Monday, October 7, 2013

Review: Holes For Faces by Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey Campbell is a giant in the field. Love or hate his work, there is no denying it. With nearly fifty years of experience under his belt, the Liverpool native has surely made his mark in weird fiction history. Starting his long career with Lovecraft Mythos stories, yet set in his own fictional section of England, Ramsey has thoroughly explored all aspects of the uncanny.

Holes For Faces is Campbell’s latest collection, recently published by Dark Regions Press, and contains fourteen stories from the past decade. Every story showcases Campbell’s talents for hinting at the weird, making the mundane horrifying, and conveying Campbell’s signature sense of paranoia. Campbell’s stories have a certain nightmarish qualities to them, and his protagonists are almost always alone with seemingly no one to turn to who would understand them.

The one common thread tying all these stories together are the themes of youth and age. Almost every story features either a child protagonist, or an older man protagonist, while some stories prominently feature both ends of the spectrum. Parallels are drawn between both ages, aging characters are sometimes treated simply, as if they havee regressed to small children.

The stories prominently featuring age as a theme often take a similar approach, in that the old men and women are usually suffering from confusion. The Address is a prime example. The main character is looking for a station, yet is entirely lost. The people he encounters offer little to no help, either sending him in a direction that leads to nothing, or speaking down to him as if he is a child or simple in the head. The man’s confused search soon becomes something much darker when he comes across what appears to be a school and decides to ask someone for directions. Recently Used is a tragic story, seeing an older man woken up in the middle night by a phone call, only to rush to the hospital to see his wife who is in critical condition. The story is a nightmare of anxiety, much like The Address, as the man rushes through the labyrinthine hospital unable to find the proper ward. Until the end it’s hard to tell whether the man is experiencing something supernatural, or if he is simply not mentally competent. In The Rounds, an old man tries to make his way home on a train, only to become obsessed with a suitcase a Muslim woman leaves behind. Suspecting terrorism the man does his best to keep the suitcase in sight, yet the story soon becomes an endless loop of him going through the same motions station after station, never able to escape. Keeping with the train themes, Passing Through Peacehaven features another older protagonist, who stops at a decrepit train station, where he awaits the next train. The station seems abandoned, although at times he hears a voice over the speakers and catches glimpses of what may be another person.

Campbell also writes youth well. Holes for Faces features a particularly nervous boy, on vacation in Italy with his parents. He already seems to be a bit of a nervous wreck, but when the family decides to take a tour of some catacombs, the boy becomes particularly fixated on holes where some corpses’ faces should be. The rest of the vacation becomes a nightmare, as holes in general start to become a source of extreme anxiety and fear for the boy. Chucky Comes to Liverpool, one of my favorites, plays with the idea of British urban legends about the killer doll Chucky from the Child’s Play films. The youth, as well as a coalition of moms, blame the Child's Play films for inspiring several violent crimes perpetrated by young men and women. The main character’s mother is a member of this coalition, and is doing her part to ban the “video nasties” while her son and his friend, in true fourteen year old fashion, decide they want to see what all the fuss is about. The boy becomes obsessed, then frightened with his obsession, and decides to do what he can to put an end to Chucky, ironically becoming the violent sociopath himself. Holding The Light is bit more straightforward. Two young teenagers visit a spooky tunnel, and take turns walking it in the dark. The Long Way follows a young boy who routinely goes across the council estate to help his paraplegic uncle with his grocery shopping. Things become complicated when the boy sees something moving about in an abandoned house and begins to fear going to his uncle's.

While Campbell covers both youth and old age, some of the most successful stories are the ones that combine both. There is often the continued theme of the old characters being misunderstood and looked down upon by their own children or their peers, usually seen as incompetent to take care of their grandchildren. This is first explored in Peep, in which a grandfather is once again haunted by a terrifying game from his childhood, which interferes with his being able to watch over his own grandkids. The Decorations, the first of two Christmas themed stories, draws strong parallels between a boy and his grandmother. Being of that age where the realities of the world start to become clear, the boy and his mother visit his grandparents for the holidays. It soon becomes apparent that his grandmother is losing it, and she has an obsessive fear of a creepy Santa Claus decoration. The boy struggles, on one hand he shares her fear and believes her, but on another hand he tries to “be a man” and help convince her it's alright. The end is ambiguous, and leaves readers wondering whether the boy truly experiences the supernatural, or if he simply shares his grandmother's madness. In contrast, Behind The Doors features the grandfather as the protagonist, instead of the grandson. The grandfather's bad memories of school return when his grandson brings home an advent calendar from the grandfather's old teacher. The grandfather's obsession with the calendar and the number game that the teacher plays leads him to lose everything. Going with the theme of mentally incompetent elders paired with youth, With the Angels has one of the book's darker endings. Two old women visit their families old house with some grandchildren, but one of the women is not quite up to the task of watching the kids.

Ramsey Campbell's skills are on full display with the collection, and the common theme of youth and old age make for a collection that is solidified in theme. Definitely a welcome addition to the master's bibliography.

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