Just Behind You
Mike O’Driscoll explores Ramsey Campbell’s world - ‘a dark, refracted vision of our own’ - in his short story collection Just Behind You.
I’ve been a fan of Ramsey Campbell’s fiction for well over thirty years, ever since a friend gave me a copy of the 1983 novel Incarnate. Since then I’ve read six or seven of his novels and dozens of his stories in various journals and anthologies. Just Behind You is the first time I’ve read an entire collection of his stories back to back, and while there are a few weak tales whose impact is diminished in comparison to others that deal with similar themes and subject matters, on balance the collection succeeds in portraying Campbell’s distinct and unforgiving world view. At times he treads a fine line between engaging his readers and tiring them through familiarity. For example, mobile phones feature as a key plot element in three of the stories; introspective or alienated kids are at the heart of five; and teachers and university academics appear in five more. The idea of misinterpretation – of talk and behaviour – is one recurring trope, as is the figure of the lonely, alienated outsider. When it works well, as in ‘Feeling Remains’ or ‘Raised by the Moon,’ the stories have the power to both move and unsettle us. When it doesn’t, as with ‘The Announcement’ or ‘Skeleton Woods’, it feels as though Campbell is going through the motions.
‘Just Behind You,’ ‘Safe Words,’ and ‘One Copy Only,’ are all skilfully done, each of them working toward their conclusion with unrelenting logic. ‘Respects’ and ‘The Unbeheld’, while both benefit from convincing characterisation and portray sympathetic if misunderstood protagonists, feel somewhat unresolved. Campbell at his best, though, is a subtle and perceptive dissector of human weakness. The strongest stories here, the ones that really get under the skin, are those in which he explores the extent to which people fail to adequately communicate with each other, the ways in which we misinterpret each others’ feelings and desires, and the consequences that follow. Campbell does this through his perceptive delineation of the mundane and the sudden, effortless intrusion of the bizarre and irrational into the realm of everyday reality, be it in schools, shops, suburban homes, out of town hotels, or back street pubs. He has the uncanny ability to suggest that nature itself is complicit in the misfortunes that fall upon his protagonists, as in the subtle and atmospheric ‘Breaking Up’ when Kerry, the protagonist, is attempting to dissuade a former lover from contacting her: ‘A wind like the essence of the frozen dark groped at her face as though searching for the bones.’
Campbell rarely shirks from showing the ineffectiveness of the response of ordinary men and women when confronted by irrational and inexplicable events. Look, for example, at ‘Direct Line’, when a maths teacher retrieves a mobile phone dropped by a woman in a railway underpass. The story charts Sharpe’s well-intentioned attempts to identify the woman and return the phone to her, only to find his actions repeatedly questioned (with insinuations as to his own motives) and undermined by colleagues, as well as viewed with suspicion by the police. Worse are the denials from the unknown woman who calls him on the phone, demanding that he give it back. Unable to persuade her to identify herself or tell him where to take the phone, his life begins to unravel as he is tormented by the phone – itself haunted by the presence of its former owner – and by an unaccountable sense of guilt born of his own possible connection to the unidentified woman. The ending is a typically Campbellian depiction of disquieting horror.
This sense of being overwhelmed by the irrational is key to deftly observed ‘Feeling Remains’. Here, young Jeremy has to suffer the consequences of his support worker mum’s well-intentioned efforts to help one of her clients. This entails leaving the client’s son, Brad, to hang out with Jeremy, despite the two having nothing in common. Jeremy’s teacher dad is no help at all, perhaps having lost interest or patience with his wife’s do-gooding, and turning a blind eye to his son’s increasing desperation. Brad, it soon becomes apparent, is a near-psychopathic bully who refuses to listen to Jeremy’s efforts to curb his delinquent behaviour. When this leads to Brad breaking into neighbours’ houses, and deliberately burning down the home of Mrs Hammond, an elderly woman that Jeremy helped look after, it is the latter who has to pay the terrible consequences.
The way in which children and young teenagers try to navigate the complexities of relationships – with each other and with the adults in their worlds – prove a fertile ground for Campbell’s storytelling. Although not always convincing in capturing the fluidity and characteristics of teen idioms, he is nevertheless adept at portraying the fears, misunderstandings and missteps that play such a large part in the journey through adolescence. This is captured vividly in ‘Dragged Down’, in which 13 year old Bas is trying to make a favourable impression on seemingly unattainable classmate Angelique. He succeeds, at least initially, when, in response to his teacher’s request to create a local legend, he suggests that if anyone whispers words at one end of the tunnel that divides two neighbourhoods, the person who hears them will be the one they spend the rest of their life with. Despite Angelique favouring him with a smile, Bas is repeatedly thwarted in his efforts to talk to her, not least by his own peers from the poorer part of town who constantly tease and ridicule what they perceive as his attempts to ingratiate himself with the middle class kids. Such is the strength of Bas’s infatuation that he suggests to Angelique that they test the legend but when he goes to the tunnel that night, there is no response when he calls her name. Later attempts elicit threats from her older brother and land Bas in hot water at school. A subsequent tragedy sends him to the tunnel one last time in desperation, only to encounter something other than what he would have wished.
If Campbell seems to be treading familiar ground in ‘Raised by the Moon’, then he does so with a sure touch, in a story that, with its sense of unnatural otherworldliness, evokes Lovecraft’s Mythos. Bill Grant, a young academic on his way to a conference, is stranded in an almost spectral coastal town after his car breaks down. He finds refuge in the home of the extremely odd couple, Fiona and Tom, who begrudgingly offer him dinner and a bed for the night. Grant’s unease at the absence of other inhabitants – the other houses seem empty, the few shops abandoned and strewn with debris – grows to outright paranoia when he calls a mechanic in the next village and discovers the man knows without prompting, that he’ll be staying with Tom and Fiona, who ‘won’t be driven out of their homes’, and who live off ‘travellers and whatever else they catch.’ Grant, we are told in the course of the phone call, feels himself ‘sought by the chill and the piscine smell’, a line that hints at the fate that awaits him later that night. Though the story is suffused with a sense of growing dread, it’s also not without moments of dark humour, as in Grant’s repeated misinterpretations of Tom and Fiona’s colloquialisms and challenges, or the menacing absurdity of their evening meal with the couple wilfully ignoring the peculiar sounds emanating from outside. It’s as excruciating as the dinner scene in Lynch’s Eraserhead, when Mary takes Henry home to meet her parents.
Dignam, the protagonist of the disturbing ‘Unblinking’, finds it hard to concentrate on his work because of the intrusive gaze of Brady, his neighbour across the street. When he receives Brady’s post in error and takes it to him, he is verbally abused. A sequence of increasingly frustrating encounters with shopkeepers and neighbours, in which Dignam’s actions are repeatedly misunderstood, makes us empathise with him, at least initially, even as he appears (in their eyes) as someone to be viewed with suspicion and even hostility. An encounter with Douglas, a fellow lecturer, and Hannah, an attractive young student, increases Dignam’s resentment at his treatment by his neighbours. In an essay Dignam is marking, Hannah expounds on Douglas’s notion that people with schizophrenia have magical powers, citing examples in which, through their ritualistic behaviour, they are able to alter reality with the power of their minds. The story takes this literally as Dignam, tormented by the notion that Brady is spying on him, begins to descend into madness, with his skewed and bewildered perceptions taking on the texture of reality. The story gives us a credible and unsettling representation of madness, one that is as unflinching as the unblinking stare that Dignam turns on the world.
There is little solace to be found in Campbell’s stories, where innocence and blamelessness are fleeting, even nebulous qualities, that provide no bulwark against a harsh, uncompromising reality. Where other writers offer us an easy route through their narratives, clearly signalling virtue and corruption, he gives us ambiguity and hesitation. Is Leonard, the lollipop man of ‘The Unbeheld’, a good man or does he have more sinister motives? The same question can be asked of the grieving Edwin Ferguson in ‘Double Room’, a sly take on SF/horror convention-going. Well-intentioned characters are burdened with unaccountable guilt while the malevolent go about their lives with no trace of shame or regret. This is Campbell’s world: a dark, refracted version of our own, lurking right there, just behind us.
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