Monday, November 12, 2012

The Face That Must Die - Ramsey Campbell (Novel)

Before getting down to the book itself, allow me to introduce the author.  That he even needs to be introduced is a shame.  I am not the first to sing the song of Campbell's unmatched ability.   Ramsey Campbell is widely considered to be one of the best (if not the best) horror writer currently active.  Normally, I stay away from what other reviewers have said about the work I'm examining, and I'm going to keep that tradition up, I will, however, include some quotes about the writer himself:

"Britain's most respected horror writer."
-Oxford Companion

"Campbell writes the most terrifying horror tales of anyone now alive." -Twilight Zone Magazine 

"Campbell is literature in a field which has attracted too many comic-book intellects, cool in a field where too many writers--myself included--tend toward painting melodrama.  Good horror writers are quite rare, and Campbell is better than just good." -Steven King 

"Ramsey Campbell is one of the modern masters of horror...He has a genius for infusing horror into the everyday, piling up small moments of dread and confusion and fear until they become insurmountable." -Tim Pratt, Locus

"The greatest living writer of horror fiction." -Vector

"Ramsey Campbell is the best of us all." - Poppy Z. Brite*

"The best horror writer alive, period." - Thomas Tessier

"The most sophisticated and highly regarded of British horror writers." - Financial Times

I could go on, and believe me, I'm tempted to.  But I think you get the idea.  Of his multitude of books, there are thousands upon thousands of positive reviews.  Most of them go beyond the average, "So scary I had to leave the lights on!" or "Skin-crawling terror!"  (Whatever that means.)  You get the sense in reading these reviews that there is something not being expressed.  Absolute phrases like "greatest" and "most" are rarely used in the world of review, for they can sound extreme or ignorant.  And yet here we have dozens--if not hundreds--of individuals proclaiming "he is the scariest", "he is the most sophisticated", and of course "he is the best."  Of all the reviews I have read of Campbell, the one has come closest to my personal feelings, and it seems, to those who have tried to express their awe for Campbell's work is this:

"It doesn't seem enough to say that Ramsey Campbell is a master of the horror genre." - Publishers Weekly

What is it about Campbell's work that makes it so great?  First off: it's scary.  He takes his time to set the stage; he tells you all about the world the story takes place in usually long before things get truly weird.  He transforms everyday objects and scenarios into items and encounters dripping with implicate menace.  The protagonists are real; in fact, they are just like you.  For you, too, would be slow to see the danger around you in the same situations these characters are in.  You, too, would not want to believe that such horrors were even possible.  Campbell is about as far away from buckets-of-blood shock-o horror as you can get.  The books are not thrillers or spectacles.  They are private moments of sinister confusion.  They are deliberately slow.  They manipulate you more than you would like to allow.  Once, I read a line in a book of his which was innocuous at first, but when I understood the double meaning several lines later it literally took my breath away.  I was terrified by what had almost happened.  In that moment, it was not a story or a book, it was the very real possibility of a gruesome death, or worse.  I was surprised (to say the least) to find two or three tears has leaked out of my eyes.  Not tears of sadness or joy; tears of fear.  His implications alone are terrifying.

But there's a lot more than "scary" going on here.  Campbell fills his books with many different view-points.  He has a strange knack for putting you in the mind of a disturbed or insane character and making their view of the world make perfect sense; or on the other hand, in the mind of an average person in the midst of devastating horror who is blind to what is happening.  He loves to offer uncomfortable and interesting ideas and question, such as, What if you had an out-of-body experience you didn't ask for, and you couldn't control?  How might you react? Or, What if the whole world is just the dream an unimaginable being the size of the universe?  What might happen if that being woke up? And one of my personal favorites, What if God put all the dinosaur bones on the earth to test Christian faith?  Because, you know, maybe He did.

I have some complaints with Campbell.  He re-uses motifs.  He seems to have an indelible distrust of authority and policemen which I feel is unfair to many of the decent and honest individuals who serve in such positions.  His plots are not always as intricately crafted as we might want.  His books can be, at times, dense and confusing in unintended ways.  But all of this is easily forgiven in the face of his truly remarkable prose-work.  He is a master in the truest sense.  And as far as some of his less-than-impressive plots go, I simply think of Shakespeare; anyone who has studied the bard knows this is notoriously his weakest suit.  The plot sometimes doesn't matter, it's just there so we can examine the characters and marvel at the command of language.

This is as good a segue as any to the actual book I'm reviewing: The Face That Must Die.  This is considered to be one of his finest novels.  He himself believes it to be his best.  While it is not my personal favorite of his books, it is probably the second or third on my list.  Also, it is definitely not the scariest of his works.  It is, however, the one I would first recommend to a new reader of Campbell.  It's plot is immaculate, as are the characters, the language, the terror; it's all there.

It is one of his most tame books in terms of language or sexuality, but there's a little more blood than usual for Campbell.  It might be disturbing to some readers because it is quite dark, and also, it's supposed to be a comedy as well as a horror novel, which might be a turn-off for some.  This is black comedy in its highest form.

I don't think it will be a big problem to state the basic idea of the book, but I'll let you decide for yourself if you want to know what its about.  It you're not opposed to knowing the premise of the book and reading a few funny quotes, click here.  It's a very short novel.  Scarcely over 300 pages long, with pretty big font.  A person could conceivably read it in a day or two.  But the story will stay with you for a long time afterward.

Beyond the sheer skill of language and the creation of terror, one of my favorite things about this book is the plot.  It doesn't feel like a plot that someone sat down and figured out or outlined.  It reads almost like a true story.  There are not shocking twists or turns, and things tie together by the deliberate actions of an individual, not through convenient coincidences

So go forth, read, be horrified with a little mirth, and enjoy!

- MA 11.12.12

 *Weirdest name for a horror writer imaginable?


  1. Matthew, thank you! Just a small point: one of the main characters in my OBSESSION is a policeman, and surely sympathetic.

  2. It's funny that you should mention that book in particular, as it's the next in my list of yours to read. It's a real honor to have you read my review, but I'll admit I'm a little embarrassed. I hope it was well written in your opinion. :)

    Any chance you would be interested in doing a short-to-meduim length interview for this blog? I know you've done interviews before, but it would be something like a dream come true for me, and I'm sure you'd reach a different (if not all that massive) audience.

    If not, I completely understand!