Ramsey Campbell: Horrors of the City - The Boom: The Literati - Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

Ramsey Campbell: Horrors of the City
The Boom: The Literati
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

British author Ramsey Campbell (b. 1946) is the leading weird writer since Lovecraft and can rank with Poe, Lovecraft, Blackwood, and Dunsany as among the greatest weird writers in all literary history. This high acclaim is, at the moment, perhaps not widely shared in the horror community, much less the literary culture at large, but both the breadth of Campbell’s achievement—more than twenty novels and hundreds of short stories written over the past five decades—and the remarkably high and consistent level of quality that his work displays have given him an unassailable position in the field, and it is only a matter of time before recognition of that fact becomes universal.

Campbell began writing at an extraordinarily early age, and by the age of fifteen he was submitting stories to August Derleth of Arkham House. Derleth, initially unaware of Campbell’s youth, accepted a collection of Lovecraftian stories, The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants (1964), while lending significant assistance to Campbell in the basic craft of writing. In particular, he suggested that Campbell devise his own British variant of Lovecraft’s “Arkham country,” and Campbell promptly did so, establishing the cities of Severnford, Brichester, and others in the Severn Valley. These early stories exhibit few of the qualities of Campbell’s later work, but they are at least written with a verve and enthusiasm lacking in most “Cthulhu Mythos” pastiches written up to that time, including those by Derleth himself.

Very shortly after completing these tales, Campbell initiated a much more serious and original phase of fiction writing, and over the next several years his unceasing toil culminated in the assemblage of another collection, Demons by Daylight (1973). The volume was essentially completed as early as 1968, but Derleth’s poor health, leading to his death in 1971, delayed the volume’s appearance from Arkham House for several years. It is no exaggeration to say that this volume almost singlehandedly ushered in the contemporary mode of serious weird writing—a mode that fused fluid, evocative prose, provocative sexual situations (contrasting with the amusingly chaste writing that had dominated weird fiction since Poe’s day), innovative weird conceptions, depiction of complex interpersonal relationships, and bold modernity of setting and cultural reference. With this one volume, weird fiction became a serious competitor with mainstream fiction for the depths of human emotion it explored.

But Campbell was not content with this book; he continued to produce collection after collection—The Height of the Scream (1976), Dark Companions (1982), Cold Print (1985), Scared Stiff (1986), Waking Nightmares (1991), and several others, culminating in the remarkable Alone with the Horrors: The Great Short Fiction of Ramsey Campbell 1961—1991 (1991), fittingly issued by Arkham House. In the mid-1970s, he began writing novels. While these are on the whole somewhat uneven—and Campbell has admitted that he is compelled to write them in order to continue making a living as a professional writer—several of them are ones we would not wish to be without, including The Face That Must Die (1979/1983), The Hungry Moon (1986), Midnight Sun (1990), and The Count of Eleven (1991).

Campbell’s apprenticeship in the Lovecraft idiom yielded surprisingly rich results only a few years after the appearance of his first book. Such a story as “Cold Print” [1966—67; dates placed in brackets in this section indicate date of composition, not date of publication], although set in Brichester, was manifestly based on Campbell’s native Liverpool. He had earlier devised his own addition to the groaning bookshelf of Lovecraftian “forbidden books,” The Revelations of Glaaki, but in this story he transforms the hackneyed idea by tying it to the world of violent pornography. Here, the seediness, grime, and slums of Liverpool—with their potential for explosive violence at every turn—are vividly etched as examples of urban decay very different from what Lovecraft did in, say, “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Even more powerfully, “The Franklyn Paragraphs” [1967], using Lovecraft’s “documentary style,” terrifyingly depicts a man, Roland Franklyn, whose soul is trapped within the pages of his own book of occult lore, with the result that his pleas for help appear on blank pages of the book.

Other stories in Demons by Daylight broach daring weird conceptions with a subtlety and indirection that render them, in the words of a later collection, waking nightmares. Here we have stories ranging from the non-supernatural “The Stocking”—where a man becomes sexually obsessed with a co-worker—to “The Second Staircase,” where the ambiguously named Carol (a man), beset with misogyny, finds to his horror that he has turned into a woman and is forced to undergo sex with the lascivious manager of a hotel. Perhaps the greatest tale of the collection is “Concussion” [1967], whose extraordinarily oblique narration has raised considerable controversy over what actually happens in it. In my estimation, the most plausible reconstruction is that a woman, Anne, has hit her head during an accident on a bus; in the week that she is in hospital recovering from a concussion, she goes back in time fifty years and has a bittersweet romance with a young man, Kirk. In the present day (which is actually fifty years in the future), the now aged Kirk meets the still-young Anne on the bus. This crude synopsis cannot begin to convey the exquisite delicacy of treatment that renders this tale both terrifying and poignant.

Campbell is the poet of urban squalor and despair. From as early as “The Scar” [1967], a grimly atmospheric tale in which a middle-class man is insidiously replaced by a lower-class double who bears a scar on his face, to “Litter” [1972], where garbage blown about by the wind in an outdoor market is the focus of terror, Campbell is capable of infusing the commonest elements of urban life with clutching fear. In the short story, the capstone of his achievement is “Mackintosh Willy” [1977], one of the most frightening tales in contemporary fiction, telling of a derelict who terrorises a group of boys both in life and in death. Intermingled with the purely supernatural component of the story is the sensitive account of the teenage narrator’s slow maturation as he relates to his friends and parents, has his first girlfriend, and goes through the other customary stages leading from adolescence to adulthood.

“The Depths” [1978] provides a kind of philosophical justification for Campbell’s tales of urban horror. Here a writer finds that if he does not write about the horrific nightmares that plague him, the events of those nightmares begin playing themselves out in real life. The writer serves as a kind of focus for the collective repression of a society that would prefer to ignore the very existence of crime and its sources.

In the novel, Campbell’s supreme epitome of urban horror is the non-supernatural novel The Face That Must Die, which was published in a truncated edition in 1979 and then in a complete edition in 1983. That latter edition also contained an illuminating introduction in which Campbell made the disturbing confession that the central figure of the novel, John Horridge, was based on his own mother, who, following her separation from her husband, became increasingly paranoid and was finally institutionalised. Horridge is a classic paranoiac, full of hatred toward homosexuals and women, ashamed of the childhood injury that causes him to walk with a limp and places him on the dole, and perennially blaming others for his own failings and misfortunes. He would be a harmless enough individual if he did not become convinced that a man he sees on a bus is a murderer whose sketch he has seen in the newspaper. He tracks down the man (who is gay) and brutally kills him. This is only the beginning of Horridge’s crimes, and they culminate with his kidnapping of a young married couple; they manage to escape him and apparently send him tumbling down a quarry, but an epilogue informs us that he is still very much alive.

The Face That Must Die is an almost unbearably dismal and cheerless novel, but its psychological account of its central figure is razor-sharp and the suspense and terror it generates from Horridge’s increasing insanity make it one of the most powerful works of non-supernatural horror ever written. Campbell wrote a bizarre pendant to this novel more than a decade later in The Count of Eleven, which is nothing less than a comic serial killer novel. Here a man named Jack Orchard, trying to help his family survive in the face of various economic and other setbacks, becomes obsessed by a complex number-mysticism, focusing either on the number eleven or on the number thirteen, with the result that he gradually begins killing people who seem to get in his way. The gradual manner in which the novel metamorphoses from a kind of Three Stooges buffoonery to grim murder is remarkable; even more remarkable is that readers remain grudgingly sympathetic to Jack even as he descends to killing, because of his manifest love for his family and his increasingly frantic attempts to aid them.

Throughout his career, Campbell has revivified many of the seemingly stale tropes of supernatural fiction, lending them new vigour by distinctive treatment. Whether it be werewolves in “Night Beat” [1971] or “The Change” [1976], the Frankenstein monster in “A New Life” [1076], the zombie in “Rising Generation” [1974], or voodoo in “Missing” [1973] or “Dolls” [1974], standard motifs gain new life in Campbell’s work.

The motif of psychic possession is the subject of Campbell’s weak first novel, The Doll Who Ate His Mother (1975), but is treated in a much more provocative manner in other novels. The Parasite (1980; To Wake the Dead in the UK) is, by Campbell’s own admission, a novel written in an attempt to capitalise on the burgeoning popular interest in the horror novel, and as such it features readily identifiable characters, a fast-moving plot, and a spectacular dénouement—elements that detract from its aesthetic status, but make it an enjoyable read. The crux of the novel is the discovery that Rose Tierney—who suffered a traumatic incident, told in a harrowing prologue, in which as a little girl she was attacked by some nameless entity—is possessed by the spirit of Peter Grace, an occultist who believed he could attain immortality by transferring his spirit into another body, perhaps that of a baby. Implausible as some elements of the plot may be, The Parasite is far more than a shilling shocker in its vivid characterisation and smooth-flowing prose.

Still more effective is The Influence (1988), in which an elderly woman named Queenie is so fiercely tenacious of life that her soul, prior to her death, enters the body of her grand-niece, Rowan, after initially occupying the body of a little girl named Vicky (i.e., Victoria). In one of the most hallucinatory passages in all Campbell’s work, Rowan’s soul must trudge from a cemetery back to her home many miles away—a task that seems to take hours or days or months. In essence, The Influence uses the psychic possession trope to convey Rowan’s pitiable helplessness as she is exiled from her body and must wander about as a disembodied spirit.

The dream theme is also extensively used by Campbell in both the Demons by Daylight stories and in later works. His distinctively allusive style renders the distinction between reality on the one hand and dream, nightmare, hallucination, or madness on the other hand tenuous at best. His most exhaustive treatment of the theme is the long novel Incarnate, which can stand as one of the imaginative pinnacles of contemporary supernatural literature. This immensely complex novel focuses on an experiment on dreams conducted in Oxford in which five individuals, all of whom have confessed to having dim precognitive faculties, once participated. Years later, each of these characters still seems to be suffering from the traumatic effects of the experiment; and the result is an extraordinary tapestry of narration in which the lives of the five individuals become insidiously intermingled. The novel ultimately centres on Molly Wolfe, an employee of a television station who is astounded to discover that, after she is apparently beaten up by a policeman and his assistant, the whole incident was a dream. Whereas in other works Campbell narrates actual incidents with the cloudy delicacy of a dream, this dream-incident is told with the pitiless clarity of a documentary.

Molly ultimately realises what is happening: “The dreams are getting stronger. My dreams and everyone else’s. We’ve allowed them to grow stronger by trying to explain them away, don’t you understand?” (424). Ultimately re-establishing contact with the other dreamers, Molly discovers that each of them has been plagued in some mysterious fashion by various incarnations of a figure named Sage, who appears to wish to control their dream-life. In a conclusion unlike anything in supernatural fiction, the five dreamers find that London is being replaced by a dream of their own making, and the reality of the world is saved only by Molly’s realisation that she must simply renounce the dream so that the real world can return. In Incarnate, the complexity of the plot, the intricate interweaving of narratives and narrative voices, the suppleness and richness of the prose, and the harrowing nature of the central horror all fuse into one of the finest weird novels of its period. Perhaps our only reservation concerns the figure of Sage, since it is never entirely clarified why he is seeking to gain possession of dreams or what he hopes to accomplish if and when he does so.

The bizarre novella Needing Ghosts (1990) can be studied here. The plot of this tale is almost impossible to describe, since we can never be certain whether any of the incidents related in it are actually occurring or are merely the hallucinatory fantasies of its protagonist, a man named Simon Mottershead. Simon appears to awaken in a strange house suffering from amnesia, and in the course of his peregrinations around an unnamed city he discovers that he is a writer. Along the way he encounters a bald man with whom he has some bizarre encounters, as well as a wife, son, and daughter who, he suddenly remembers, live in a house nearby and whom he finds killed in a strange manner: books are lying across their throats with knives impaling them. If any sense can be made of this surreal novella, it may be that Mottershead has fallen into his own fictional universe. This is only one of several possible reconstructions of the tale, but however one elucidates it, it is a masterwork that sits nebulously on the borderline of horror, fantasy, and the supernatural.

Campbell, in his intense focus on human relationships, rarely writes the cosmic horror of a Lovecraft, but in two novels he has made interesting contributions to the mode. The Hungry Moon takes us to the small town of Moonwell, evidently in the north of England, near Manchester, which is visited by Godwin Mann, an American evangelist who unwittingly releases an age-old entity in the course of his attempt to convert the locals to his brand of fundamentalist Christianity. This entity, living in a cave near the town, apparently comes from the moon, and it takes possession of Mann; more disturbing still, the entire town is swathed in darkness, and no one appears to be able to enter or leave the vicinity. This detail may perhaps have been derived from Hodgson’s The Night Land, but Campbell appears to be using the element as symbolic of the intellectual darkness of fundamentalism.

Midnight Sun is an avowed tribute to the “visionary” horror of Machen and Blackwood, and is one of Campbell’s great achievements—or would be if it were not for its problematical ending. In prose of the utmost fluidity and evocativeness, Campbell etches the increasing alienation from his family of Ben Sterling, a writer of children’s books who senses some great mystery in the immense forest surrounding his house. It appears that Ben is hearing the call of some mysterious ice-entity that inhabits the region, and gradually he makes efforts to loose the entity upon the world. In a scene that is quite literally chilling, Ben’s family finds the nearby town swathed in ice and all its inhabitants frozen to death. But suddenly Ben has a change of heart as he contemplates the icy death of his own family: “The only light he wanted to see now, too late, was the light in Ellen’s and the children’s eyes” (319). Shortly thereafter, however, he perceives the awesomeness of the force he is up against:

The world and the stars had been less than a dream, nothing more than a momentary lapse in its consciousness, and the metamorphosis which was reaching for the world was infinitesimal by its standards, simply a stirring in its sleep, a transient dream of the awful perfection which would overtake infinity when the presence beyond the darkness was fully awake. (323)

Nevertheless, Ben somehow manages to defeat or suppress the ice-entity by setting himself on fire. This conclusion does not, quite frankly, seem warranted by the overall thrust of the narrative, and in general it appears to be a concession to those of his readers (presumably the majority) who do not wish the human world to end. But in so doing, Campbell has seriously compromised the impressive cosmic scenario he has established.

At the opposite end of Campbell’s cosmic tales are those narratives that focus on children, emphasising their peculiar helplessness in an adult world they scarcely understand. The theme found powerful expression in so early a tale as “The Interloper” [1968], a gripping tale of school life in which two teenage boys are menaced by a teacher who manifests himself as a hideous, cobweb-covered monster. Perhaps also to be noticed here is “The Guy” [1968], a tale that fuses horror and pathos in its depiction of a Guy Fawkes’ Day celebration that goes awry. The focus of the story is the insurmountable class distinctions between two boys of different families.

Another masterwork in Campbell’s early work is “The Chimney” [1975], which proves to be nothing less than a horrific elaboration of Campbell’s own family situation. Upon the estrangement of Campbell’s parents, his father lived upstairs while Campbell and his mother lived downstairs; Campbell never saw his father except during Christmas, only hearing his father’s footsteps as he padded across the floor above. Campbell brilliantly encapsulates this emotionally painful scenario by portraying the terror of a small boy who has a vision of a charred Father Christmas coming down the chimney and is thereafter terrified of what might emerge from that orifice.

The novel The Claw (1983), initially published under the transparent pseudonym “Jay Ramsay,” focuses on Anna, the daughter of the writer Alan Knight and his wife, Liz. Alan has been persuaded by anthropologist David Marlowe to take an artifact—a ferocious-looking but beautifully crafted metal claw—back from Africa to England. It transpires that the claw has supernatural properties related to the African cult that fashioned it. The overall plot is a trifle pulpish, but the increasing brutalisation of Anna by her parents is powerfully handled.

Not to be overlooked is the novel Ancient Imges (1989), whose engaging premise—a “lost” film, Tower of Fear, starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, during the making of which an unusual number of the film crew suffered accidents or death—is a red herring for a plot that eventually focuses on an age-old curse on a region in rural England controlled by the aristocratic Redfield family. But it features one of the most piquant monsters in all Campbell’s work:

Its mottled limbs looked both lithe and horribly thin. Its torso had shrunk around its ribs, its greenish penis had withered like a dead root. Almost worse than all this, she recognized the face. Perhaps she was recognizing that the eyes, when it had had eyes, had been set so wide as to make the forehead seem lower than it was, but the vegetation that patched the skull had grown into a misshapen parody of the fact that had been there—the Redfield face. (288)

It is possible to speak at unending length about the short stories and novels of Ramsey Campbell, as they are inexhaustibly rich and rewarding. Every one of his tales, long or short, is moulded with impeccable craftsmanship, and every one of them suggests more than it states. Campbell never uses horror or the supernatural merely to shock or terrify; there is always an underlying symbolic or metaphorical message that speaks of his deep concern for the fragility of human beings in their complex relationships with one another, with their society, and with a universe they can scarcely comprehend. In the last twenty years Campbell has continued to write stellar work in the short story and the novel, and these works will be discussed in a subsequent chapter.