Night of the Claw (aka The Claw) by Ramsey Campbell (writing as ‘Jay Ramsay’) (1983): Horror great Ramsey Campbell’s only pseudonymonous novel sees thriller novelist Alan Knight, his wife Liz and their daughter Anna threatened by a supernatural relic Alan was tricked into bringing back from a research trip to West Africa. This is the eponymous Claw of the Leopard Men, a real African secret society which committed ritual killings back in the 1940’s in Nigeria and Sierra Leone.
Marlowe (note the shout-out to Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”), an anthropologist investigating the origins of the cult, discovered the Claw — and was supernaturally infected by it. Passing it off to Knight doesn’t save Marlowe, however, and he commits suicide rather than kill his daughter. The Claw causes any post-adolescent who touches it to eventually kill children, preferably his or her own.
After a set-up back in England, where Alan grows increasingly angry at Anna, and an innocent who accidentally touched the Claw goes on an animal-killing spree, the narrative divides into two main threads. Alan returns to Africa where, with the help of Marlowe’s African contact, he’ll try to seek out both the cult and the means to end the curse. The Claw, stolen by a person or persons unknown, remains in England, somewhere in the seaside town in which the Knights live. The Claw’s malign influence begins infecting everyone around Knight, including his wife, and the novel becomes a race against time to save Anna from her increasingly bloodthirsty mother.
Campbell handles the African material quite sensitively under the circumstances. The Leopard Men Cult is viewed by normal African society as a horrifying aberration, one which Marlowe’s African contact Dr. Banjo (who himself has two daughters) is willing to do anything to eradicate. Banjo and Knight must figure out the rules of fetishistic magic in order to defeat the Claw’s power once and for all time.
The strength of the English narrative lies in Campbell’s realistic third-person evocation of the mindset of six-year-old Anna as first her father and the her mother start becoming monsters who seem to want to hurt her. Anna may be plucky, but she’s no unrealistic super-kid, and her helplessness in certain situations as the peril grows — and as no one outside the family offers much help — will be familiar to anyone who’s read about real-life child abuse.
This is horror about a fractured family dynamic, and while the African narrative could be more developed, the English portion of the narrative is top-notch psychological horror. It’s not one of Campbell’s great novels, but it has a lot of terrific scenes and a really strong and sad depiction of a family fragmenting into violence and attendant terror. Recommended.