There are lots of book titles that are, in themselves, works of art. I consider "The Doll Who Ate His Mother," by horror writer Ramsey Campbell, to be one; funny-sinister, flatly surreal, it's better than the book. Now, with his new novel, "The Nameless," Campbell's gone in the other direction. Not only is the unspeakable evil cult at the center of the book's web without a name, but by titling the novel after them -- i.e., no name -- he makes the title part of the plot. How much more do we fear things that refuse to allow us to identify them, even a book sitting on the bedside table!
The heroine of "The Nameless," Barbara Waugh, is an ordinary enough woman. A successful London literary agent, she does have two tragedies in her past: the heart-attack death of her young husband and then the kidnapping-murder of her little girl, Angela. But it is now nine years later, and she has buried her memories in her work. Until one day, she picks up the phone and hears a voice call her "Mummy"; after that, she becomes obsessed with the idea that Angela is alive and still being held captive by the people who abducted her.
Because the disembodied, girlish voice (can it really be Angela?) directs her to a house with a bricked-up gate off the Portobello Road, Barbara, despising herself for gullibility, goes there to reconnoiter. But she finds nothing to connect with Angela, only a white-haired woman dressed in black who seems to be spying on her from the sidewalk and the abandoned, empty building itself. For one brief second, Barbara imagines someone looking at her from one of the windows; then she realizes it is only "cobwebs, lumpy with dust. She saw an edge of the gray mass slithering down the pane a moment before it sank out of sight."
The house is deserted all right, but don't breathe a sigh of relief too soon. The chilling, revolting, nerve-curdling worse is yet to come.
Campbell's two great strengths as a writer of horror fiction are his talent for not quite describing the monstrous forces and events that propel his plots and his ability to blast any of the reader's lurking complacency when he does go into detail. That particular "cobweb" -- gray, shapeless, menacing -- appears in many guises throughout Campbell's work. As dust, ashes, fungus, earth, fog, this always gray, always indistinct thing is a familiar of Evil and, as such, is familiar to Campbell fans. In "The Nameless," the "gray mass" is more active than usual, even aggressive: "It was so quick that it had swarmed up her body and was almost at her face before she began to scream."
What Barbara Waugh discovers in "The Nameless" is very much like what Rose Tierney discovers in Campbell's "The Parasite" or Clare Frayn in "The Doll Who Ate His Mother." She learns that a single, very powerful personality has drawn to him other, weaker people in order to gain more strength through the perpetration of atrocities. In this case "names don't matter," for the cult members are utterly stripped of their humanity, and rumors of the nameless people have them so vile as to make the Manson family "look like Disneyland."
The nameless have no names because they are "only the tools" of what they are doing, and anything that is known about them is known because of occasional defectors who "deliberately give themselves away because they were close enough to achieving their goal to have an idea what it was." We never know for sure: All the more reason to dread it. Campbell, by refraining from saying anything too specific, makes hapless readers, through their imaginations, into accomplices.
The presence in the cult of Angela, Barbara's daughter, is another of the many examples in Campbell's work of his fascination with the effect of evil upon good and vice versa. Her very name is symbolic of her latent power, and the cult members, recognizing this incipient force for good that might threaten their aims, steal her away from home, substituting the body of a more disposable child. Why they prefer to corrupt her rather than destroy her is one of the mysteries of the book. Perhaps it is indeed because she, though only a child, is already more powerful than they. But another mystery is where the cult, whose English members appear loathsomely scruffy (one is supposed to believe that this nameless band has existed in many countries, for many decades, even centuries), found a "nicely dressed and beautifully spoken" man to remove Angela from the care of her nursery-school teacher.
I guess it doesn't matter, any more than it does to wonder why Campbell has Barbara feeling guilty about having put the 4-year-old Angela in school in the first place, so she could establish her career. Yet ambivalence about motherhood is a clear concern of Campbell's, and, like Ira Levin before him, he sees the horrific surprise potential of pregnancy. Thus, Campbell and so many others have given us the babies of "Rosemary's Baby," and it doesn't necessarily signal misogyny.
The creepiness of "The Nameless" is unassailable until the very end. H.P. Lovecraft, Aleister Crowley, M.R. James, H.F. Heard: These are all horror masters who have obviously influenced Campbell. Yet I don't think it's unfair to say that, despite his technique, Campbell is better at opening the door on bad things than he is at closing it.