Dead Trees: The Doll Who Ate His Mother by Ramsey Campbell

banner reading Dead Trees by Mark Sieber

Who is the best living horror writer?

The obvious, and most popular answer, is of course Stephen King. I almost agree, but King has done too many different types of fiction to be stigmatized as merely a horror writer. A lot of it can even be construed as science fiction. Especially when one considers how psi talents were an SF staple for years and years.

Despite my love of his work my answer is not Stephen King. I’d have to go with the inimitable Ramsey Campbell.

photo of author Ramsey Campbell
Ramsey Campbell

Campbell seems to revel in the role as horror writer. He has consistently woven some of the best horror fiction of the last hundred years. Few are his equal. None surpass him.

I first read Ramsey Campbell way back around 1984. I had exhausted all the existing King and Straub books, and I was working my way through his horror book recommendations in Danse Macabre. One of them was Ramsey Campbell’s The Doll Who Ate His Mother.

The edition I read had an almost unbelievably cheesy cover. I think the much-maligned skeletal cheerleader on the original paperback of Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door is better. The copy had a green cover and a terrible depiction of a fanged doll. Between it and the sensationalistic title, one would easily expect The Doll Who Ate His Mother to be down in the horror dregs with Ruby Jean Jenson or William W. Johnson. One would be sorely incorrect in that assumption.

cover of The Doll Who Ate His Mother

The Doll Who Ate His Mother is Ramsey Campbell’s first novel. He was already a veteran of short fiction.  As a debut novel this book is astonishing. I don’t think it’s Campbell’s best. No, not by a long shot. I am partial to The Wise Friend, or perhaps Incarnate. The Doll Who Ate His Mother is raw, charged with energy, and is an anomaly in horror fiction: It is actually frightening.

The novel begins with a young woman named Clare who is reluctantly giving her ne’er-do-well disc jockey brother a late night ride home. It’s a surrealistic night, and Campbell puts his hallucinogenic prose to excellent effect. A strange man appears in front of the car, and the brakes fail. There is an accident and Clare’s brother is injured and he is belimbed. The mysterious figure is seen darting away into the night clutching something in his arms.

Investigations into the situation lead Clare, a true crime author, a theatre owner, and a previous victim of the strange man into a dark and terrifying search for the legacy of an alleged Satanist. The story unfolds into a grisly scenario of terror.

With The Doll Who Ate His Mother Ramsey Campbell manages to write a story that is subtle and also deeply grotesque. He never needs to linger too long on gory details. Campbell sets a tableau and his reader must fill in the details. I think this approach is much more difficult than spelling out disgusting image after image. I also think imaginative readers will find it more disturbing.

Ramsey Campbell is known for being influenced by H.P. Lovecraft, but I see more of Fritz Leiber in The Doll Who Ate His Mother. It’s the same type of devious occult story as Our Lady of Darkness or Conjure Wife.

cover of The Doll Who Ate His Mother by Ramsey CampbellThe Doll Who Ate His Mother was first published in 1976, when modern horror fiction was still in its infancy. It was unique at the time, and it remains unique to this day. Reading it is a bit like taking a small dose of a hallucinogen. The entire story is off-kilter and it seems as though menace lurks in the periphery of every scene.

Campbell’s work is often deliberately paced. He doesn’t rush his stories; he allows them to seep into the reader’s mind. Reading him is always a disorienting experience, but also an exhilarating one. The shadows of the stories linger in the mind well after the books are closed. If any writer can be said to produce genuinely haunting fiction, it is Ramsey Campbell.

The Doll Who Ate His Mother was notorious when it was first born into the world, and many reviews were unkind. Ramsey Campbell, unfazed, continued to write his own peculiar brand of horror fiction by his own rules. Along the way he became one of the most respected and renowned practitioners of the craft. I’d say he’s unparalleled.

And, yes, he is still here. Still writing the best horror fiction on the market. If you love this stuff, and you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t, you owe it to yourself to read Ramsey Campbell. He has a wide body of sinister work to delve into. The Doll Who Ate His Mother is the perfect place to begin.

Photo of Mark Sieber with a cat on his shoulder
Mark Sieber and friend

Mark Sieber learned to love horror with Universal, Hammer, and AIP movies, a Scholastic edition of Poe’s Eight Tales of TerrorSir Graves Ghastly PresentsThe Twilight Zone, Shirley Jackson’s The Daemon LoverThe Night Stalker, and a hundred other dark influences. He came into his own in the great horror boom of the 1980’s, reading Charles L. Grant, F. Paul Wilson, Ray Russell, Skipp and Spector, David J. Schow, Stephen King, and countless others. Meanwhile he spent as many hours as possible at drive-in theaters, watching slasher sequels, horror comedies, monster movies, and every other imaginable type of exploitation movie. When the VHS revolution hit, he discovered the joys of Italian and other international horror gems. Trends come and go, but he still enjoys having the living crap scared out of him. Cemetery Dance recently released his collection He Who Types Between the Rows: A Decade of Horror Drive-In. He can be reached at horrordrivein@yandex.com, and at www.horrordrive-in.com.

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