first essays at horror, written in a thoroughly Lovecraftian mode. As such, Campbell can be seen as heir to the two most significant strands of Anglophone horror - the tale of cosmic terror as epitomised by H.P. Lovecraft's work and the more inward-looking, supernaturalist horror of vintage practitioners from the British Isles, such as Algernon Blackwood or Arthur Machen.

And the novel at hand has elements of both; there is an early encounter with a spiritualist who provides important clues, and there are run-ins with the world of occult societies later on. But Campbell also draws on the cosmic forces Lovecraft invokes, as well as the many tutelary entities and nameless cults that gravitate to them. He does this in a manner that is profoundly more assured than his earlier Mythos fiction - he does not attempt to use any of the paraphernalia of Yog-Sothothery or tie his terrors in with Lovecraft's. But there is a broadening of scale towards the end of the novel that definitely owes something to the Lovecraftian vision.

Campbell relates his cults and forces to the currents of his times, however, tying them in with the murder cults of drugged-up hippies, referring directly to the Manson family and to the extended new-age cults of the modern western world. So far, so good.

Campbell also takes the time to build a foreground narrative that is grounded in well-rounded, realistic characters. He also has a knack for describing cityscapes and passing scenery with original, sharp and memorable metaphors; one wishes that he was just as inventive and captivating when it came to describing the the weird stuff, the business we're here for. Not that he is bad at all sustaining and ever so slowly building an atmosphere of understated foreboding, but part of the problem we have here is what I've noted in works by SF and fantasy writers who seem to want to normalise toward some sort of mix of either airport thriller style or lit-fic. It's probably laudable to bring in the ice-pick similes of the Booker set and the character focus of the patented page-turner if this helps raise the specific generic values of the novel, and it does to an extent. But in the process, something of the impact of the horrific core of this novel is deferred and even diluted, although not as badly as in the previous novels I've read by Campbell. But everytime he captures a vista glimpsed down a city street or out of a moving tale with a limpid phrase, I can't help but wish that he had expended a little more stylistic fireworks on the strange entities, cultists and rituals that we occasionally catch up with in between all the well-framed character development. Fortunately, the development of the foreground story always drives the plot forwards, so we do get to the horrific bits eventually. And we do get a good conclusion - some truly terrifying and cosmic intimations, a resolution that is redemptive and upsetting at the same time and an ending that wraps up without explaining more than is needed (this is a key factor in horror, where any amount of imagery is fine, but too much explanation can kill the magic).

With all the reservations I've expressed, I found this novel gripping precisely because Campbell made me care about the characters; but I was left with perhaps less of a feeling of having been brought face to face with a vision of true strangeness and threat than I would have wished. I would have been glad to learn a little more about the demented philosophy of the nameless, to spend a little more time in their founder's company, to have a little more of a glimpse of the darker power that the cult served, but Campbell only gives us access to just as much as is needed to keep the foreground narrative on track. Still, what there is, is effective and disturbing, so all in all mark this one up as a definite win for Campbell.

I do have one strong objection though; at one point, Campbell shows us a female character stripping down to her underwear; sure enough, she is marked for destruction. In a certain kind of storytelling, a woman's nakedness is always a precursor to her extinction. This is such a cliche of the worst kind of schlock that I'm a little taken aback Campbell didn't even realise what he was doing here.

I'd also like to highlight how well Campbell uses an urban setting to serve as a locus of horror, with the crowds, noise and pockets of urban blight found in a big city all contributing to create a nurturing environment for evil. 

In 1999, a Spanish film entitled Los Sin Nombre was made as a partial adaptation of this novel; I'll be reviewing that in my next update.

3 comments:

Will Errickson said...

*Excellent* review. I feel quite the same way about Campbell, and especially THE NAMELESS. His first novel, THE DOLL WHO ATE HIS MOTHER, is quite good.

Ramsey Campbell said...

"I do have one strong objection though; at one point, Campbell shows us a female character stripping down to her underwear; sure enough, she is marked for destruction. In a certain kind of storytelling, a woman's nakedness is always a precursor to her extinction. This is such a cliche of the worst kind of schlock that I'm a little taken aback Campbell didn't even realise what he was doing here."

Are you thinking of Gerry in the cult's house? I would point out that before she sets out on her search we have the line "She dressed hurriedly, and then she picked up her bag in case someone might find her notebook and crept to the stairs" - I certainly didn't mean to imply she was naked.

JP said...

Fair enough. Also, re-reading my review, I feel a lot of my problems with your novel were that I was letting my own conception of the novel I wanted it to be overwhelm my appreciation of the novel it was. It's very civil of you not to take offense at that.