Holes for Faces
by Robert Welbourn
Ramsey Campbell is somewhat of an institution when it comes to British horror writing. He’s been putting pen to paper for half a century, and shows no signs of slowing down. I’ve read and reviewed several of Campbell’s works, so I know he knows what he’s about. Holes for Faces is Campbell’s latest book, a collection of short stories designed to terrify and horrify. And they very much do.
There are 14 stories in Holes for Faces, and as with any collection of stories from any writer, their quality varies. One thing that is consistent with Campbell’s writing, however, and one of the main things I love about his work, is that he isn’t afraid to experiment. And not just with ideas and themes, but with language too. Campbell clearly mastered the English language a long time ago (well before I was born!) and, as such, has no fear when it comes to playing with semantics, with grammar, with existing rules around word order and with wordplay. It doesn’t always come off; sometimes his writing can be difficult to follow, and on very rare occasions it’s so vague as to be frustrating, but these are only minor notes. In general, his writing is excellent. And like any other kind of experiment, even when he doesn’t quite pull it off, it’s still enjoyable because you know you’re seeing something new, something novel, and you appreciate the effort, even if he doesn’t 100% stick the landing.
My favourite story in Holes is one called ‘The Rounds’, which concerns a man riding the underground, who sees a woman leave behind a briefcase. The man catches up with her, and returns it to her, only to see her leave it again. This continues back and forth, with the tension building with each subsequent rotation of the merry-go-round. What I loved about the story is that we see it from the man’s point of view, so we only get his version of events; and we don’t know if we can trust what he’s saying to us. He’s a sufficiently unreliable narrator, his judgement clouded by caution and fear, that we can only take what he’s telling us with a pinch of salt. The majority of the story is spent wondering if anything at all is actually happening, or if he’s just actually insane. In this respect it reminded me of the novel Rosemary’s Baby, and I couldn’t mean that as a bigger compliment.
Another story that particularly caught my eye was ‘Holding the Light’. This follows two old women who visit the house of their long deceased grandparents. One of the main themes of the story is stillborn babies; they’re the holders of the light, and the story revolves around what happens to them once they’re stillborn. It’s an exploration of grief and loss, mingled with fear, and Campbell writes it with tact: at no point does he make light of such a painful issue. It’s fascinating as we follow the main characters, watching them explore the house, watching their fear grow.
The final story in the collection, ‘The Long Way’, ends the book perfectly. Going back to what I was saying earlier about Campbell and his love for experimentation, this story showcases another way he likes to play with form. Traditionally, Gothic works of literature focus around a specific place: think Dracula’s castle in Dracula, or imagine one of the billion books about haunted houses, hotels, mansions, etc. What Campbell does in this story in particular, and the collection as a whole, is focus less on the Gothic in terms of a haunted building, but on something much closer to home. Campbell almost asks us a question; what if there’s something wrong with our own faces? What if our eyes aren’t where they’re meant to be, or aren’t working as they should?
In some ways, it’s an evolution on the idea of a Gothic place; people who live in a haunted house are being terrorised in the place they should feel most safe, that is to say their home. Campbell takes it one step further and asks: what if it wasn’t the place in which we live that’s haunted, what if it’s the very body we inhabit? It works excellently to take us out of our comfort zone, and make the familiar seem unfamiliar and sinister. This is another of the key tenets of Gothic horror, and Campbell evolves it with aplomb.
As I say, a few of the stories I couldn’t get to grips with. ‘Peep’ is about a ghastly game of peek-a-boo; ‘The Room Beyond’ is more classic Gothic horror, focusing on a mysterious room within a building; ‘The Address’ is about a man lost in a forest, who comes across a strange school in which it’s permanently sports day, however it’s the teachers competing, and if they don’t perform, terrible things happen to them. These stories are not bad, not by a long shot. They’re more than enough to keep a person reading, and make more than worthy stories to fill out the book, sandwiched between the truly exceptional ones.
This is definitely a collection worth picking up and reading. If you know British horror, then Ramsey Campbell won’t be a new name for you, and if you’re read his other works, you know what to expect. That is: excellent writing, excellent experimentation – neither with a 100% hit rate, but high enough to keep you coming back for more.
Click the image below to buy a copy of Holes for Faces.