The Literati Continue - The Contemporary Era - Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

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

The Literati Continue
The Contemporary Era
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

The nearly total silence of T. E. D. Klein (since the mid-1980s) and Thomas Ligotti (since the early 2000s) has been an immense loss to literate weird fiction; but the continued productivity of Ramsey Campbell has not only elevated him to the pinnacle of the field, but has enriched the genre with a substantial body of both novels and short stories.

Campbell’s novelistic output over the past twenty years divides fairly evenly into supernatural and non-supernatural horror, and in both modes he has engendered some highly memorable products. In the former realm, we should pause over the rich and vibrant novel The Long Lost (1993), which manipulates the Celtic notion of the sin-eater to great effect. The sin-eater in question is an elderly woman named Gwendolen Owain, a figure both horrifying and pitiable as she seeks to shed herself of the sins she has accumulated from a lifetime (or more than a lifetime) of her unenviable occupation—the eating of the sins of the dead. When a group of individuals eats the cookies she has made, endowed with these sins, the result is both appalling and tragic.

Campbell has secularised the notion of the sin-eater; for the “sins” these individuals have absorbed is, in effect, merely an augmentation of the character flaws with which they were already endowed. Hence, one character is unhealthily attracted to the teenage daughter of a friend; another kidnaps a friend’s infant son, since she believes the child is being ill-treated; and so on. The worst fate is reserved for Richard Vale, his wife, and their adolescent children: increasingly depressed by his inability to support his family, Richard resolves to kill them all. In one of the most harrowing tableaux in the whole of Campbell’s work, the Vales spend what seems to be a perfect day by the river while Richard secretly ponders, and then executes, his plan.

In The Long Lost the supernatural has been reduced almost to the vanishing point; but it surfaces subtly in the unnatural longevity of Gwendolen and in the seemingly irrational actions taken by the characters who have absorbed her sins. Every one of the characters in the novel is vividly and vitally realised, most notably Gwendolen herself: she is a tenuous, inscrutable, almost intangible presence, as ghostly in her psychology as her pale white skin makes her look in appearance. Her utterances are, in almost every single instance, double entendres, seeming to answer some innocent question but in reality reinforcing the heavy burden of her ancient occupation.

An even greater triumph is The House on Nazareth Hill (1996), which in my estimation ranks as the finest haunted house story ever written, Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House not excluded. Here we are introduced to Oswald Priestley and his teenage daughter Amy, who move into a new apartment building named Nazarill (short for Nazareth Hill). The structure has been refurbished after it served as a series of offices in the nineteenth century. A variety of odd events occur, chiefly focusing on the increasingly tortured relationship of Amy and her father, who appears to be behaving almost like a jailor. The difficulties of raising a teenage daughter alone (Amy’s mother had died years before in an auto accident) are keenly etched by Campbell.

The novel takes a definite turn into the supernatural when Amy discovers that Nazarill had in fact served, in the eighteenth century, as an asylum where numerous women branded as witches were interred. Can this explain the hideous spectre that Amy sees?

The grey wispy coating of the skull was certainly not hair. The figure still had some of a face, or had somehow reconstructed parts of one, which looked in danger of coming away from the bones, as the scraps of the chest were peeling away from the ribs to expose the withered heart and lungs, which jerked as though in a final spasm as Amy’s gaze lit on them. (287)

The relation between Oswald and Amy deteriorates to the point where Oswald locks Amy into her room. Even this is not the worst; for, in one of the most vicious scenes in Campbell’s work, Oswald at one point rushes in and cuts off Amy’s tongue. In an almost dreamlike conclusion, we learn that both father and daughter have perished in a fire that overwhelms the structure.

Oswald has manifestly become possessed by the spirit of the jailors of the old asylum, while Amy has seen the ghosts of several of the “witches” confined there. What is remarkable about The House on Nazareth Hill is that, although a sizeable work, it features only two main characters—Oswald and Amy. Their tormented relationship is nearly the entire focus of the novel, and the supernatural component only augments the searing agony of their ultimate demise.

The Darkest Part of the Woods (2002) finds Campbell returning, after a fashion, to his Lovecraftian roots; for the novel is a subtle elaboration on Lovecraft’s The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. But it is far more than an exercise in pastiche, or even an exercise in shudder-coining. Campbell, at the height of his form in fluidity of prose, sensitivity in character depiction, and mastery of narrative pacing, has produced a novel that continuously and lovingly shapes his characters as on a potter’s wheel; every statement, every gesture, even every moment of silence contributes to the etching of each distinctive personality. At the same time, the evocation of the terrors of the natural landscape, and the horrors that can emerge from the centuried past, supply a backdrop of cosmic fear against which the characters appear to struggle in vain.

The Overnight (2004) is engaging as it reflects Campbell’s brief employment at a Borders bookstore in Cheshire Oaks. There is perhaps no profound message in this tale of bizarre happenings in a bookstore, Texts, in a shopping plaza in the Manchester/Liverpool area, but some of the effects are striking: A constant and ever-thickening fog seems to hover around the retail park; computers develop minds of their own, failing to correct typographical errors even after repeated proofreading; elevators malfunction; books continually seem to get misshelved; and, most disturbing of all, small grey animate objects are half glimpsed skulking around shelves, in the stockroom, or in the workers’ staffroom. What could be the cause of these manifestations?

It is here that The Overnight might perhaps be criticised for excessive reticence. Campbell does not wish to spell out the matter in an obvious way, but the hints that are sprinkled throughout the narrative—hints based upon the sinister history of the region as a focal point of violence and death for centuries or millennia—seem just a trifle too vague and imprecise to account for the horrors on display. It also takes a pretty large leap of faith to assume that such age-old horrors could have the wherewithal to affect the most sophisticated paraphernalia of modern life, from computers to electronic elevators to the very essence of contemporary published books, whose text and illustrations hideously melt into an amorphous mass before one horrified worker’s eyes.

Campbell’s non-supernatural novels of this period are no less impressive; indeed, the grimness of some of them evokes The Face That Must Die, which many readers continue to find almost too depressing to read. The One Safe Place (1995) is a magnificent etching of the troubled relationship between the middle and lower classes in England, with its potential for hideous violence. The Last Voice They Hear (1998) and Silent Children (1999) brutally but elegantly relate the horrific effects of child abuse. Perhaps the most notable novel of this type is Secret Stories (2005), a cheerless portrayal of a young man, Dudley Smith, who hopes to be a crime writer—but can only do so by actually committing the crimes that he subsequently writes about. The manner in which he kidnaps and brutalises Patricia Martingale, who works on a magazine that was to have published some of Smith’s work, makes for painful reading; but Campbell’s skill and sensitivity raise this whole subject to a level far beyond cheap titillation.

Campbell’s recent work in the short story and novelette should not be passed over in silence. In such collections as Ghosts and Grisly Things (1998), Told by the Dead (2002), and Inconsequential Tales (2007), he shows how he continues his mastery of the short story while at the same time expanding his own aesthetic horizons by incorporating new subject matter and new manners in which to tell his always compelling narratives.

One of his greatest successes is the novelette “The Word” (1993). Aside from being a devastating send-up of the dreariness of science fiction and fantasy conventions, this tale grimly depicts the gradual psychological decline of an embittered critic, Jeremy Bates, who can scarcely conceal either his scorn or his envy of the sudden popularity of a hack science fiction writer, Jess Kray, who achieves immense notoriety with a possibly blasphemous book called The Word. It is no accident that Kray’s name brings Jesus Christ to mind, nor that Bates writes a letter signed Jude Carrot (Judas Iscariot). Bates’s murder of Kray on a television talk show seems all but inevitable.

Several recent stories show that Campbell can absorb new developments in technology to augment the horror of his scenarios. “Going Under” (1995) focuses on a man’s desperate effort to secure a working cellphone to contact his estranged lover while running in a charity race through a dark tunnel. “The Alternative” (1994), in which a prosperous man is haunted by a recurring dream that he and his family are living in a slum, not only hints at the shuddering guilt felt by many of the middle class at the existence of grinding poverty, especially in cities where the propinquity of rich and poor makes it all too evident, but reveals how sterile life can be to many modern-day denizens without such seeming necessities as a television or a computer.

I have left myself little room to discuss the current work of other of the literati. Dan Simmons wrote a very long novel, The Terror (2007), that suggests the weird, but it is largely a painstakingly realistic novel about the Antarctic expedition of Sir John Franklin, which ended in tragedy and death in the 1840s. At random moments the members of the expedition are pursued by an apparently supernatural monster—ultimately revealed as an Eskimo demon—but it does not figure greatly in the narrative.

Thomas Tessier’s Fogheart (1997) is a compelling novel in which séances reveal dark secrets both of the past and the future. Wicked Things (2007) is less successful—a clumsy attempt to combine hard-boiled detection with small-town horror. Tessier did, however, publish a notable short story collection, Ghost Music and Other Tales (2000), as did Dennis Etchison in the piquantly titled Got to Kill Them All (2007).