The Doll Who Ate His Mother
By Ramsey Campbell (1976)
The Doll Who Ate Ate His Mother is an atmospheric, uncluttered, and exciting mystery novel with supernatural undertones.
Teacher Clare Frayn got her brother killed in a car accident. She struggles to understand what happened to him after he died at the scene.
Theater manager George Pugh's elderly mother died of a heart attack after startling an intruder in her house. What the intruder was doing to her dog at the time would kill anyone.
Edmund Hall writers salacious books about homicidal maniacs. He asks Clare and George for help tracking down the ghoulish perpetrator, whom Edmund says he knew when they were both school children.
The manhunt brings long-dead Liverpool wizard John Strong to the investigators' attention. His house in Amberly Street, now inhabited by drug-addict squatters, has a few secrets. As does Strong's book
Glimpses of Absolute Power:
...."There's one down in Picton. It's restricted, not on public access. But they'll give it to you if you ask."
She scribbled on a piece of paper. "Just fill in these details on one of their forms and you'll have it in no time."
133.0924 Strong: Glimpses of Absolute Power. "He used to come in here, you know," the librarian said.
"What was he like?" Clare said eagerly.
"Well, I wasn't here myself. Mr. Carrick is off today; he was here then. If you come in again you could ask him what he remembers, if you're interested."
"Yes, I might. What sort of thing, do you know?"
"Well—the trouble is, there's no photograph of him on the book, and it sounds silly when you say it, but people used to say he had a horribly beautiful face. As if someone had put eyes inside a statue. Mr. Carrick does say he had the most perfect complexion he's ever seen, and he never seemed to look any older. Of course he was getting older really; they could see him slowing down the last few times he came in here. But that thing about being horribly beautiful—there were people on the staff who couldn't bear to look at him, really, couldn't bear to be alone at the counter if he was here, even on a day like this. One girl used to say seeing him in daylight made it worse. As if someone had made a statue walk about and pretend to be alive. And yet his clothes were rags, more or less, as if they didn't matter. I wish there were a photograph, don't you?"
A man walked by outside the window. On the fifth floor—but he was an overalled workman on scaffolding. "I'll tell you what Mr. Carrick told me," the librarian said. "John Strong always used to talk to you at the counter, unless you got away. It was all rubbish—nobody could understand it, like his book. But Mr. Carrick used to have a feeling that the words didn't matter; it was the way he said it, the sound of his voice, the cadences. Like a song hidden under the words. I remember, he said it reminded him of the music a snake-charmer plays. He always used to get rid of John Strong as soon as he could, and call away anyone who was listening. Sometimes Strong would talk to readers in the library and they'd go out with him. I expect they were friends of his, don't you?"
All Clare thought, not quite soberly, was that he sounded even less like a John Strong. She hurried back to call the lift. A stringy man emerged from it. "Book lift," he snapped.
"Book lift, book lift." He rapped the words on the closing door with his knuckles: BOOK LIFT ONLY.
He was carrying no books. Nevertheless, she used the stairs, green stone speckled with darker green and white, like a pointillist painting. The Picton Reading Room was two floors down; at the top of the dome a round window spilled dazzling sunlight over the stone rim. Clare found a wad of forms in a pigeonhole among the catalogues that walled the curve. At the counter, a girl handed Clare's completed form to a younger girl, who went away swinging a key to let out the book from the Henry Millers.
"I should watch out if I were you," said an invisible man beside her.
It took her a while to locate him: whispering to a young librarian, a hundred feet away across the diameter. The dome was full of acoustic tricks. She gave in her tally for the book and carried it out beneath the dome; the echoes of her footsteps on the green carpet thumped distantly, like a heart.
She opened the book on one of the tables. The clack of its cover fluttered high in the dome; readers glanced up reprovingly—some of them did little else, glaring at the shrill of a telephone, frowning at the clank of footsteps on iron balconies around the dome, full of bookcases. They should sit elsewhere, Clare thought.
John Strong had published the book himself. Half the print was askew in the frame of the pages. The ink looked thick as paint; the p's and d's and others were stoppered with ink, as if the print were breaking out in crotchets. The gray paper was full of splinters. The book had been a fat pamphlet, bound later by the library. Glimpses of Absolute Power, set down and published by John Strong. Clare turned the page.
"I have undertaken this work late in life, for it was no part of my design. The truly great man confides his wisdom to a single pupil and companion, rather than publish it to the paws of the mass.
"But the truly great man is always at bay. Perhaps the mass may claim a petty victory in robbing me of my intended pupil; though it shall come to pass that my power rescinds that theft. Yet I shall set my knowledge down, in the certainty that it speaks to none save him who will dare to test it. Perhaps, among the mass that fumble over these pages, one may read who, glimpsing my way dimly, will set himself to follow.
"My age spans many generations. The loud incredulity of my beholders cannot shout down that calm truth. Of my birth I shall say nothing. Does a man reminisce fondly of the dung-smeared apes that were his forebears?"
God, was it all like this? Clare turned pages impatiently. To think he'd written this in the 1950's. Incredible. Artistic skills come readily to the man whose aim is absolute power. She flipped through occult terms. The true relation of all things in the Universe— That caught her eye, but its context read like gabble. Sometimes, in its evolution, the Universe bears a mind that will grasp and wield its unity; such a mind is mine. Clare clucked her tongue. Tut tut tut, the dome said. Pages later, her gaze snagged on what looked like narrative.
"Once, on a whim, I allowed a few of them to pit themselves against my power. I displayed myself to them, engorged thick and stiffly raised as a club, and challenged them to move me. Some turned their eyes timidly aside, and shrank back when I granted them permission to touch me. Yet at the last all had worked upon me, upon themselves and upon each other, and lay exhausted while I stood laughing and unmoved. Some seemed cast down, and perhaps they glimpsed themselves as I had seen them, grovelling upon the earth in their eagerness to please me. All understood my meaning well when I spoke of the wand of my power."
So that was what it was all about; oh dear. Clare couldn't see how his fantasies—surely they were only that—related to Christopher Kelly. There was no terror here; the book was just dull and repulsive. A cough reverberated under the dome, sharp as a blow.
"Before snuffing out the life she carried—"
That image plucked at Clare; she turned back. The paper rustled loudly, dryly, like an insect; its echoes rustled as she tried to hush it; it rustled.
"Before snuffing out the life she carried, it occurred to me to see her dance. I am sure even her fellows must have been amused, in their dull way. With her swollen belly she looked like nothing so much as a boil essaying the waltz."
Clare stared about, to free herself of the book. The library looked distant, unnaturally bright; it offered her no support at all. Whispers drifted close around her; a cough clapped together like hands. Sounds nagged at her, insistent and intolerably sharp, as if she had fever. If what she'd just read was a fantasy, he had infected others with it; Dr. Miller had told it to George. The man had had the power to impose his nastiness on others, after all.
She riffled the pages, glancing warily. They fluttered dryly, rustling. She was searching only for references to Kelly. But images rose from the thick style as if swelling up from a marsh, dragging down her gaze.
"At first she pressed her lips together, and choked and sobbed. But shortly she was imitating her doll perfectly, and enjoying the sweetmeat as if it were drugged. One of her fellows puked and gazed at me in fear, knowing that her response had singled her out to be next."
The words clung oppressively to her, like feverish heat. She made to turn to the previous page, to discover what the passage was about, then she shuddered and riffled on. Iron clanked, footsteps thumped softly, whispers sibilated.
"But she knew that nothing could take back her promise, not even death."
Clare started. She was back in the flickering orange room; Mrs. Kelly was speaking almost the same words. Her heart thudded in her ears, cut off from the echoes. Get it over with. She read.
"—not even death. She knew that should she take her own life she would feel, beneath the ebbing of her spirit, the movements of the promised child within her, preparing to cheat her cheating and make its way to me."
Clare glared before her. Bright sunlight and echoes. She could see the dying woman in the cave, could feel her engulfing terror as she remembered John Strong's words. In a world where a man could believe he was achieving such horror, anything was possible. She could see the woman gazing down at herself in feeble helpless incredulity.
Abruptly she pushed back her chair. A suite of them clattered under the dome. She strode across the carpet, filling the dome with footsteps, and threw the book on the counter. "You should burn that," she said. On the green stairs she had to close her eyes for a while, for the flecks of colour were crawling on the stone.
The porter gave back her bag in exchange for the plastic tab, but she'd left her tally in the Picton. "You can't leave without handing in your tally," he said.
"You just watch me."
The motifs of a dead wizard and things hidden underground particularly delighted me in The Doll Who Ate His Mother because I relished them in another just-completed Campbell read: The Darkest Part of the Woods.
The Doll Who Ate Its Mother is a solid novel about amatuer detectives, wonderfully drawn characters from fully imagined backgrounds who struggle to work together. As they interview people who might know their suspect, horror and comedy are richly and darkly mixed.
26 February 2018