The Companion & Other Phantasmagorical Stories
The Retrospective & Other Phantasmagorical Stories
Dan Carpenter looks at The Companion and The Retrospective, a career-spanning two-volume collection of Ramsey Campbell’s short stories...
In an interview with Locus, nearly twenty years ago, Ramsay Campbell outlined one of his own personal definitions of horror: ‘One of the points of doing horror is to make you (by which I also mean me) look again at things we’ve taken for granted. Certainly that includes morality.’ Characters in Campbell stories often take things for granted, whether social status, niceties, or that things are precisely as they appear on the surface. All too often, they find out how wrong they are – to their detriment. The setting could be Liverpool, the fictional Brichester, or any of Campbell’s grounded places, all of which are inherently British.
Now, PS Publishing has put together a two-volume collection, The Companion and The Retrospective, featuring a personal selection of Campbell’s best. The nearly seventy stories across these two volumes amount to over a thousand pages, and what’s most astonishing is that this doesn’t come close to summarising the career of one of the UK’s leading horror authors.
Campbell introduces the collections by discussing his route into writing. He was an early reader and writer, he explains, with poetry published in the Liverpool Echo when he was five, and a story collection completed at the age of twelve. One piece from that collection is reprinted here in all its grammatical quirkiness, and Campbell also provides some fascinating context for the majority of the other pieces. For such a large compilation, this introduction makes it feel almost cosy, even when the content of the stories is anything but.
And what stories they are. Reading both volumes, it becomes clear why Campbell is as revered as he is. Though the stories run the gamut of horror – from Lovecraftian rituals, through vampires and ghosts, to the Weird – they are distinctly Campbellian. ‘Mackintosh Willy’, for example, might be about an old drunk that the local kids dare each other to approach at the shelter where he sleeps, ‘you might have glimpsed him as he came scuttling lopsidedly out of the shelter, like an injured spider from a lair.’ But it’s also about the pressures of youth, with children egging one another on and calling out cowards. The story’s setting of dilapidated bandstands, corner shops, and estates gives off a haunting sense of atmosphere, as children traverse the liminal space of Thatcherite Britain. When they discover the body of the titular Mackintosh, coins have been placed over his eyes, a strange folkloric ritual made all the more unsettling by the urban environment in which the story is set.
It’s Campbell’s use of setting that cements him as one of the UK’s best horror authors. Liverpool, his hometown, features strongly in stories like ‘The Brood’, ‘Calling Card’, ‘Again’, and ‘The Invocation’. In the excellent ‘The Man in the Underpass’, a Liverpool subway is described as ‘just the place for a midsummer sacrifice.’ In that piece, the lead character has a poem published in The Liverpool Echo, a part of Campbell’s life seeping into his fiction.
There are few Northern authors, certainly not in genre fiction, as prominent as Campbell, and centring Liverpool as a location in so many of his stories feels oddly radical. In fact, mundanity features heavily in his work: characters traverse estates, go on holidays to Turkey, drive on the motorway. In those places the horror lies, which only serves to make the stories all the more unsettling. These are our spaces too, after all. When his stories do stray into fictional worlds, Westingsea (‘The Entertainment’) or Brichester (‘The Scar’, ‘Napier Court’, ‘The Guy’, and ‘Render of the Veils’), they too are recognisable spaces.
In ‘The Guy’, the Turners move from Lower Brichester to the narrator’s more suburban, middle-class end of town. ‘Just because we’ve moved in with the toffs, don’t go turning my house into Buckingham Palace,’ Mr Turner tells his family. The rest of the neighbourhood can’t wait to be rid of them: ‘they’ll bring down the property values for the entire street if they’re not watched,’ one says. The narrator befriends the son of the family, who invites him along to a bonfire which the family appears to spend all day and every day constructing. The bonfire’s connection to the death of one of the Turners’ children – and the horrifying ending – make it one of the clear highlights of both volumes, but more importantly, the story’s focus on class dynamics marks another clear theme of Campbell’s.
Class is important to stories like ‘The Man in the Underpass’, ‘The Moons’, ‘Feeling Remains’, and many others. In ‘The Alternative’, Highton, a tax advisor for a slum landlord, visits the flats that his client owns. Feeling guilty, he slips a hundred pounds through the letterbox of a flat and leaves. When he falls asleep at home, he wakes to find himself living in a flat into which someone has just posted one hundred pounds. It’s an uncanny Kafka-esque exploration of class, the blurry line between the two lives Highton appears to be living serving as a blackly comic view on the bizarre focus England has on rental properties and the property market.
The other key tenet of Campbell’s fiction is the exploration of horror fiction itself. Stories such as ‘The Depths’, ‘Just Waiting’, ‘Meeting the Author’, ‘The Wrong Game’, and ‘No Story in it’, all have authors front and centre. Often they are horror authors, and often successful. But they are also never the heroes. In ‘No Story in it’, Jack Boswell, a once successful genre author, finds a new home with a small press, whose print runs and advances are far lower than he expects. In ‘The Word’, our narrator, a snotty editor, warns of travelling in lifts at cons: ‘whenever you want to go upstairs at a science-fiction convention the lift is always on the top floor, and by the time it arrives it’ll have attracted people like a dog-turd attracts flies.’ Campbell’s work is full of black humour, and the stories that focus on his own career path are easily the funniest of the lot.
All of this would be for naught, obviously, without the frights, and Campbell’s ambiguity means that – rather than fleeting gore and monsters – his stories linger in the mind long after you’ve read them. How can you forget the ending of a story like ‘Digging Deep’, in which our main character finds himself buried alive, desperate for a rescue? He finds relief when he hears digging, believing it to be rescuers coming to help, but the final line, ‘the digging is beneath him,’ is enough to send chills through you. It’s the same for stories like ‘Just Behind You’, ‘Feeling Remains’, and ‘The Chimney’: all turn in their final moments, and are more successful because of it.
The two volumes are a hugely comprehensive selection of Campbell’s output, with few low points. It’s a tribute to just how strong a body of work Campbell has created that The Retrospective and The Companion together serve both as a great introduction to the author and, coupled with some truly unsettling art by Glenn Chadbourne, an essential purchase for his fans.
The Retrospective and The Companion are available to order from PS Publishing