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Nazareth Hill
Ramsey Campbell
Tor Books, 384 pages

Nazareth Hill
Ramsey Campbell
Ramsey Campbell was born in 1946 in Liverpool, UK. His first exposure to horror fiction came at the age of five when he saw a copy of Weird Tales and began collecting them at ten. When Campbell was just 16, August Derleth published one of his stories in an anthology along with Robert Bloch, William Hope Hodgson and H. P. Lovecraft. Ramsey Campbell's first collection, The Inhabitant of the Lake, was published in 1965, followed by another, Demons by Daylight, in 1973. His first novel, The Doll Who Ate His Mother appeared in 1976. He has also edited several collections including (along with Stephen Jones) the annual Best New Horror anthology.

Ramsey Campbell Website
ISFDB Bibliography
Ramsey Campbell Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Chris Donner

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Arachnophobia. Not the movie, but the fear itself. We have nothing to fear but... Ramsey Campbell's Nazareth Hill deals with fear, and the uncertainties that fear creates in the human mind.

As a young girl, Amy Priestley calls the big house on Nazareth Hill "the spider house," although she isn't sure why. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that her father is terrified of spiders, and she has pressed into service the name of her father's fear as a clear label for her own fears. Regardless, her somewhat autocratic father dislikes this childishness and insists that she call the building by its proper name: Nazarill. When Amy's father, angry with her for being afraid of the house, holds her up to a window to look in and see that there's nothing inside, Amy's fear takes on a visible, if not completely concrete, form. For a brief moment, Amy's fear reaches out for her from a corner of the room in a ghastly human form.

Many years later, as a rebellious teenager in a stodgy town, Amy finds herself living in a renovated Nazarill. She still hates and fears the place, almost irrationally. She still lives with her father, although her mother has died, and the relationship between father and daughter is still not too strong.

Oswald Priestley is about as unlikable a man as you are likely to meet in a regular day. On the outside he is just another face in the hallway between apartments, someone you pass on the street and take no notice of at all. Inside, however, his deep, incapacitating fear of spiders creates obsessive behavior that he projects into his religious beliefs and his child rearing. The result is a man full of uncertainties who convinces himself that all of his decisions are justified in the eyes of God, and therefore beyond argument. Even before the "bad things" began, I didn't like reading about him. And Amy lives with him, day in and day out, struggling with her own powerful fears as well as trying to establish her identity as a young adult.

The story focuses on the degenerating relationship between father and daughter, but Nazarill is always in the background, feeding the conflict between the two of them. The history of this imposing structure is hidden deeply, forgotten by most of the townspeople, but it begins to haunt Amy, as well as a few of the other tenants who live there. After a death at Nazarill around Christmas time, it appears that Amy might have a couple people to help her find out what is going on -- her boyfriend, an old man who swears he saw something, the owner of a local head shop. But this is a conservative little town, and when Amy begins to make some noise, the powers-that-be decide she needs to be kept quiet.

Campbell does a nice job balancing the uncertainty between ghostly visions and insanity within the Priestley family. When Amy sees the darkness and the gnarled limbs and faces reaching out for her, we are left unsure of whether she is really seeing these things or if she is succumbing to the madness that has affected her family in past generations. When Amy finds a hidden Bible and begins transcribing the scrawled cries for help written in the margins, we don't know whether she is really reading what was already written, or writing these notes herself, as some people claim.

The story is also convincing in the way that Campbell slowly separates both Amy and her father from the social supports that would otherwise be there for them in the town. No one wants to be associated with the bald-headed, heavily pierced girl who went on the radio talking about witches and animal slaying. And while Oswald's insurance-salesman exterior allows him to converse superficially with his neighbors, he lets no one see inside him, where the danger lies.

These layers of reality and uncertainty are intriguing, and make the work as a whole interesting. However, I was not completely satisfied. Campbell's handling of the tension between father and daughter, lucidity and insanity, was good. His sense of what is frightening and how to write it is also good. At other times, though, his style seemed to get in the way.

The writing in Nazareth Hill often seemed heavy-handed, trying for a cleverness that too frequently pulled my attention away from the story and made me focus on Campbell the author. The story itself was sometimes lost in the mix. At one point Campbell describes Amy as being "suffocated by so many superfluous words," and there were many times where I felt that way myself. Self-conscious phrases and metaphors were everywhere, such as this description of a man urinating: "He took out the little he had and emptied the great deal for which it was the solitary egress..."

Additionally, although I have heard a good deal about the ending of this novel, I wasn't particularly impressed with the final two chapters. The psychological breakdown of both Amy and Oswald is good up until this point, but here it seems to run out of steam. Where horror and history should meet, we are instead left with a vague sense of happiness that has more in common with Disney than psychological terror.

In many ways, Nazareth Hill reminded me of another novel about a large house, insanity, and the breakdown of a family -- The Shining by Stephen King. Based purely on the story, this is a good comparison. Nazareth Hill is frightening in several ways, and it leaves the reader wondering about what was really going on in the rooms of Nazarill. However, for as much as it takes on successfully, it also leaves a good deal unanswered and bogs down in its own technique. I would recommend the story, but I hesitate when it comes to the writing, where I am afraid this book reverses that old saying that less is more: it provides too much, resulting in a bit less than I had hoped for.

Copyright © 1998 by Chris Donner

Chris Donner is a freelance writer and magazine editor living in Manhattan and working in Connecticut. He will read almost anything once, as it makes the train ride go faster. He is currently writing a screenplay, a novel, several short stories, a collection of poems, and a letter to his mother. The letter will probably be done first.


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