THE COUNT OF
Ramsey Cambell is one of the finest horror
scribes on the scene, and THE COUNT OF ELEVEN one of his best-ever novels.
Foreshadowing Donald Westlake's 1997 stunner
THE AX, tís a relentless yet comedic peek into
the mind of Jack Orchard, a sunny, always-joking family man turned serial
All manner of bad luck befalls Jackís family: the video
store he runs burns down, his wife loses her job, and his daughter is attacked
by three scummy boys named after the cast of THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY(!).
A firm believer in numerology, Jack puts everything in his life down to his
lucky number eleven, including a chain letter he receives; since the numbers of
the letter add up to eleven, he mails copies of it to thirteen unknown
individuals. His luck, however, doesnít improve, and so Jack deduces that not
all of the recipients sent out copies of the letter as instructed. He decides
to pay a visit to each, with a fire-spitting blowlamp in hand!
The people Jack meets all
possess distinct personalities and occupations (and live in various far-flung
locales, giving readers an atmospheric tour of the nether regions of the
authorís native Liverpool), and those Jack kills with his blowlamp are all
assholes in one way or another. I know the book has been criticized in some
quarters for only doing away with bad characters, but that doesnít make Jackís
murderous behavior any less unsettling.
Certainly this is a disquieting tale, but what gives it
its edge is the humor Campbell injects into nearly every page (in place of the
hallucinatory oppressiveness of Campbell classics like THE FACE THAT MUST DIE
and THE HUNGRY MOON). The author was on a comedy kick at the time (as evinced
by his novella NEEDING GHOSTS and the story he contributed to the BOOK OF THE
DEAD anthology), and THE COUNT OF ELEVEN is surely the apotheosis of that trend.
Itís genuinely funny, filled with ingeniously pulled-off slapstick setpieces
that in a strange way compliment rather than offset the nastiness. Witnessing
the happy-go-lucky Jack becoming a ravening psychopath who calls himself The
Count of Eleven is both hilarious and heartbreaking.
Equally unique is the construction of the narrative,
which constantly keeps the reader on edge. This is true of the final scenes set
on the shores of Greece, where, in a seeming turnaround of Jackís bad luck, he
and his family win a vacation. This sequence has a surprisingly languid flow,
different from the rest of the book--Campbell deliberately avoids closing things
out on a high note, a daring and unexpected choice that turns out to be exactly
what this wild and crazy but also dark and melancholy book needs.