Book Review: The Doll Who Ate His Mother
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Ramsey Campbell is widely considered to be one of the best horror writers still working in the genre today. The Doll Who Ate His Mother is his first novel and is absolute proof that writers improve over time. I am not saying that it is the worst book that I have ever read, or even the worst horror book, hell it probably isn’t even the worst book about a cannibal serial killer that I have read. But it is not up to his usual standards.
My experience with Campbell has been through his short stories and more than anything else that is what The Doll Who Ate His Mother feels like, a short story that has been padded out to novel length. There is not enough meat on the bones. There are dull patches in between events that add nothing to the story and if there is one thing that a horror story cannot afford it is a lack of tension. The supernatural elements of the story are introduced too late, and too weakly to have any real impact and while you are left with the possibility that psychosis rather than magic were at work you suspect that the ambiguity was not intentional. The twists are few and far between but each of them adds to the story, in fact the major reveal of the villain’s identity was enough to keep me reading past the point where I thought I was going to have to abandon the book because it had been so well done. The ending was an anti-climax and the characterisation from earlier in the story was abandoned when it suited the author’s needs.
This book is thoroughly mired in the time in which it was written, the attitudes of the characters, the language and many specific details are unique to England in the 70s and it is easy to get immersed in the setting. The Satanic Panic atmosphere still clings to this story as the last threads of the tapestry weaved by Dennis Wheatley in the pre-war days still cling to the older character’s assumptions. The idea that a mention of “Black Magic” was enough to rattle otherwise sane and balanced people is not unique to that time but it is interesting to see it balanced against the younger character’s more modern attitudes.
In the case of this book at least, what is more important than what Campbell says is how he says it. Many horror writers adopt a tone and language straight out of the thriller genre, abandoning the long gothic history and the purple prose that came along with it. That is not Ramsey Campbell’s style. It is worth reading The Doll Who Ate His Mother for no other reason than to enjoy the careful blending of old fashioned and modern prose. The colourful descriptions running seamlessly into the sharp jagged staccato of a modern action sequence. If you are interested in the horror genre as a whole, then this book is worthy of attention but if you are just interested in a good read there are a lot of better options, even within Campbell’s own extensive bibliography.