The Village Killings and Other Stories
William Brown discovers The Village Killings and Other Novellas, an astonishing and unsettling collection of five novellas by Ramsey Campbell.
I read my first Ramsey Campbell novel, Nazareth Hill, just last year. That’s pretty embarrassing for a horror reviewer, and even more so when you’re a reviewer for a website dedicated to British horror! But then, I don’t think I would have appreciated Campbell’s writing earlier in my life. During my twenties, say, when I was happily ploughing through novels by Stephen King and James Herbert, I don’t think I would have had the patience to persist with Campbell’s narratives, which—with their often gnarly and obfuscatory prose—simply aren’t as friendly as those of his more popular peers. Reading Campbell’s books can feel an awful lot like how John Mottershead, the protagonist in this volume’s ‘Needing Ghosts’, describes writing: ‘It’s as if your mind’s a spider which is trying to catch reality and spin it into patterns.’ If Campbell’s stories lack monsters per se (there are none to be found here, at any rate), they possess something arguably much darker and more unsettling: a linguistic uncanniness that threatens to undo whatever slender grasp we have of the world. Whilst King’s amiable narration often works to defuse the horror he guides you through, Campbell casts you into a black room and closes the door. His sentences are monsters in themselves, winding around you, piercing your spectatorial complacency. With Campbell, there is no safety in simply reading.
While he has written countless short stories over the years, Campbell has rarely dabbled with the novella form. Here, in The Village Killings & Other Novellas, are five of the things—and they all present the author at his very best. The first three stories—‘Needing Ghosts’ and ‘The Pretence’—are works of breathtaking, nightmarish brilliance, hissing and spitting with the uncanniness and quasi-dystopianism that flows through his best work. ‘The Booking’ is a deliciously weird and blackly comic tale about the digitisation of books, and ‘The Enigma of the Flat Policeman’ and ‘The Village Killings’ (brand new for this volume) are two very welcome forays into detective and mystery fiction. Put together, this is an astonishing collection, securing Campbell’s status not only as one of the horror genre’s greats (if there was any doubt), but as one of the finest writers Britain has ever produced.
The new novella, ‘The Village Killings’, is a mystery tale in the mould of Agatha Christie—whom Campbell’s mother, as he recounts in the introduction, ‘much admired.’ A group of fledgling crime authors meet at a writer’s retreat helmed by the extremely successful Lauren Hallahan. Secrets are revealed during a lacklustre meal (macaroni and sausage, certainly not the kind of thing Poirot’s suspects would deign to digest); motives are suggested; it isn’t long before one amongst their number winds up dead. Of course, one of the writers, Christy Lambert, doesn’t believe that it was an accident… It’s cosy stuff, but the reader is advised to beware their footing. ‘While we shouldn’t look to [Christie] for great prose,’ Campbell writes, ‘there’s considerable linguistic dexterity and narrative ingenuity, not to mention a genius for displaying clues in plain sight and challenging the reader to notice.’ Given that Campbell’s prose is fiendishly allusive at the best of times, the idea of him sallying into the whodunnit genre is a scintillating prospect. Now, I’m not really a fan of murder mysteries; I’m certainly not one for solving puzzles, whether the clues are hidden in plain sight or otherwise. I’m much more of an everything-explained-in-the-third-act kind of guy. As such, all I can really say is that this story kept me gripped throughout—but I have nary a clue about the denouement! It demands repeat readings, for sure.
‘Needing Ghosts’ is, well, a bit of a headfuck. Campbell calls it a ‘comedy of paranoia,’ and there’s comedy here, for sure, albeit of the delirious, Dostoevskian variety. The story follows John Motterhead, who may be an author, on a day that becomes increasingly disjointed and disturbing. Motterhead’s abode is like a monster’s lair, with nondescript creatures skittering in the shadows—‘When he tugs the cord in the bathroom, the light bulb greets its own reflection in the mirror full of white tiles, and something disappears into the plughole of the bruised bath’—and ‘perspiring brownish walls’ in the kitchen. We might wonder how much of this characterisation is real, how much is expressionistic—but that would be a futile attempt to retain some kind of meaning-making mastery over our environment, a feeble protest against the existential freefall Campbell has in store.
Motterhead has somewhere to be—but where? Getting on a ferry, he ‘grips the sides of the prow and thrusts himself forward like a figurehead, but can’t determine whether the unsteady glow that appears to divide the darkness ahead is real or if it’s only the flickering that often manifests itself within his eyelids when he can’t sleep.’ Motterhead can’t determine, and neither can we. Motterhead’s attempts to orient himself in this quasi-wasteland are constantly thwarted: ‘The time-tables have been wrenched off the bus-stops; even the numbers on the metal flags have been rendered unidentifiable by graffiti which turns sevens into nines, nines into eights, whole numbers into mixed’, and the buses display nonsensical destinations: ‘Flicky Doaky, Eyes End, Cranium.’ The protagonist’s increasing disorientation is reminiscent of another of Campbell’s stories, ‘The Address’ (2011), in which another character flounders in his attempts to reach a destination that seems to constantly pull away from his grasp. But there is a more conventional narrative at the heart of ‘Needing Ghosts,’ and everything, ultimately, makes a crazy kind of sense. This is psychological horror par excellence, horrific and unforgettable.
‘The Pretence’ is reminiscent of Campbell’s Three Births of Daoloth trilogy, except without the Cthulhic monsters. The world ends—or does it? Paul Slater is on a flight to Liverpool when something happens: ‘His head drooped and jerked up and sank again, and the low unchanging chord of the engines seemed to expand to meet him. Then they cut out, or rather his consciousness did, and he knew nothing until he came back to himself with a violent lurch.’ Certainly, some kind of cataclysmic occurrence has been foretold: before the flight, Paul discards a doomsday pamphlet from a group known as the ‘Finalists,’ and a climate of social division is imparted: ‘If I were you I’d read what you have there,’ a guard in the terminal advises him. In his preface to the story, Campbell speaks of the central ‘notion of a global change that’s evident only after the fact and indirectly.’ Speaking to a philosophical barman, Paul argues, ‘It’s not as if this is the first time that was supposed to happen. It’s been meant to end a dozen times in this century alone.’ ‘Maybe it did,’ the barman counters—and there’s the rub.
After the flight, and the event, whether or not the world has ended is weirdly uncertain, as though—with echoes of Stephen King’s ‘The Langoliers’—everything takes place in the interstices between dimensions. In the airport car park, for instance, ‘the multitude of cars appeared to be forgetting their own colours,’ and, when he finally gets home, Paul sees his wife ‘descend into the hall with a flickering movement reminiscent of an old film. Her shape […] snagging on the frosted planes, [making] her look intermittently atomised.’ The whole story feels like a bravura trick of legerdemain by Campbell. Here, the slippery dialogue that some readers find off-putting in his novels adds perfectly to the apocalyptic indeterminacy of it all. Like the next novella in the collection, ‘The Booking,’ a horror of digitisation is conveyed: a sense that, in our technology-permeated world of multiple identities and hyper-realisation, the end of the world might not even be tangible to us.
‘The Booking’ is, on the surface at least, much more domestic in scope. Set in a shambolic bookstore, Books are Life, operated rather eccentrically by the weird Mr Brookes, and with plenty of bumps in the night and divers other ghostly goings-on, it is perhaps the closest one will come to a traditional haunted house story in Campbell’s oeuvre. But it’s a much more complex beast than that. Mr Brookes has hired Kiefer, a pensive librarian, to create Books are Life’s internet presence, though Brookes seems to disdain and fear modern technology with a passion. Brookes fears electronic surveillance—‘Your camera has to be dead all the time you’re here,’ he exhorts a bewildered Kiefer—and, even worse, ‘the chip’: ‘We’ll have them in our heads and then we’ll never own a book again. We’ll just need to think of one and it’ll be there in our mind.’
Whilst Brookes fears the death of the printed book, the shop becomes increasingly swamped by the things, and even the books Kiefer sells have an uncanny habit of returning to their shelves—recaptured by their hyper-possessive owner, perhaps? This is one of the most deliriously inventive haunted house stories of recent times. The house appears to become the internet itself, growing and mutating monstrously, and there’s more of Campbell’s uncanny technology here. During a webchat with his girlfriend, Kiefer observes that her face glitches and distorts with network interference: ‘Her delayed reaction jittered and then separated into pixels before he could make it out. “Don’t spend less than you need to,” she said more earnestly than the screen let her look.’ Again, Campbell is drawing our attention to the existential corruption that the incremental digitisation of our day-to-day lives is inflicting upon us. Is Brookes paranoid for fearing surveillance, or ‘the chip?’ Or is it that technology’s pervasion is more covert and insidious than even Brookes can imagine?
At seventy-five years old, Ramsey Campbell continues to break new ground with his writing. The first three novellas in this collection are works of genius, the apotheosis of his career-long aspiration to a style of horror as poetic and literary as the likes of Nabokov and Burroughs, whilst still managing to disturb and satisfy. He has always been a challenging writer, refusing to hold his reader’s hand; his books refuse to be skimmed through idly. But allow his barbed prose to snick you, and you’ll quickly become cocooned in the dark worlds he is forever spinning.
The Village Killings and Other Novellas is available to pre-order via PS Publishing