Unlike Childmare, Surrogate is an intimate affair, with only a few characters and smaller stakes. The prologue is a banger, with a defiant boy being locked in a cellar room with rats for disobeying his terrifying despotic father in their huge estate home. Next we meet 30-something Frank Tillson, that little boy now grown. He is a radio talk-show host and is raising his eight-year-old son Simon alone after the death of wife and mother Kathie. Frank is driving back to the family estate, which he has not visited in many years, after the death of his own mother. Summoned by long-time family caretaker Reece, Frank reluctantly goes to see the old man, now being ravaged by cancer and at death's door. The reason? Why, his father's riches, who is to inherit them? The thought of taking his father's money sickens Frank, but the old man has found a loophole: he will leave the fortune to Simon upon his 18th birthday. Frank thinks the man has gone senile, and flatly refuses to hear of this idea. "When you're gone there'll be no coming back," Frank responds (foreshadowing!). "What you've built dies with you. For God's sake don't try and involve the living."
Frank escapes into his work, where we meet his producer Eddie, a likeable, middle-aged man of slovenly appearance and hedonistic tendencies tempered by a solid work ethic. His assistant Angela, a timid woman that Frank holds in some contempt for her incompetence if not her sex (and the mystifying allure she holds for Eddie). Sella Masters, an American beauty, is a psychic guest on one of Frank's shows; Frank is amazed to learn she is sincere about it: "You can't believe all this psychic nonsense. We're all adults here you know. Level with us." She agrees to a demonstration of her sixth sense and, as any astute reader will expect, it turns out gut-wrenchingly horrible when she sees the car accident that killed Kathie as well as her funeral, and at the funeral an old man in black watching Simon...
Interrupting this scene of awkward horror there's a phone call for Frank: it's Reece. The old man is dead. One of the enjoyable aspects of the novel is the vintage manner in which everyone drinks and smokes after a shock or while debating supernatural phenomena, and that's just what happens now. And more mysterious events pile on: a spooky figure in some photographs (Frank's a cranky sort, thinks of complaining on his show about a shop that can't develop photos right); malfunctioning radio equipment that screeches in the voice of an angry old man; a wad of cash mailed to Simon; a terrible dinner with Eddie and Angela that leaves Angela screaming and saying she saw a corpse climbing out of the bath; all that sort of thing, all rendered in a staid, realistic style that's neither pulpy nor literary.
1981 New English Library ed with different doll,
not sure why, does Raggedy Andy not translate?
The climactic confrontation between father and son successfully brings together all that has come before, and doesn't overstay its welcome. We learn some horrible stuff about Frank's parents' relationship, the death of his mother, that sort of thing. The supernatural explanation seems the only rational one after Simon disappears, and Frank has to make a final trip to the family home he so despises. Some violence and gore, racy sex scene, not bad. The final pages is dark stuff, man. "What's worse than death, Sella?" he demanded again, fury building up inside him. "The boy's alive, Frank," he heard...
Sure, the reader will notice lapses in believability, like even though Frank is desperate to find his son, there are moments when he's like, "Oh he's probably back at the apartment" or something along those lines. These child-in-jeopardy plots don't work today; we can't really exploit them for suspense any longer since the reality is so unbearable. Dialogue, too, is creaky, the old amateur mistake of having every character say each other's names a dozen times in one conversation. The novel would've made a cracking good flick during its day, certainly not a classic, maybe in the style of adaptations of The Sentinel and The Manitou, with a virile British lead (Alan Bates? Albert Finney?) and maybe Jane Seymour or Jenny Agutter as Sella (doing a half-assed Yank accent). The novel is barely 250 pages, and even that's padded out some, but for a diverting vintage horror read, The Surrogate is a solid choice.
Frank then saw another narrower passage leading off to the left. The stench was thickening. It was almost tangible, as though the basement complex were his father's diseased insides and he [was] approaching nearer and nearer to the center of corruption.