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THE NAMELESS is perhaps the closest thing to a perfect horror novel I've read.
The way I see it, the horror novel is a tough medium to do good work in. Part of the problem is that the novel format tends to encourage excess: excessive, clumsy writing; excessive elaboration; and excessive explanation. This excess works against a horror story, because the more we know and understand the horror, the less fearsome it is--the dread of the unknown, that gaping abyss in our awareness within which all our worst, most irrational fears take root, is a fundamental component of terror. Unfortunately, works that engage the reader's "dread of the unknown" are few and far between in these days of generic horrors, when formula plots and plain, nuance-free writing sell well, and exaggerated shocks are the closest things to true scares most writers strive for.
So thank goodness we have writers like Ramsey Campbell, and novels like THE NAMELESS.
Almost two decades after I first read it, THE NAMELESS is still one of the most frightening, perfectly constructed horror novels I've ever read; a gripping tale full of mystery, human drama, and shadowy spine-chilling terror provoked by horrors known and unknown. For sheer scare power, THE NAMELESS ranks somewhere near Campbell's best works, novels such as INCARNATE and THE INFLUENCE, and many of his great short stories.
The story is the stuff of nightmare, a parent's uncontrollable nightmare worse than anything a conventional thriller could offer, growing darker, more horrific and bizarre as it progresses. It seemed young widow Barbara Waugh suffered a mother's worst nightmare when she learned her 4-year-old only child, Angela, had been kidnapped. This trauma was compounded soon afterwards by the discovery of a little girl's savaged corpse, mutilated beyond any hopes of identification yet clad in Angela's clothes, which led Barbara and the authorities to believe Angela had been brutally murdered. (As you'd expect, Campbell imparts these tragic scenes with an exquisite, mature sensitivity, unsullied by the mawkishness and false sweetness of sentimentality.) Then, nine years later, just after Barbara had come to terms with her grief, she receives a mysterious phone call at her office: A voice like a young girl's repeatedly calls her "Mummy". And it soon becomes clear that her nightmare is only just beginning.
As it turns out, Angela is still alive, and she's in the hands of a ghastly cult: an arcane, nomadic group made up of people who've abandoned their names and their individual identities. Even worse, these nameless, faceless conspirators are in thralldom to some terrifying supernatural force, capable of manipulating physical objects, be they living, dead, or inanimate, like obscene puppets. As one character explains with chilling simplicity, "The bad got into things and made them move."
It's testimony of Campbell's finely-honed storyteller's instincts that he handles the supernatural aspect of THE NAMELESS in an allusive manner, keeping it a mystery that hovers darkly in the wings; never diminishing its persistent unspoken menace by spelling it out in obvious terms or by allowing it to dominate the story. This obscurely sinister supernatural threat, this unknown terror, lends the scariest scenes in the book their disturbing power.
With his inimitable style, Campbell draws readers into the heads of his characters, and so we experience the terror along with them. This technique works to remarkable effect in THE NAMELESS--we follow the protagonists around the dark decaying interiors of empty houses abandoned by the cult, looking for clues as the surroundings stir with silent threat. At times the terror is almost claustrophobic; the dread of the unknown becomes palpable. And we're with Barbara every nerve-jangling step of the way, right up to the story's devastating conclusion.
But the real triumph of THE NAMELESS is not just that it's a very scary book, a dark horror tale that makes THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT look like pleasant holiday footage. Rather, it is that in this book Campbell combines scary supernatural horror and a compelling tale of personal tragedy and obsession even more successfully than he did in his superb earlier novels THE DOLL WHO ATE HIS MOTHER and THE PARASITE. Readers and horror fans alike are encouraged to seek out and read THE NAMELESS prior to seeing its recent Spanish film adaptation, LOS SIN NOMBRE. By all accounts, the film bears only passing resemblance to the book, and lacks both its depth of character and its supernatural terrors.