Campbell in 1980
Face is the story of the aptly-named Horridge, a nobody kind of fellow in a precisely-drawn Liverpool, whose growing paranoia is exacerbated by his obsession/revulsion with an overweight, effeminate older man who lives in his Liverpool neighborhood. After reading in the papers about a "man whose body was found in a Liverpool flat was a male prostitute" and studying the accompanying suspect police sketch, Horridge comes to realize "he had seen the killer three times now, in as many days. That was no coincidence. But what was he meant to do?" His conviction that random events are a secret code to him alone is unshakeable.
Horridge finds out the man's name is Roy Craig by searching through library records (and mildly creeping out library clerk Cathy Gardner, who with her long-haired boyfriend Peter actually lives in the same building as Craig), Horridge begins systematically stalking and harassing the man. Craig's homosexuality—Horridge is correct in his presumption—offends him to his core: "If he was a homosexual he was perverted enough for anything." Which of course means he will continue to kill, and must be stopped by any means necessary--actually he can be stopped by any means necessary, because Horridge is doing away with degenerates and doing society a favor.
Sometimes he thought the planners had faked those paths, to teach people to obey without questioning... the tunnel was treacherous with mud and litter; the walls were untidy webs of graffiti. All the overhead lights had been ripped out. He stumbled through, holding breath; the place smelled like an open sewer... A dread which he'd tried to suppress was creeping into his thoughts—that sometime, perhaps in fog, he would come home and be unable to distinguish his own flat.
Immersed in Horridge's psyche, the reader is also both fascinated and revolted by his thought processes as they cycle through mania and grandiosity, memories of a painful childhood, and his ever-present desire to clean up the filth (moral and literal) he sees growing everywhere around him. Every tiny detail, every sliver of dialogue, every simile, drips with an uneasy threat of everything about to fall apart, as if reality itself were trembling on the precipice of chaos. Campbell allows us a few views outside of Horridge's, but overall we feel as he does: threatened, maligned, powerless. Then he lashes out in anonymous—and unwittingly ironic—calls to Craig: "Just remember I'm never far away. You'd be surprised how close I am to you."
1st UK paperback, Star Books Dec 1979
There is one scene I must point out. Horridge goes to the cinema to see a film, but the only title that resonates is the one that contains the word "horror" ("Horror films took you out of yourself—they weren't too close to the truth"). Check it out:
Yes: Horridge inadvertently attends a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show! One of the funniest and most telling—and most deserved—moments I've ever read in a horror novel (AFAIC all homophobes should have Tim Curry's Dr. Furter shoved in their faces and, yes, down their throats).Was it supposed to be a musical? He'd been lured in under false pretenses. It began with a wedding, everyone breaking into song and dance. Then an engaged couple's car broke down: thunder, lightning, lashing rain, glimpses of an old dark house. Perhaps, after all—They were ushered to meet the mad scientist. Horridge gasped, appalled. The scientist's limp waved like snakes, his face moved blatantly. He was a homosexual.This was a horror film, all right--far too horrible, and in the wrong way.
Scream/Press hardcover, Oct 1983, art by J.K. Potter
Campbell keeps the story moving quickly as Horridge's fears grow and grow. He's a bit of a walking textbook of serial killer tics and tactics, but it's not just serial killers who display these attributes. His hatred of homosexuality (his hatred of any sexuality: at one point late in the novel, Cathy is running after him, trips and falls, and Horridge hopes the breasts she flaunts have burst); his belief that society is degrading more and more; his hatred of foreigners and anyone different, gay or not; the shades of his disappointed parents hovering about him—is this an indictment of Thatcher-era England? All I know about English culture I learned from '70s punk rock, but this sounds about right. Campbell is also wise to draw a parallel between Peter and Horridge, who are both aware of how out of step they are with modern society and the paranoid fantasies this engenders in them.
Futura UK reprint, 1990
Readers who enjoy the experience of being thrust into the killer's mind will enjoy Face; no, it's no American Psycho or Exquisite Corpse, it's not nearly so deranged or explicit, but for its time it's a brutal expose. A more accurate comparison could be made to Thomas Tessier's Rapture; both books are able to make their antagonist's irrationality seem rational, which is where the horror sets in. Despite a meandering chapter here and there, The Face That Must Die is an essential read for psychological horror fans. Many times Campbell hits notes that only now are we beginning to hear and understand about the minds of Horridge and his like. When Horridge finds one of Fanny's paintings is of himself, he slashes it apart with his beloved razorblade (see the Tor edition's cover, thanks to Jill Bauman); somewhere inside he knows, but can never admit, that the face that must die is only his own.