Despite being Campbell's first published novel, THE DOLL WHO ATE HIS MOTHER is a confident and inspired work from a writer clearly in control of his talent. In the two short-story collections he published prior to this book (the outstanding DEMONS BY DAYLIGHT and the even better THE HEIGHT OF THE SCREAM) Campbell had already established his distinctive, powerful voice, endowing those horror tales with a unique blend of fluency, imagination, ambiguity and maturity that owed as much to the work of writers such as Nabokov as it did to the horror aesthetics of WEIRD TALES and MR James. The results were stories--sometimes oblique and mysterious, sometimes outright terrifying, and quite often both--that leave a deep and chilling impression on readers, whether read a week ago or years ago. THE DOLL WHO ATE HIS MOTHER simply demonstrated that Campbell could extend his skill over a novel-length narrative. Since then, he has gone on to equal and even surpass the extremely high standards set in these early works--see, for instance, his later collections DARK COMPANIONS and ALONE WITH THE HORRORS, and subsequent novels INCARNATE, THE INFLUENCE, THE NAMELESS and THE FACE THAT MUST DIE, some of the finest-written and most frightening works in the modern horror canon.
There is no doubting THE DOLL WHO ATE HIS MOTHER is an essential modern horror novel. The unflinching honesty in Campbell's portrayals of his characters and settings elevates the story beyond the level of escapist thrills and turns it into something more challenging than formulaic horror shocks. Themes of urban decay and social isolation that are woven into the text, and which also recur in some of Campbell's later works, augment the supernatural dread not by adding to the unpleasantness of the story but, rather, by adding to its realism. In his handling of characters, too, Campbell favors this realistic approach: his characters are believable, warts-and-all individuals, sometimes obnoxious or plagued by self-doubt, and their credibility is never sacrificed to make them seem more appealing or more noble to the reader. Thus, while Campbell's characters may occasionally appear less than admirable, the sympathy they elicit from the reader is more genuine, less artificial than that aroused by superficial appeals to the reader's emotions. As a result, this is an atmospheric and affecting novel of urban horror on par with Fritz Leiber's OUR LADY OF DARKNESS--an eerie yet surprisingly subdued effort, a classic horror tale at heart, told as a modern mystery and presented with honesty and conviction.