First published back in December of 1979, prolific British horror author Ramsey Campbell’s fifth novel to see publication was entitled ‘The Face That Must Die’. The novel was initially cut for censorship by the publishers upon its original release, but was later re-issued in a complete and expanded format in 1983. This review is of the latter full and uncensored version.
The book begins with a lengthy forward by Campbell entitled ‘At The Back Of My Mind: A Guided Tour’. In this autobiographical introduction, Campbell details a very personal and emotive account of his childhood and upbringing; particularly in regards to his mother’s deteriorating mental illness. The passage opens up to the reader a highly personal background for where the author was coming from when he wrote the tale and gives a heart-wrenching insight into the psychological struggle that many individuals can come up against in their lives.
John Horridge is sick of the way the world is becoming. All around him, all he can see are gays and foreigners, decaying the very heart of his hometown of Liverpool. But society has gotten a hell of a lot worse over recent years. Horridge is convinced that it’s become rotten to the core. And the reasons behind this are starring him in the face as to why.
Furthermore, the recent surge in homosexual killings hasn’t gone unnoticed by Horridge. And he knows what’s at the root of it all. It’s another one of those despicable homosexuals, corrupting whoever he can get his hands on before killing them, no doubt in a fit of sadistic glee. It’s in their nature. But Horridge is wise to the ways of these despicable individuals. He won’t be fooled.
And best of all – he knows who is behind it all. No doubt living in absolute squalor within the nearby block of flats (a sad looking ‘concrete prison’) on Aigburth Drive, Horridge has seen the man that he knows is responsible for the murders. A man named Roy Craig. A man who Horridge will see brought to justice. And he’ll do it by forcing the vile homosexual’s hand. Soon enough the man will have no option but to confess to his disgusting crimes.
Meanwhile, living in the same block of flats, the young couple Peter and Cathy are meandering through their depressingly bleak existence. Cathy is fairly responsible and bright; managing to hold down her job as a librarian. However, it’s her partner Peter who drags her down. Obsessed with comic books and wasting his life away on drugs, Peter brings nothing but negativity to their relationship.
But Cathy is about to be drawn into the vicious circle of Horridge’s paranoid delusions. In a chance meeting, she accidentally divulges Roy Craig’s address and phone number to Horridge. And that’s when the threatening phonecalls to Roy Craig start. But Horridge’s intended recipient isn’t playing game. The calls seem to be having little to no effect on the man. And so Horridge decides to up the ante. He may be mildly disabled - not able to walk without his noticeable limp slowing him down; but he can still be a man to fear. Especially with his trusty cutthroat razor at hand...
To say Campbell’s ‘The Face That Must Die’ is a downbeat and gritty novel is possibly the understatement of the year. It gets you in the very pit of your gut; it’s distasteful and oppressively real to the core. It’s because it’s not from a culmination of exaggerated and far-fetched twists in fate that have ended up with a distorted version of a psychotic killer. Its impact is in how utterly unremarkable the events and hardships are that lead up to creating the psychotically delusional character of John Horridge. It’s the very easy reality of it all that sends shivers down your spine.
He’s the worst of everything. He’s the guttural and vileness of our society bundled up into one man. He’s homophobic, racist and misogynistic. He sees the world only from his blinkered and utterly schizophrenic point of view. His paranoia of everything rules his every waking hour. And it’s this overwhelming and dominating paranoia that has carved the despicable excuse for a man that he is.
Writing the vast majority of the tale from behind the delusional eyes of Horridge himself, Campbell has created a novel that is never as clear-cut as it first seems. The reader starts to question the very reality of what is happening. Is Horridge merely imagining everything that is going on? Indeed, how much of what is going on is actually happening? How much is pure fantasy in the twisted mind of this delusional individual?
This constant dissociation from reality is what really unsettles the reader. And as the tale progresses, so Horridge’s remaining grip on reality gradually slips away. This resulting descent into violence and psychotic vengeance is almost unavoidable. And it’s all too real.
The inclusion of the dysfunctional couple of Peter and Cathy adds another layer to the tale. In typical Ramsey Campbell fashion, it’s incredibly hard to identify or ‘like’ any aspect of their personalities. Whether they’re weak or obnoxious, blindly-misguided or just plain distasteful; Campbell always creates characters that are not only hard to swallow, but at the same time so very, very real. And the inclusion of this young couple, stuck in a wasteful rut, is no exception.
Of course the lives of these characters all collide in the end. And with the merging and derailing of storylines, comes a dramatic and impactful climax that is impossible to back away from.
The novel is filled with a bitter social commentary that cuts into the reader. It all seems so avoidable, but at the same time, with the spiralling delusional madness of Horridge, so painfully unavoidable. Horridge is like an unexploded bomb just waiting to go off. But with each hour that passes by, so the explosive elements within him become even greater. The danger so much more immediate.
It’s true that the novel is shocking. It’s intense and gritty with a sharp-edged reflection of society running throughout its length. The novel certainly isn’t drenched in gore, nor does it rely on the viciousness of graphic splashes of blood. Instead Campbell utilises the more powerful and engaging technique of totally submerging the reader into the sickening madness of a particularly despicable character.
To say I loved the novel seems quite wrong. However, it is a novel that I would highly recommend. Its intensity, underlying destructive nature and sickening strengths make it a veritable masterpiece of disturbing fiction.
The novel runs for a total of 175 pages.
© DLS Reviews