This week’s Deep One’s story for discussion is by Ramsey Campbell.
I have to admit that I haven’t been that impressed by much of the Campbell I’ve read. However, I’ve read very little, just a few short stories and his novel Ancient Images.
Review: “The Brood”, Ramsey Campbell, 1980.
On its most basic level, Campbell’s story is certainly not novel: man finds monsters living in his neighborhood and dies trying to kill them.
Kirby McCauley, editor of the famed Dark Forces anthology where this story was first published, says “Campbell’s approach to the contemporary horror tale is oblique and subtle and colored by a gray view of the world that often has the cumulative effect of a nightmare from which one cannot awaken.”
The story’s opening suggested it might be a grim morality tale about people who love their pets more than their fellow humans.
Our hero Blackband (certainly a name symbolic of the death that will come later in the story) is a veterinarian living in a trashy part of town (very likely based on Campbell’s native Liverpool). The neighborhoods backyards are “penned in rubble and crumbling toliets”. After a hard day at the office, he likes to watch the evening crowds from his window.
He’s especially fond of local eccentrics and street people. There’s the man who stuffs “butterflies of litter” in his bag and the man who violently shouts as he walks down the street “head down in no gale”. Rainbow Man wears layers of garishly colored sweaters no matter what the temperature.
And then, when it’s dark, the Lady of the Lamp comes out. Her withered form dances under street lamps.
Blackband has no malice for any of these folk, but, understandably given that he’s a vet, he can’t help comparing the normal folk ignoring these street people, particularly the Lady of the Lamp, to those who ignore “packs of stray dogs that were always someone else’s responsibility”.
He speculates that the Lady of the Lamp may be a former prostitute twitchily remembering, in her nocturnal movements, her past life.
He also wonders, one evening, what happened to all the local characters he’s been following in the three months since moving into his apartment.
And he wonders what happened to another old woman he saw the Lady of the Lamp take into her house which is just across the street from Blackband’s apartment. How are the women living in their dilapidated home? What happened to the animals they took there? Did they care “as little for their pets as did those owners who came, whining like their dogs, to his office?”
The Lady of the Lamp’s behavior gets odder. Blackband feels some sympathy for her. She’s disdained by the normal people who pass her by, the same normal people who overfeed their pets and kill them with kindness. Compared to them, she’s St. Francis of Assissi.
One night, some police visit the street to arrest some drunks. He’s amazed at how fast the Lady of the Lamp disappears when they arrive.
And, later that night, he sees a man wandering through the streets pursued and obscured by “a great wide shadow-colored stain, creeping vaguely over the rooftops”.
The next day, thinking of that stain and the nature documentaries on insects he’s been watching, Blackband gets the idea that the Lady of the Lamp is a vampire.
Several more days and several more pages later, after odd happenings involving winged creatures of the night, Blackband begins to become concerned that he hasn’t seen the Lady of the Lamp for several days.
He wakes up, after hearing a “shapeless moaning”, early one morning. It’s coming from the old woman’s house.
He gets a flashlight and goes over to the house. He makes a horrible discovery. Seemingly, the Lady of the Lamp is some kind of shape-shifting vampire moth. Those other people Blackband used to see on the street are dead in the basement of the house, their corpses fed to pupating creatures, the brood of the title. They will metamorphosize into creatures like the Lady of the Lamp.
Blackband escapes the horrors he sees. He even heroically returns with a can of gas to torch the whole house, but the brood kills him in the end.
The bare bones of the story are somewhat interesting, but this story has, frankly, a large element of an old wine in a new bottle.
The story could have been shorter. Many days in the account of Blackband’s life just add incremental bits of weirdness and urban decay. They are not necessary to the plot.
Campbell’s prose is interestingly dislocative, “oblique” as McCauley would have it, when Blackband gets to the house.
For instance, we hear “the old woman’s face loomed” behind Blackband. It doesn’t seem to really be the face of the Lady of the Lamp – just the idea of it in Blackband’s head. But Campbell doesn’t make that explicit. He does do variations on the image three times and the reader begins to think that maybe Blackband is sensing something external to him, something not an hallucination. But we are never completely sure.
There is another case of dislocative ambiguity. In the basement of the house, Blackband sees several white bags. That’s how he sees them: as urban deitrus. To us, they seem to be giant insect cocoons. A more plot-centered and explicit writer would have called them that or made a bald suggestion that they reminded Blackband of cocooned insects.
The story is not a morality tale about caring for humans too little and pets too much.
In a sense, Blackband is heroic. He overcomes his annoyance and agitation and does what no one else in officialdom or the neighborhood will do. He goes to the house across the street to check on the women (and, truth be told, their pets too).
And he is heroic in his plans to burn the place down. He recognizes the danger and takes steps to act immediately.
But it is a flawed heroism that shows, I think, the real theme in this story of urban horror: the lonely, atomized world of the modern city.
Nobody in this story is given a name except Blackband, a name, incidentally, which not only reminds us of a black armband of mourning but, symbolically, a blotted out identity. He has no friends or family.
He acts heroically but not in a social way. He doesn’t go to the police or get exterminators. Those options occur to him, but
Nothing would relieve his horror until he saw the brood destroyed, and the only way to see that was to do the job himself.
Destroying the brood would relieve Blackband’s horror, but, if he didn’t leave such an atomized existence and took stock of more than his own resources and desires, he may have enlisted help. He may not have died at the end of the story, and the brood might not have lived.
A brood, of course, is a group of creatures. The brood, in this story, acts as a unit, the only real example of cooperation we see in the story, a quality lacking in the urban humans of the story.
Blackband’s last vision, as he lies dying with a broken back in the basement of the house, is the “orange light in his kitchen” across the alley. The city about him is full of sounds “distant and indifferent”.
While watching a documentary on insects early in the story, Blackband wistfully muses “If only people were as beautiful and fascinating?”.
The urban human may suffer in one more comparison to insects: it’s a hive dweller that can’t cooperate enough to detect and destroy dangers.