The Inhabitant of the Lake and Visions From Brichester
Horrified’s Ally Wilkes takes a look back at The Inhabitant of the Lake and Visions From Brichester, two volumes collecting Ramsey Campbell’s Mythos writings...
Like so many British horror fans, I feel like I grew up with Ramsey Campbell. My teenage years were spent snaffling lurid, gold-foiled paperbacks from the cardboard boxes under the tables of second-hand bookstalls: I’d barely heard of Lovecraft, let alone Derleth, but was nonetheless intimately acquainted with the fictional psychogeography of Brichester and its haunted environs. One of the books I picked up must have been The Inhabitant of the Lake, because – when I came back to Campbell some twenty-odd years later – the first thing I remembered was the conclusion to ‘The Room in the Castle’:
‘For the snake-like thing that had reached for me, that thing as wide as a human body and impossibly long, had been merely the face-tentacle of the abomination Byatis.’
Beautiful – no exclamation marks needed, but certainly implied! So I was delighted to take a look at PS Publishing’s fiftieth anniversary edition of The Inhabitant of the Lake, illustrated in an engaging Weird Tales style by Randy Broecker, and collecting the classic anthology in full along with all the first drafts sent to Derleth, and his responses. The tales have lost none of their ability to chill – and allow the reader to extrapolate even worse horrors lurking in the unseen geographies of these very British Mythos locations.
Campbell leads with: “when I was ten years old I discovered HP Lovecraft”, neatly mirroring how many British readers will feel about Campbell himself. His 1964 introduction, reprinted here, offers a fascinating overview of Campbell Country, including his rationale for setting the stories in the haunted Severn Valley.
‘The Room in the Castle’, which obviously still packs a punch for me, leads with one of those delicious Lovecraftian narrative questions: ‘Is it some lurking remnant of the elder world in each of us that draws us towards the beings which survive from other eons?’ The narrator is indeed an interested academic in the Lovecraft / MR James / Randalls Round mould, and Campbell uses a folk horror mode in his depiction of horrific survivals from pre-Roman times. The nestled narrative of Sir Gilbert Morley and the disappearance of babies in the 1700s, in particular, had me thinking of The Borderlands (UK, Elliott Goldner, 2013). And those historical framing devices are used extensively across this collection, with periods of backstory and research before the main action, which creates verisimilitude: the reader does indeed feel that they’ve stumbled upon something.
Elsewhere, Campbell sets a tone of high gothic, with the nightjars, dripping trees and ‘miasma-distorted moon’ of ‘The Horror from the Bridge’. Indeed, one of the things this early collection demonstrates is his ability to move between modes and skilfully use elements from different narrative traditions: so Satanists and reanimated corpses intrude on the more cosmic horrors in ‘The Horror from the Bridge’, while pulp science fiction appears with the metallic cone, meteorite, and nuclear holocaust on Shaggai in ‘The Insects from Shaggai’ (which, too, leads back to folk horror and Hammer, with mentions of a witch-cult and Matthew Hopkins). The latter story is, to my mind, one of the most effective ones in the collection, with its extended depiction of an alien civilisation’s rise and fall, and the powerful visual of a plain dominated by colossi, reminding one in its scope of William Hope Hodgson’s The House on the Borderlands.
Campbell is funny, too. One of the great features of these stories is that – by taking the Mythos to 1960s Britain – the sublime is juxtaposed with the utterly familiar. So ‘The Render of the Veils’ deals with the ordinary world: buses, cinema, the rain at the bus stop, and the very real annoyance of someone talking to you when you’re trying to read. And in the titular story, we can only wonder what might have become of Cartwright if he’d been able to call a taxi from that phone box – but couldn’t, because the Glaaki-infested lake congregation had taken the phone book. The setting requires isolation, and isolation (in those pre-5G days) is what Cartwright gets, allowing for all the narrative suspense of an epistolary narrative:
‘Joe left this afternoo… Sorry for the break, but actually I just broke off writing because I thought I heard a noise outside.’
It’s very hard to pick a favourite story here, but the one which most impressed me as a teenager – and continues to enthral – is ‘The Render of the Veils’, with its splendid mind-worm: ‘I have had a sort of persistent conviction since I was young. Nothing to bother about, really – just a kind of idea that nothing is really as we see it: if there were some way of seeing things without using your eyes, everything would look quite different.’ In fact, the story’s disturbing conclusion so firmly stuck with me that in 2019 I set about tracking it down again: and thereby came back to Campbell with Cold Print (1985/1987/1993), which collected many of these tales along with those now found in Visions From Brichester.
Turning, then, to this companion volume. Visions From Brichester is also accompanied by a wealth of supporting material (although it takes up less of the book’s bulk than in The Inhabitant of the Lake), of which I greatly enjoyed ‘Rusty Links’, in which Campbell brings his guns to bear on Derleth and his kitchen-sink approach to the Mythos, and ‘Mushrooms From Merseyside’, which renders all stories in these two volumes as limericks, such as this fabulous version of ‘The Plain of Sound’:
‘Any sounds that you hear on the plain / You’d do well to keep out of your brain / “Every alien note” / (Necronomicon quote) / “Shapes a horror to drive you insane.”’
Campbell’s Afterword stresses that ‘one element [he has] tried at times to bring back to Lovecraftian fiction is humanity’: the stories in this book succeed in doing so. ‘Cold Print’ stayed with me for many years, with its razor-sharp depiction of a grubby little second-hand bookshop and its even grubbier patron, wallowing in Britain’s banned-books era and reading porn on the bus. Campbell’s touches of humanity also shine elsewhere, such as the telepathic pull of an alien planet in ‘The Tugging’ being described as ‘insistence, like a distant recollection of a plucked tooth.’ While this story deals with otherworldly drowned cities and their rise, Atlantis and R’lyeh, and a madness-inducing surrealist closing image, it also succeeds in painting a very recognisable picture of 1970s suburban decay, where streets are scattered with disembowelled mattresses, windows are bricked up, and shop-fronts are all shuttered. Indeed, one of the delights of Visions From Brichester is just how suburban many of these Mythos tales are, given a genre that often places itself firmly in lost villages, witch-haunted woods, and creaky old houses containing vast libraries of Forbidden Knowledge.
To my mind, the two best stories in this collection are those which Campbell describes in his Afterword as ‘acid horror’, arising from ‘several seventies chemical experiences’. Each largely takes place in a non-traditional Mythos setting: ‘The Faces at Pine Dunes’ in a caravan park, and ‘The Voice of the Beach’ in a seaside bungalow. The first tale, in typical Campbell fashion, manages to marry up a caravan-park coming-of-age with LSD, Witchcraft in England, and some extremely effective body horror – all the oozing and shifting flesh that a Lovecraft devotee could wish for, but nastily internalised as well: ‘His whole body felt unstable; he couldn’t make out his own form – whenever he seemed to perceive it, it changed.’
‘The Voice of the Beach’, again, blends humanity with the sublime, contrasting the prosaic with the washing of light over a beach that is somewhere else, as here:
‘At first the road is gravel, fragments of which always succeed in working their way into your shoes… Sand sifts over the gravel; you can hear the gritty conflict underfoot, and the musing of the sea. Beyond the path stands this crescent of bungalows. Surely all this is still true. But I remember now that the bungalows looked unreal against the burning blue sky and the dunes like embryo hills; they looked like a dream set down in the piercing light of June.’
Fans of the Southern Reach trilogy (Jeff VanderMeer) will be delighted by this story, which contains a voice not unlike the Crawler (‘WHEN THE PATTERNS DONE IT CAN COME BACK AND GROW ITS HUNGRY TO BE EVERYTHING I KNOW HOW IT WORKS THE SAND MOVE’), albeit punctured, deliciously, by the peevish narrator: “Ah, the influence of Joyce.” The question posed to the reader is one reminiscent of Blackwood’s ‘The Willows’: ‘don’t you feel there are places that are closer to another sort of reality, another plane or dimension or whatever?’ And the denouement is true Annihilation (‘the glimpses of Neal were nothing but acceptable metaphors for what Neal had become’), rendered skillfully in Campbell’s wholly immersive prose.
Despite the titular reference to Brichester, we are even taken out of Britain to Bavaria in ‘Blacked Out’, in which the narrator finds himself at sundown in a strange little village where he’s led astray by an erotically-charged encounter with a local woman. For anyone detecting shades of Blackwood’s ‘Ancient Sorceries’ – this is perhaps a darker tale.
Reading Campbell in the late 1990s (shh!) I had only the vaguest grasp of when most of these stories were written: I don’t think my teenage self could have placed them as being a product of 1960s and 70s Britain, whereas now – looking back – they are so firmly rooted in time and place it’s difficult to see how I missed it. Perhaps the more salient point is that they always appeared timeless to me, and still do (despite, it has to be said, some regressive and occasionally downright offensive attitudes and expressions depicted by Campbell’s narrators). In these two volumes, the Campbell / Mythos fan is offered the opportunity to catch up on a career spanning 1960 to 2013 (‘The Last Revelation of Gla’aki’), to revisit old favourites and find signs of cross-fertilisation with other familiar works.
The Inhabitant of the Lake and Visions From Brichester are available via PS Publishing