Ramsey Campbell , Probably
David Allkins ventures into the vault of Ramsey Campbell’s writing on himself, his work, and other books and creators going back to 1980s Britain...
The first Ramsey Campbell book I read was Ancient Images (1989) at age twelve, which I found creepy enough to encourage me to seek out other works. From there, my collection of his work built up from trips to various conventions (such as Eastercon and Fantasycon), library sales, and second-hand bookshops. I admit there’s little unity of format here, but I’m more interested in getting the text than in how it is packaged. Ramsey Campbell has moved through various publishers over the years, but his work is always rewarding, shows a willingness to experiment, and has kept me reading.
Ramsey Campbell, Probably is a collection of Campbell’s writing on horror films and fiction, writers and writing, and his own life experiences. It’s made up of various articles, reviews, autobiographical pieces, forewords and afterwords. Previously published in 2002 (also by PS Publishing), Campbell has since gone back to revise and expand the material. One drawback of this is that the collection can feel loose in its organisation, with some articles being noticeably difficult to categorise.
The span of the material stretches from the 1980s to 2002, so in many aspects, it feels like a document of those times – although, as Campbell points out, when studying a genre you should be aware of its history. Admittedly, I’m old enough to have lived through most of this, so I usually got the references.
For instance, there’s a piece on the way that the film Child’s Play 3 (USA, Jack Bender, 1991) was accused by tabloid newspapers in 1993 of leading to the tragic murder of James Bulger by two other boys. This was encapsulated by the Sun’s front page: Child’s Play 3 in flames, with the headline ‘For the sake of all our kids, Burn Your Video Nasty’. I realise that to younger readers – who’ve grown up with the last four films in the franchise – the idea that this one was up there with the same reputation for moral depravity as Cannibal Holocaust (Italy, Ruggero Deodato, 1980) might seem strange. But this is an example of how a handful of newspapers can dictate popular reaction. Campbell’s look at the film, and that reaction, is predictably more intelligent than the hysteria. Indeed, there turned out to be no evidence that the murderers had seen Child’s Play 3.
Another example of those censor-ridden times is Campbell’s account of being at an open meeting of the Viewers and Listeners Association, with Mary Whitehouse – a figure that younger people should be grateful that they don’t have to hear about anymore – complaining that the world ‘went wrong’ since the 1960s. Campbell’s account of this meeting shows how censorship is often more about establishing reactionary politics than actual protection of the vulnerable. Of course, this was an audience where a teenage girl asked: ‘What they could do about blasphemy and sexuality in children’s programmes such as He-man’ (!)
Campbell makes a case for looking outside of the traditional boundaries of the horror genre, with a look at crime fiction authors including Cornell Woolrich, Jim Thompson, and John Dickson Carr. Taxi Driver (USA, Martin Scorsese, 1976) and Eraserhead (USA, David Lynch, 1977) also appear in his list of ten favourite horror films.
He can also be entertainingly scathing in book reviews. There is The Highgate Vampire (Sean Manchester, 1985/1991 editions), an account of alleged supernatural sightings in the 1970s, that appears to take place in an alternative reality where people behave as if they are in a nineteenth-century gothic novel. Campbell also covers The Hounds of Horror (S. Hudson, 1985), which has an Alsatian licking the blood from an owner’s nosebleed, turning savage, and inspiring other dogs to form a massive pack for general rampaging. The UK government’s response is apparently to send for a group of USA and Canadian wolf hunters. Really.
The book also includes a large range of pieces about different writers; both personal and social memories, and examinations of their works. These range from less recognisable names (such as Terry Lamsey) to more familiar ones such as James Herbert and H. P. Lovecraft.
For me, however, the most interesting parts of this collection are the ones where Campbell writes about his life, including his experience of dealing with his mother’s mental illness, and his own early works, starting with his Lovecraft-styled anthology The Inhabitant of the Lake (1964) and his first novel The Doll That Ate His Mother (1976).
Campbell is one of those creative people who are honest when they think something hasn’t worked, such as when he talks about his second novel The Parasite (1980):
‘The book tries to pack in too much, and for every tightly written scene there’s an underdeveloped and/or overwritten one, not least because I’d made the elementary mistake of having all the supernatural events befall only one character: as the menace of which she’s aware escalates, there’s nowhere to go but into her mounting terror, which is to say into overwriting, some of it unduly exploitative’.
It’s this honesty about his own work that makes Campbell’s commentary worth reading. He has a lot of worthwhile observations on technique and inspiration, and his enthusiasm for horror is rooted in enjoyment of the genre and the possibilities that it offers to tell us about ourselves and the world that we live in. Ramsey Campbell, Probably might be easier to get into if you have some familiarity with horror, but it still provides important observations on the genre, and new starting points for readers to consider.
Ramsey Campbell, Probably is available via PS Publishing