Ramsey Campbell wrote one of the most convincing psychological horror novels of the 1980s with The Face That Must Die. A horror writer since the 1960s (his first collection of short stories was published by the venerable Arkham House when he was still a teenager), Campbell is virtually a brand-name writer in the genre. Throughout the 1980s, Tor published at least a dozen of his books and adorned them with distinctive artwork and title fonts. His allusive and oblique prose lends his stories a hallucinatory tone, a feeling of something not quite right, slightly askew and vaguely malevolent, as Lovecraftian monstrosities flitter just out of eyesight.
But the horror found in The Face That Must Die is an all too real kind. Indeed, the introductory essay included with the 1985 Tor edition, “At the Back of My Mind: A Guided Tour,” is Campbell’s account of his worsening relationship with his mother as she sank into dementia over many years. These days mainstream memoirs and fiction of life with crazy parents are a dime a dozen, but Campbell’s piece has no distancing irony or comic effect. Harrowing and sad and enlightening, it is Campbell’s explanation for “why I write what I write,” and readers can come to their own conclusions about how this influenced The Face That Must Die.
Face is the story of the aptly-named Horridge, a nobody kind of fellow in a precisely-drawn Liverpool (a real nowhere man, if you will), whose growing paranoia is exacerbated by his obsession/revulsion with an overweight, effeminate older man who lives in his neighborhood. After reading in the papers about a “man whose body was found in a Liverpool flat was a male prostitute” and studying the accompanying suspect police sketch, Horridge comes to realize “he had seen the killer three times now, in as many days. That was no coincidence. But what was he meant to do?” His conviction that random events are a secret code to him alone is unshakeable. Horridge finds out the man’s name is Roy Craig by searching through library records (and mildly creeping out library clerk Cathy Gardner, who with her long-haired boyfriend Peter actually lives in the same building as Craig), Horridge begins systematically stalking and harassing the man. Craig’s homosexuality—Horridge is correct in his presumption—offends him to his core: “If he was a homosexual he was perverted enough for anything.” Which of course means he will continue to kill, and must be stopped by any means necessary—actually he can be stopped by any means necessary, because Horridge is doing away with degenerates and doing society a favor.
Campbell does a solid job of making the reader feel uneasy. Everywhere, things seem off: conversations are snippy, irritated, impatient; graffiti stains walkways and alleys (Horridge keeps seeing the word “killer”); the wheezing buses are crowded and smoke-filled; twilight is always seeping into Horridge’s apartment; his limp is painful and insistent; library customers are resentful, grumbling at the clerks wielding petty powers (in a scene Campbell admits is autobiographical); fog prevents everyone from seeing clearly. Liverpool is as much a character as Horridge or Cathy or Peter, and at times even seems conspire against Horridge; he sees the tower blocks, rundown flats, loud pubs, grimy gutters, grey skies, and bare concrete as one big institution, a prison ready for its cowed inmates. Everywhere the banal, the mundane, threaten to swallow the sane and insane alike; the suffocation is palpable.
Sometimes he thought the planners had faked those paths, to teach people to obey without questioning… the tunnel was treacherous with mud and litter; the walls were untidy webs of graffiti. All the overhead lights had been ripped out. He stumbled through, holding breath; the place smelled like an open sewer… A dread which he’d tried to suppress was creeping into his thoughts—that sometime, perhaps in fog, he would come home and be unable to distinguish his own flat.
Immersed in Horridge’s psyche, the reader is also both fascinated and revolted by his thought processes as they cycle through mania and grandiosity, memories of a painful childhood, and his ever-present desire to clean up the filth (moral and literal) he sees growing everywhere around him. Every tiny detail, every sliver of dialogue, every simile, drips with an uneasy threat of everything about to fall apart, as if reality itself were trembling on the precipice of chaos. Campbell allows us a few views outside of Horridge’s, but overall we feel as he does: threatened, maligned, powerless. Then he lashes out in anonymous—and unwittingly ironic—calls to Craig: “Just remember I’m never far away. You’d be surprised how close I am to you.”
The novel also offers some insights into contemporary British life. Craig’s backstory of his marriage breaking up is sad and all too common, I’m sure. His wife discovers his gay porn, is horrified, and her last words to him are, “I think I could have borne it if it been another woman.” In his opening essay, Campbell talks about his non-use of illicit drugs, but he sure gets the details right describing the dregs of late ’70s drug culture, the desultory nature of trying to score, the hangover of 1960s radical politics (“I bet he thought I’d have to be middle-class and polite. No chance, brother”), and the nagging suspicions that the Establishment is just waiting to pounce. Peter and Cathy are growing apart due to his continued use of marijuana and LSD; they’re a counterculture couple suffering relationship ills of the bourgeois. They, and Craig, along with bohemian artist Fanny who also lives in the building, will have their confrontations with Horridge, moments in which a razorblade flashes its brilliance in dingy rooms…
There is one scene I must point out. Horridge goes to the cinema to see a film, but the only title that resonates is the one that contains the word “horror” (“Horror films took you out of yourself—they weren’t too close to the truth”). Check it out:
Was it supposed to be a musical? He’d been lured in under false pretenses. It began with a wedding, everyone breaking into song and dance. Then an engaged couple’s car broke down: thunder, lightning, lashing rain, glimpses of an old dark house. Perhaps, after all—They were ushered to meet the mad scientist. Horridge gasped, appalled. The scientist’s limp waved like snakes, his face moved blatantly. He was a homosexual. This was a horror film, all right—far too horrible, and in the wrong way.
Yes: Horridge inadvertently attends a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show! One of the funniest and most telling—and most deserved—moments I’ve ever read in a horror novel. Campbell now keeps the story moving quickly as Horridge’s fears grow and grow. He’s a bit of a walking textbook of serial killer tics and tactics, but it’s not just serial killers who display these attributes. His hatred of homosexuality (his hatred of any sexuality: at one point late in the novel, Cathy is running after him, trips and falls, and Horridge hopes the breasts she flaunts have burst); his belief that society is degrading more and more; his hatred of foreigners and anyone different, gay or not; the shades of his disappointed parents hovering about him—is this an indictment of Thatcher-era England? All I know about late ’70s English culture I learned from Joe Strummer and Johnny Rotten lyrics, but this sounds about right.
Campbell is also wise to draw a parallel between Peter and Horridge, who are both aware of how out of step they are with modern society and the paranoid fantasies this engenders in them. Readers who enjoy the experience of being thrust into the killer’s mind will enjoy Face; no, it’s no American Psycho or Exquisite Corpse, it’s not nearly so deranged or explicit, but for its time it’s a brutal expose. A more accurate comparison could be made to Thomas Tessier’s Rapture; both books are able to make their antagonist’s irrationality seem rational, which is where the horror sets in.
Despite a meandering chapter here and there, The Face That Must Die is an essential read for psychological horror fans. Many times Campbell hits notes that only now are we beginning to hear and understand about the minds of Horridge and his like. When Horridge finds one of Fanny’s paintings is of himself, he slashes it apart with his beloved razorblade (see the Tor edition’s cover at the top, thanks to artist Jill Bauman, who captured this pivotal moment in the story); somewhere inside he knows, but can never admit, that the face that must die is only his own.
Will Errickson covers horror from the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s on his blog Too Much Horror Fiction.