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Psychology of the uncanny: “The Scar” by Ramsey Campbell

Alone with the Horrors: The Great Short Fiction of Ramsey Campbell

The double motif is a mainstay of horror fiction. The classic double story is Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson” (1839), whose eponymous character is repeatedly bedevilled by a double who shares the same name, gait, and face, but who speaks only in a whisper. The double, who reveals his namesake cheating at cards and prevents him from moving on an unwilling woman, has been read as the narrator’s conscience (critics have noted the proximity of “will’s son” in the name, which the story’s narrator adopts as a pseudonym). But the uncanny nature of the shadowy double figure is irrefutable and has resulted in a long line of imitators and homages in the almost two centuries since its most emblematic appearance.

Poe did not, of course, originate the notion of the double, which has roots in classical mythology and bears an affinity to the German doppelgägner (literally, “double walker”), a concept that appears at the opening of British horror master Ramsey Campbell’s classic 1967 story “The Scar”:

“Most odd,” said Lindsay. “Rather upsetting, in fact. It reminded me, the Germans – now was it the Germans? Yes, I think it was the Germans – used to have this thing about doppelgägners, the idea being that if you saw your double it meant you were going to die.”

Lindsay is upset because he believes he has seen his brother-in-law Jack’s doppelgänger on a city bus, a figure alike in all respects except one: the double has a jagged scar running from temple to jaw on one side of his face.

It is common to point to the influence of Lovecraft on Campbell’s work, but the author owes as much of a debt to Poe – in addition to the subject matter of ”The Scar,” his opening paragraphs, which start in medias res, evoke the 19th century American writer’s principle of single effect in tales of fear or the uncanny. In the case of ”The Scar,” the effect Campbell is desirous of producing is one of encroaching terror that grows ever more claustrophobic; his presentation from the start tends, as Poe insisted, to produce this mood in its details and execution. Most obviously in the uncanny nature of a person’s physical doppelgänger, and also via the anonymous figure’s facial disfigurement, which without need for specificity immediately implies some violent incident or encounter. The general mood of discontent among the family members – Jack, Lindsay, and Lindsay’s sister, Harriet, who is Jack’s wife – intensifies this effect.

It becomes apparent in short order that Jack does not like Lindsay, who is socially awkward and obsequious to the point of being pitiful. The distinctions quickly become apparent: Jack and Harriet, along with their two children, live an upper-middle-class existence with pastel-lined wallpaper and “[a]rmchairs, television, bookcase full of Penguins and book-club editions and Shorrock’s Valuer’s Manual.” Lindsay, by contrast, lives on the bad side of town, down a fog-shrouded lane in a cramped abode with cobwebs, a clock with an ”amputated” arm, and a dripping tap, where he prepares beans in a saucepan.

Jack is a snob: he reads Graham Greene but turns his nose up at Tolkien and rebuffs Lindsay’s offer to lend him an adventure story featuring two characters who plummet off a cliff (which bears some resemblance to Arthur Conan Doyle’s story collection His Last Bow). So hurt is Lindsay to have his gift rejected that he leaves Jack’s house and tosses the volume in the trash.

Campbell’s story works by playing up the antagonistic relationship between Lindsay, whose driving motivation is to do something – anything – to appear worthy in Jack’s eyes, and his haughty brother-in-law. When Jack is set upon en route to meet Lindsay, his assailant cuts a scar down his cheek that resembles exactly that of the man Lindsay spied on the bus. It becomes increasingly clear that Lindsay’s heroic act will involve an attempt to rescue his sister and her children from her husband, who becomes increasingly malevolent and violent in the wake of the attack.

If Poe’s doubles represent a man and his conscience, Campbell inverts the relationship by making Jack’s double his ravenous id, the Hyde to Jack’s socially acceptable Jekyll. Campbell’s story also critiques the social veneer of supposedly reputable society. When Lindsay hears his niece and nephew screaming, one of Jack’s neigbours suggests that it is about time the father instilled some discipline in his children: “One thing wrong with Rossiter – he was too soft with those kids, and I’m glad he seems to have learned some sense.” In Lindsay’s noble efforts to save Harriet and her children from the ever-more-monstrous Jack, Campbell also includes in his story a submerged critique of the British class system.

The exact relationship between Jack and his doppelgänger is not apparent until the final paragraphs of the story, in which Lindsay tracks the shadowy figure back to his lair and makes a horrific discovery. True to Poe’s principle of single effect, the creeping unease of the first paragraphs are fulfilled in the story’s close, which cracks open the horror that has been hinted at and suggested through the course of the tale. ”The Scar” is not the kind of comforting horror story that has a monstrous intruder disrupt the established order only to have the monster vanquished and order restored. Campbell’s story is much richer: steeped in the psychology of the uncanny, it offers no succour in its final moments, only the final realization of the dread that has persisted from the opening lines.

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