Adam Raised a Cain

The Seven Days of Cain by Ramsey Campbell (2010): Young Liverpool couple Andy Bentley and Claire are struggling to conceive a child. Andy works at his father and mother’s photography studio; Claire works for a government-sponsored charitable organization that tries to provide homes and job training for the homeless. Things seem to be going OK, despite the fact that doctors can’t figure out why Claire can’t conceive.
Elsewhere, someone has murdered a playwright with the somewhat goofy name of Penny Scrivener in New York. One of Barcelona’s “living statues” has been murdered in Barcelona; her name was Serena Paz. Soon thereafter, Andy begins getting emails about something he did in the past, apparently something awful, from an unknown sender with a flair for puzzles and word games. An old schoolmate of Claire’s shows up outside her workplace, homeless, and very odd. A self-important writer shows up at Andy’s studio, looking to get memorable photographs of himself, eventually offering Andy a chance for mainstream publication of his photos.

After 150 pages, one may think one knows where this novel is heading, but one really doesn’t.

On the beach near Claire and Andy’s house, the (real), and really odd Liverpudlian metal statues of the same figure repeated dozens of times, staring out to sea, sometimes seem to have one less member, or perhaps one more. On the horizon, giant windmills tilt at the sky, always intruding into Claire and Andy’s perceptions of that environment.

Campbell’s novels have often tugged and pulled at the nature of reality, perhaps most notably and successfully in Incarnate and The Grin of the Dark. Well, he’s back at reality again, in a novel that functions as a sequel of sorts — or perhaps more accurately a shared-universe tale — as related to a previous but recent novel and a 40-year-old short story that turned out to have a concept within it that adapted well to the Age of Internet. Naming that novel and that short story would reveal too much, too soon of the novel’s clever shift midway through, and knowledge of the two isn’t necessary to enjoying The Seven Days of Cain, though that knowledge does add to the enjoyment — and the level of existential disturbance.

The Seven Days of Cain supplies a lot of Campbell’s trademarked description, both vivid and intensely allusive, that can sometimes make a story seem disturbingly dream-like, as background and midground and foreground collapse into one (the story does feature a photographer as a protagonist, after all). No one will be punished for anything resembling a “real” crime here, but punishment — or judgement — is coming nonetheless. Why and for whom? Read the emails carefully. Don’t stand too long on the beach. Don’t check your spam box too often. Highly recommended.

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