The Man Who Read Campbell
In this very personal consideration of the work of Ramsey Campbell, Horrified’s Editor-at-Large, John J Johnston, discusses the short stories of the multiple award-winning author, editor, and critic’s extraordinary and prodigious career…
To coincide with Horrified’s Ramsey Campbell weekend, I’d like to take the opportunity of discussing what this much lauded and prodigious British horror writer means to me. I’m afraid that it’s a determinedly subjective piece, but I make no apologies for that. Our esteemed Book Reviews Editor tells me that, in addition to some Twitter-based book giveaways, there will be a plethora of new reviews of Campbell’s work uploaded to the website, covering his oeuvre in much greater detail than I intend here. Although I’ve read and enjoyed many of Campbell’s novels, it’s my involvement with his short stories that I wish, here, to discuss and the chronology is my own, rather than the author’s.
I first encountered the work of Ramsey Campbell towards the close of my first year at Liverpool University, in the late Spring of 1983. In my efforts to be a conscientious student, I had deliberately eschewed novels, which had the habit of eating into my study-time, turning instead to short genre fiction, something I could totally engage with but complete in a relatively brief sitting…little realising just how addictive these tales might be. The well-stocked library in my halls of residence had some interesting volumes and the Hall Warden – and Reader in English Literature – Reginald T Davies (1923-2000) was an affable chap, who was kind enough to loan me his own copy of The Complete Short Stories of H G Wells, a beautifully bound volume with delicate, Rizla-thin pages.
These were simpler times, long before the advent of the internet, and called for simpler pleasures. In amongst the pubs and parties, several of us would regularly gather, usually in my room, which had French windows leading to a small balcony, and read these tales aloud, while drinking wine and smoking far too many cigarettes! M R James’ Chit-Chat Society it was not. However, it did provide many happy evenings and resulted in the discovery of a good many seminal classics of genre literature.
Lewis’s department store on the corner of Ranelagh Street, famed for its ‘exceedingly bare’ Jacob Epstein statue had, at that time, a large and fairly diverse book department on the ground floor, where I happened across the paperback edition of Kirby McCauley’s award-winning and influential anthology Dark Forces: New Stories of Suspense and Supernatural Horror (Bantam, 1981). Among its twenty-three contributions by both new and established authors was a tale of such incredible atmosphere, visceral horror, and geographical familiarity that I was quite stopped in my tracks.
Ramsey Campbell’s ‘The Brood’, written in 1976, was set in an immediately identifiable Liverpool, on the outskirts of the city-centre, on and around Princes Avenue, an area I passed through daily – sometimes on foot, more frequently by bus – on my journey to and from my university department.
Not only was the location literally palpable but, in the prolonged economic aftermath of the July 1981 Toxteth Riots, it looked even more dilapidatedly sinister than it must have done when Campbell penned his tale: an obvious site of great and insensible evil. This was my introduction to Campbell’s incredible ability to conjure terror from the most mundane settings.
For those unfamiliar with the work, it’s the tale of a solitary, somewhat misanthropic, veterinarian whose main human interaction outside of the workplace is spying – let’s not mince our words; he employs binoculars! – upon the passers-by on the broad avenue below his attic apartment in a tall, Victorian terrace. He is particularly fascinated by a bedraggled, increasingly frail, elderly woman who spends her evenings beneath the streetlamps, returning to her derelict home, just behind our protagonist’s building, with a variety of strays. Our protagonist’s mounting concern for these animals in her care eventually prompts him into action. Without divulging too much, his compassion is his undoing…
Campbell’s protagonists are usually plagued by self-doubt, frequently haunted by the past or, indeed, their present circumstances. Here, the vet is ‘suffering the excuses that exhausted him’ during the daily grind of his employment, dealing with careless and callous pet-owners and yet, given the direction of the narrative, his compassion makes him uniquely qualified for the events which come to enfold him; as, indeed, are Campbell’s metaphors (‘silent as a draped cage’) which add, immeasurably, to the experience.
Impressed by this first foray into Campbell-territory, I was emboldened to purchase his collection, Dark Companions (Fontana, 1982), from the always-interesting genre bookshop, Chapter One on Liverpool Road, which I’d encountered on my frequent trips to the Odeon Cinema. The back cover didn’t pull any punches, informing me that ‘Ramsey Campbell has won more awards for his horror fiction than any other writer, including three for the best short story of the year.’ I quickly discovered this was rather more than simple hyperbole. Campbell was, and remains, a writer of deft nuance and considerable imagination. Dark Companions contains some of Campbell’s most fascinating short stories, which have continued to resonate with me for almost four decades. Again, Campbell’s incredible sense of place persists throughout this collection and in his brief introduction he states, ‘Many of the stories grew out of their settings.’ How much more effective is his chilling prose if one can relate to those settings, even if not immediately…the Mersey is somewhat wider than one realises, and it wasn’t until some years had passed before I had reason to visit the seaside town of New Brighton, location for Campbell’s ‘The Companion’, but I recognised it immediately, and reread this deeply unsettling but highly engaging short story when I returned home, happily unscathed!
There are no wrong notes within this collection, but everyone has their personal favourites, and the mordant humour of ‘Calling Card’, ‘Heading Home’, and ‘Call First’ immediately appealed. Campbell has referred to these tales as his homages to EC comics, although they remind me strongly of the work of Robert Bloch, with whom Campbell shares a number of similarities in other respects, not least their writers’ early attraction to the Cthulhu mythos of H P Lovecraft (1890-1937). But I’m running too far ahead.
Many were the evenings spent in the wine bars and restaurants of Lark Lane, the setting for ‘Calling Card’, while ‘Call First’ seemed to inhabit the same locale as ‘The Brood’. Shortly, I too came to inhabit that locale, living for two years on Percy Street, with its frankly bizarre, forgotten, subterranean streets linking the properties, and, one assumes, allowing servants to move about freely, without ever disrupting the elegant views of their employers, living in Georgian splendour above ground.
‘Out of Copyright’ appealed to my Jamesian predilections; ‘Drawing In’ knowingly tipped a hat to a favourite character from Victorian literature, and ‘The Depths’ is just an incredibly eerie and well-written tale of terror with a disturbing dénouement. Indeed, two of these tales, ‘The Man in the Underpass’ and ‘Baby’, were then – and would, probably, remain now – just too horrific for our little reading sessions.
Campell’s supernatural entities, rarely explained to any great degree, are a terrifying hoard of damaged, crumpled, grimy, repellently pulpy monstrosities. Decidedly corporeal but frustratingly intangible until their final, terrifying, attack, they exude a musty dampness into the atmosphere. As such, these are truly grotesque creations, evidently conjured with ease from Campbell’s imagination but not so easily dispelled from the minds of his readers.
With Cold Print (Grafton, 1987) I had an opportunity to discover some of Campbell’s very earliest works, which were heavily influenced by his affection for Lovecraftian terrors from beyond space and time. Fortunately, by the time of its purchase, I had read a great many of Lovecraft’s works, published in three omnibus volumes by Grafton in 1985, and understood the mechanics of Lovecraft’s eldritch art. While enthralling, these stories seemed to lack Campbell’s true voice, which I had already encountered: in some respects, a drawback of reading an author’s work out of sequence.
Suddenly, in 1989, quite out of the blue, and for reasons that would take far too long to fully explain, through my partner – now husband – I received an invitation to Liverpool’s Central Library on William Brown Street, where the esteemed local author and former librarian Ramsey Campbell was to address a room full of librarians, council officers, and City Councillors on the importance of public libraries. He was, frankly, everything I’d hoped for: eloquent, engaging, and very funny. Sadly, I think the majority of his audience that day had little idea of Campbell’s international renown and, certainly, no knowledge of his work itself. They nodded sagely when he made the points they had hoped for and applauded politely at his conclusion. Afterwards, there was tea and biscuits, and an opportunity to meet with the speaker. When I approached him, he beamed and said, ‘Ah, yes, the only person in the room who got my jokes! Thank you for coming.’ We discussed his work, in particular ‘The Brood’ and Dark Companions; he spoke with great warmth and enthusiasm. When I tentatively produced my well-thumbed copy of the latter – the Johnston clan motto is ‘Nunquam non paratus’: ‘Never unprepared’ – he grabbed it with glee and scrawled on the title page, ‘For John, thanks for laughing! All the best, Ramsey Campbell.’
It was a meeting which cemented my growing engagement with his work.
It was not until a couple of years later, while holidaying, that I tracked down my next collection of Campbell’s short stories. In the polished brass elegance of Brentano’s American bookstore in Paris, originally opened on Avenue de l’Opéra in 1887, I was delighted to find a 1990 US reprint by Carroll & Graf of Campbell’s second collection from 1973, Demons by Daylight. This edition has a particularly lurid cover, and it was a distinctly surreal experience to read this on the teeming boulevards of Paris, but the sun was shining brightly and, thanks to my reading matter, the demons were close at hand. For me, the standout tales here include ‘The End of a Summer’s Day’, ‘The Old Horns’, ‘The Sentinels’, and ‘Made in Goatswood’. It’s a fascinating and varied collection, indicating, even from this early stage, Campbell’s developing interest in the comforting but trivial mundanities of life and how effortlessly they can be nightmarishly subverted.
Before leaving Liverpool for ‘the great metropolis,’ the last Campbell collection I purchased was Waking Nightmares (Warner, 1993). By this time, although gaps still remained, I was largely in synch with the author, as the tales in this collection were all written between 1980 and 1989. ‘The Guide’ is a wonderful Jamesian pastiche, placing that author within the action, though wrapped within Campbell’s typical fascination with the individual and the minutiae of modern life. The protagonist is no aloof and cloistered academic but a retired widower with a family, on a holiday to James’ beloved but unsettling Norfolk.
There is Liverpudlian resurgence in ‘Watch the Birdie’, set within the historic Baltic Fleet pub on the dock road, a genuine venue, still in operation, and one which I’ve been driven past – but never, yet, visited – many times over the years. Liverpool features at the start of a terrifying tale of authorial madness, ‘Beyond Words’, while the queasily bleak ‘It Helps If You Sing’ posits the deeply disturbing concept of evangelical Zombies!
I purchased Strange Things and Stranger Places (Tor, 1994) from the late, lamented Murder One bookshop on Charing Cross Road, when that street was still a glorious hive of booksellers, both new and second-hand. The volume contains two interesting novellas, the first of which is, to my knowledge, Campbell’s first sojourn into science fiction with the tale Medusa.
As the co-editor of a mummy anthology, Unearthed (Jurassic London, 2013), and a frequent lecturer on the reception of ancient Egypt in popular culture, I was delighted to encounter ‘Wrapped Up’: to my knowledge, Campbell’s only homage to the mummy sub-genre, designed for a Michel Parry mummy anthology which never saw the light of Re, and it’s an entertaining slice of modern Egyptian Gothic, although largely taken up with the author’s very successful efforts to make his protagonists truly deserving of their dreadful fate.
There’s a deliberate pun at work in ‘A New Life’, as Campbell reimagines a genre classic in typically disorientating and panic-inducing style.
Since then, research, writing, lecturing, and more writing have all taken their toll upon the simple pleasure of reading for enjoyment, across the board – even during lockdown – and I’ve only had the chance to engage with two of Campbell’s recent collections: the first Told by the Dead (Drugstore Indian Press, 2019) which, upon its original release, won the 2004 British Fantasy Award for best collection. It features an assortment of short stories dating from 1975 to 2002. The other, Just Behind You (Drugstore Indian Press, 2019), contains more recent tales from 2002 to 2009. They are both exciting and interesting publications, which help to showcase Campbell’s development as a writer. Although, without question, ‘Britain’s most respected living horror writer,’ (as described by the most recent editions of The Oxford Companion to English Literature), he is far from content to rest on his laurels. His writing remains fresh and intense, and these volumes present a slew of material, from ‘No Strings’, which elegantly revisits elements of ‘The Brood’, to the foreboding frustrations of the mobile telephone in ‘Direct Line’, and the brief but hugely imaginative ‘Laid Down’.
There is so much more that I’d like to discuss in relation to Ramsey Campbell’s work: I haven’t even touched upon his numerous articles and pieces of film and literary criticism, because he is more than just an esteemed horror writer, he is an expert in the field of horror with a vast knowledge of the genre across all media.
I’ve greatly enjoyed this opportunity, however much I’ve cherry-picked, to survey Campbell’s work, and to fully appreciate how substantial its effect has been on me, personally. The work of a brilliant author does far more than sit on one’s bookcases; it continues to live in the imaginations of their readers.
I know that new and exciting publications are on the horizon for Campbell, and, during my research, I’ve become aware of his 2011 Liverpool-set novel, Creatures of the Pool (DIP, 2013), steeped in the history of the city and building upon his earlier works. Yesterday it dropped through my letterbox, and will accompany on my next, imminent, visit to the great city, where first I encountered his Hellish ‘Brood’ all those decades ago…!