Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Building a Spooky Library - Ramsey Campbell

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There is a suitably nebulous region where supernatural fiction overlaps with horror. It's not always necessary for a supernatural tale to be horrific, but many of the best ones are. It is also possible for a supernatural tale to be the length of a novel, but this is uncommon - the best examples of the genre tend to be short stories. Of the modern masters of the supernatural story, Ramsey Campbell is undoubtedly one of the greats, if not the greatest.

Campbell's career as a writer is a remarkable success story, albeit one hedged about with the problems that beset the vast majority of authors. His first anthology of Lovecraftian Tales, The Inhabitant of the Lake, was published by the legendary Arkham House in 1964. Campbell was in his late teens at the time (he was born in 1946). This remarkable debut was followed by a second Arkham collection, Demons by Daylight, in 1973.

Demons by Daylight shows Campbell moving away from Lovecraftian pastiche (albeit with English settings) and finding his own unique voice, though the influences of other authors are still apparent. 'The End of a Summer's Day' is Aickmanesque and features in a section entitled 'Nightmares'. A lonely young woman goes into a cavern with a tour party, accompanied by her fiancé. The lights are extinguished for a moment, and when they come on again the man holding her hand is someone else entirely...

More traditional in conception, but oblique and hallucinatory in style, are 'The Old Horns', 'The Enchanted Fruit', 'The Guy', and 'The Sentinels'. The last story, in particular, shows Campbell taking an old idea and running with it. A group of young people go to a stone circle at night, keen to test the folk belief that it is impossible to count The Sentinels. Needless to say, Something resents their antics, but the way in which its presence slowly becomes apparent recalls the subtle methods of M.R. James, but filtered through one of Campbell's typical protagonists. Almost all his point-of-view characters as on the autistic spectrum - they are are frequently baffled by the motives of others and tend to stand outside any in-group.

While Campbell focused on writing horror novels from the mid-Seventies and also became a notable editor, he continued to produce an impressive number of first-rate shorts stories. Dark Companions (1982), is particularly impressive. It contains 'The Companion', one of the most memorable horror tales. Again it is very simple in conception - a lonely man, haunted by childhood fears, seeks out old funfairs for motives that are never entirely clear. In one run-down amusement park he makes the mistake of going on the ghost train, and encounters something far worse than any ghost. Stephen King praised this story highly in Danse Macabre, though Campbell himself called it 'clumsy and overwritten'.

Other notable tales in Dark Companions are 'Mackintosh Willy' (scary tramp remains scary after death), 'The Man in the Underpass' (children unwittingly conjure up pagan deity), and 'The Depths', in which a writer's visions of the worst possible horrors come true. Campbell has had a lot of fun with the horror genre over the years, inventing fictional authors and banned horror movies (he is a great film buff). But it must be said that his jests often leave a somewhat grisly aftertaste, even when the imagery is deliberately grotesque or absurd, as in 'Heading Home', which does indeed involve what you might suspect, and 'Calling Card', which takes a literal look at the old tradition of First Footing.

Overall, any collection of Campbell's stories would make a fine addition to a spooky library shelf. Alone With the Horrors (1993) is an excellent selection of his short fiction over four decades, though those of a more naughty disposition might care to seek out Scared Stiff: Tales of Sex and Death.

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James Everington said...

Ramsey Campbell is one of the greats. i probably wouldn't be writing (or writing very different stuff) if it wasn't for the chance buying of Dark Feasts (his 'best of' before Alone With The Horrors) in a secondhand shop in Cleathorpes when I was about 15. I read that book over and over again - it contains many of the stories you mention.

I'm currently reading his latest collection, Holes For Faces - he's still got it. He's up there with the greats for me.

Nice post. Liking this series...

lynda said...

Pleased to see "The Sentinels" here as I don't often hear people mention it, but it's one of my very favorite Campbell stories--one line in it is so strikingly creepy I have it memorized (I won't share it here and dilute its power!).

valdemar said...

Thanks James and Lynda. I'd be happy to publish contributions to this series by other hands, hint hint.

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