Ramsey Campbell Essay - Critical Essays

Campbell, Ramsey

Introduction

Campbell, Ramsey 1946-

(Full name John Ramsey Campbell; has written under the pseudonyms Montgomery Comfort, Carl Dreadstone, and Jay Ramsey) English novelist, short story writer, critic, and editor.

In the opinion of many leading critics of supernatural fiction, Campbell is the most prominent contemporary successor to a literary tradition which began with the eighteenth-century Gothic novel and later comprised the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Machen, M. R. James, and H. P. Lovecraft. Contrasting with the majority of modern works of horror and the supernatural, which have their closest artistic analogies in popular movies, television shows, and comic books, Campbell's fiction displays an artistry and imagination that is often compared to the classics of Gothic literature. Moreover, few contemporary horror writers have been as highly praised for their power and acuity in portraying what Jack Sullivan has termed, apropos of Campbell's work, the "grey and grubby modern world."

Biographical Information

Campbell was born and grew up in Liverpool; the impersonal, dreary industrial landscape of that city serves as the background for much of his best work. His parents' relationship was marked by discord, and though Campbell's mother sought a divorce, she was denied permission by the Roman Catholic Church. His father continued to live with the family but contact with him was severed. Campbell's father made every effort for his comings and goings to pass unobserved and, when at home, he remained in his closed room. Thus, for twenty years Campbell virtually never saw or spoke with his father though they shared the same residence. In addition, Campbell's mother suffered paranoia and delusions, and her resulting erratic behavior sometimes overwhelmed Campbell. Campbell began to write when he was eleven and published "The Tower from Yuggoth," a Lovecraftian pastiche, when he was sixteen. In 1962 he left school to work in a tax office and in 1966 began working for the Liverpool Public Libraries. He wrote the stories for Demons by Daylight in 1968 and, soon after the book was published in 1973, began writing full time. In 1978 Campbell's story "In the Bag" received the British Fantasy Award for best short story. That year he was also honored with the World Fantasy Award for best short fiction for "The Chimney" and again in 1980 for "Mackintosh Willy." Campbell resides in Merseyside, England.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Collected in The Inhabitant of the Lake, and Less Welcome Tenants (1964), Campbell's first published pieces represent his effort to perpetuate H. P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos, a term coined by Lovecraft admirers that refers to his tales of cosmic legend. In this first volume, Campbell transplants the horrific elements of Lovecraft's stories to a fictional English setting while Maintaining essentially Lovecraftian characters and supernatural phenomena. In the collection Demons by Daylight, such tales as "The Old Horns" and "The Sentinels" combine the banality of ordinary life and human relationships with the dreamlike quality that forms the basis for the masterpieces of supernatural fiction. This is achieved in Campbell's fiction by various means, most conspicuously through the perspective of extreme subjectivity from which his stories are narrated. By relating the incidents of a narrative from the most intimate level of his characters' consciousness, Campbell magnifies the natural doubts, dreams, and fears of human existence to the point where they merge with the supernatural. In "The Interloper," for instance, a schoolboy's fear of his instructor ultimately attains a fantastic dimension in a scenario of doom that is convincing more in the manner of a nightmare than in the mode of realistic fiction. This technique is heightened in effectiveness by a metaphorical prose style that sustains an atmosphere of poetic delirium. Such stories as "Ash" and "Litter," which appear in Campbell's third collection, The Height of the Scream (1976), and "The Chimney" and "Mackintosh Willy," from Dark Companions (1982), are particularly successful studies of the menacing universe inhabited by his characters.

Critical Reception

Campbell is considered among the first practitioners of the modern horror story. With the collection Demons by Daylight, Campbell drew away from Lovecraft's influence and revealed a manner of storytelling that was an unexpected leap both in his personal evolution as a writer and in the history of supernatural horror fiction. Although supernatural writers of the 1950s and 1960s attempted to adapt the fundamental plots and themes of Gothic literature to a modern milieu, Demons by Daylight is recognized as the first book to realize this ambition without sacrificing the intensity and imaginative richness of traditional Gothicism. The tales in Campbell's first work, The Inhabitant of the Lake, and Less Welcome Tenants, several of which were reissued in the collection Cold Print (1984), are considered to be among the best evocations of Lovecraft's work. In addition to his short story collections, Campbell has written several novels of the supernatural. Critics have generally perceived his novels to be less striking than his short stories, although this opinion is offered with the understanding that shorter fictional forms are more suited to expressing the tenuous and often intense effects of supernatural horror and that the supernatural novel is seldom more than a qualified success. Nevertheless, Campbell's novels are praised for the same qualities of style and imagination which distinguish his short stories.

Principal Works

Short Fiction

The Inhabitant of the Lake, and Less Welcome Tenants 1964

Demons by Daylight 1973

Slow written in 1975; published in 1985

The Height of the Scream 1976

Dark Companions 1982

Cold Print 1984

*Crypt of Cthulhu, Vol. 6, No. 1, 1986

Scared Stiff: Tales of Sex and Death 1986

*Crypt of Cthulhu, Vol. 6, No. 8, 1987

Dark Feasts: The World of Ramsey Campbell 1987

Needing Ghosts 1990

Waking Nightmares 1991

Alone with Horrors: The Great Short Fiction of Ramsey Campbell 1961-1991 1993

Two Obscure Tales 1993

Other Major Works

The Doll Who Ate His Mother (novel) 1976

The Bride of Frankenstein [as Carl Dreadstone] (novel) 1977

Dracula's Daughter [as Carl Dreadstone] (novel) 1977

The Wolfman [as Carl Dreadstone] (novel) 1977

The Face That Must Die (novel) 1979

The Parasite (novel) 1980

The Nameless (novel) 1981

§The Claw [as Jay Ramsey] (novel) 1983

Incarnate (novel) 1983

Obsession (novel) 1985

The Hungry Moon (novel) 1986

Medusa (novel) 1987

The Influence (novel) 1988

Ancient Images (novel) 1989

The Count of Eleven (novel) 1991

Midnight Sun (novel) 1991

*Special issues comprising Ramsey Campbell stories. The issue published in 1987 prints Ghostly Tales, a collection that he wrote as a youth.

†Contains the autobiographical essay "At the Back of My Mind: A Guided Tour," in which Campbell discusses his dysfunctional family life and his mother's paranoia.

‡Published in England in 1980 as To Wake the Dead.

§Published in 1985 asNight of the Claw.

Criticism

T. E. D. Klein (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Ramsey Campbell: An Appreciation," in Nyctalops, No. 13, 1977, pp. 19-25.

[Klein is an American author of horror fiction whose works include the novel The Ceremonies (1984) and the novella collection Dark Gods (1985). In the following excerpt from an essay originally written in 1974, he examines the stories in Demons by Daylight and attests to the marked influence that the collection has had on the modern horror story.]

This is the story of how a young man crawled out from under H. P. Lovecraft's shadow, saw the sun, and wrote Demons by Daylight . . .

Back in 1969, after Arkham House had exhausted its supply of Lovecraft fiction and had run through three volumes of miscellaneous "Lovecraftiana" (juvenile efforts, fragments, "Lovecraft as Mentor," "Lovecraft in Providence," "Lovecraft and the New England Megaliths," et al), it dipped still further into the barrel and came out with Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, a collection of pastiches in the Lovecraft tradition. . . .

[The] best of the pastiches—i.e. the most faithful—were unaccountably the worst. One might almost conclude, in fact, that, as a literary form, the pastiche is really a close cousin to the translation (if temporal rather than spatial) and that it is, therefore, in the words of the adage, like a woman: the more beautiful, the less faithful; the more faithful, the less beautiful.

It isn't so surprising as it might seem, then, that of all the Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, the most effective were those that departed most radically from the original Canon. The best of the lot—and certainly the most haunting—was a short piece called "Cold Print." The title itself, in its very understatement, stood out in contrast to all the Dwellers in Darkness, the Shadows from the Steeple, and the Shamblers from the Stars that proliferated throughout the book; and the story stood out even more.

It began, it's true, with one of those portentous epigraphs from a Forbidden Work—in this case something called the Revelations of Glaaki, Volume 12 (certainly the most unsavory title since De Vermis Mysteriis)—and, in fact, the quotation itself was even more portentous than most, claiming as it did that "even the minions of Cthulhu dare not speak of Y'golonac"—rather an arrogant assertion for a relative newcomer to make, reminding one of those billboard ads that heralded the movie Mighty Joe Young: "Mightier, More Terrifying Than King Kong!!!"

Happily, though, this unholier-than-thou air was dispelled by the story's opening sentence, in which a young schoolmaster with the disreputable name of Sam Strutt "licked his fingers and wiped them on his handkerchief." The tale went on to include such untraditional elements as sexual frustration, loneliness, and outright horniness; pornography of the kind known euphemistically as "discipline"; hints of homosexuality and pedophilia; allusions to Burroughs, Robbe-Grillet, Hubert Selby, Jr., and B-movies .. . ; but the commercialization of Christmas, and the despair that only a holiday can breed; throwaway images both comical and bleak ("Once he met the gaze of an old woman staring down at a point below her window which was perhaps the extent of her outside world. Momentarily chilled, he hurried on, pursued by a woman who, on the evidence within her pram, had given birth to a litter of newspapers ...") ; to an obscure dabbler in the occult named Roland Franklyn ; to say nothing of such un-Lovecraftian details as bus fumes, slush, snot, and dogshit; all capped by one of the most breathtakingly gruesome endings I have ever read.

Save for that memorable finale, and the fact that the story was miserably proofread, this was hardly the kind of thing one would expect to find in a volume of Lovecraftiana. It was much too good. It seemed a product of that lonely land somewhere between New Grub Street and the "New Town" of Jubb (two of the dozen or so indispensable British novels); it was a tale Lovecraft might have written if he'd had the benefit of an excellent editor, if he'd survived into the fifties—and if he'd been far, far more honest about himself.

The tale's author, one J. Ramsey Campbell, was listed in the back of the book. It was noted with old maidish redundancy, that he had "the same background as the popular Beatles—Liverpool, England," and that he had been born in 1946. . . .

The note went on to mention two books of Campbell's; one, The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants, was, it declared, "published by Arkham House when he was but 18" . . . and the other, Demons by Daylight, was forthcoming. . . .

The former proved something of a let-down. Like Frank Utpatel's rather cartoony cover and end-paper maps, the tales seemed too eager to spell everything out. They told too much. So did the introduction, in which the young author announced, with bold naivete, his intention to create a new setting for the Cthulhu Mythos, the Arkham area having been "saturated." (God knows he was right about that!) He went on to describe each imaginary city in considerable detail, as well as the "esoteric volume" he intended to quote from—thereby saving readers much work, but also much pleasure, a mistake he was never to repeat. The effect was as if the bravado of "Cold Print'" s epigraph had found its way into the text. That story had been searingly honest about the secret urges of its protagonist; here, unfortunately, the Campbell of an earlier day was proving all too candid about his own authorial ambitions.

Throughout the book one was conscious of a deliberate striving after a Lovecraftian corpus, a deliberate dropping of names, a deliberate setting up of the horrors. Except for one understated little piece called "The Will of Stanley Brooke," done largely in dialogue, the stories seemed filled with artifice; Campbell hadn't yet learned to cover his tracks.

That it was an extraordinary work for an 18-year-old boy to have produced was, of course, obvious in every line; but obviously, too, this was the work of a writer still laboring in Lovecraft's shadow. . . .

In succeeding years other Arkham House editions were sent for, as finances and enthusiasms dictated. One by one the Derleth anthologies arrived, each with its spurious "unpublished Lovecraft" tale written by Derleth himself, testifying less to his modesty than to his marketing sense; and, each time, the first thing I looked for was the Campbell offering. He made, I believe, every volume.

They were a mixed bag. If no story ever excited me quite as much as "Cold Print," largely because of that one's unusually evocative atmosphere, they were nevertheless far superior to those tales in the Inhabitant volume. "The Church of High Street" was, to be sure, an example of Early Campbell, bearing that period's distinguishing feature, the over-explicit first-person narrator; it seemed, in fact, to belong more to Inhabitant than "The Will of Stanley Brooke," and no doubt preceded that tale. "The Stone on the Island" seemed heavy-handed, too, but the story did offer pleasant hints of things to come: a protagonist desperately alone, his alienation seeming to distort the workday world around him, rendering it surrealistic, dismal, absurd; the half-hearted passes at girls in the office; the office itself, convincingly dull, filled with obtuse people doing trivial things; and the conclusion, whose grisliness made up for whatever lapses the plot may have had.

"The Cellars," "Napier Court," "The Scar" (in a non-Arkham anthology)—the tales grew better and better with each new volume, more subtle and more difficult. "Cold Print," I began to realize, had been a kind of Campbell Primer, containing nearly all the elements that distinguished these later stories. The Early Campbell was gone, and so was the corpus he'd tried to create; at last we were witnessing the formation of a genuine body of work, unified not by mere intention but by vision.

That observation, of course, is one calculated to embarrass any writer, and to Campbell himself I apologize for it; it sounds entirely too grandiose, too pretentious. Yet a vision there was, a sustaining one; and now that Demons by Daylight has at last been published, we can see that this vision of the universe—paranoiac, often confounding, always haunting, dreadful, unique—has been sustained throughout an entire book. . . .

One of the first things that strikes one about Campbell's stories in this new collection is that—following the trend of his earlier pieces—they are extremely difficult. . . .

Still, being "difficult" is not necessarily a fault; and for horror, in fact, it is almost always a great virtue. Several years ago, when I was teaching school, a fellow teacher was charged with being "too difficult" for the students; the material he presented was, it was argued, "over their heads." I recall his reply: "I think it's important to give them a little more than they can handle," he said. "I like to remain a little beyond them."

For an English instructor this may or may not be true; but for a horror writer, it should probably be the rule. Writing horror stories must be rather like playing the Pied Piper; if the tune one pipes is too fast or difficult or subtle, the reader grows bored and drops out of the dance. If, on the other hand, the tune is too plodding and predictable, the reaction is the same: boredom, loss of attention. The trick, apparently, is to dance just a little ahead of the reader, teasing him, leading him on.

The risk, of course, is considerable: if one balks at making the slightest concession to the reader, one may end up with a kind of "horror tale as minimal art," akin to the most progressive of progressive jazz, the most abstract of abstract painting. In that case, as Kirby McCauley has pointed out, one runs the risk of writing stories for oneself alone; even if other readers might have the means to decipher them, no one will care to try.

Yet the other extreme presents an even graver danger: write a tale too easy to grasp and you allow the reader to realize he is more intelligent than the writer—something that, inexplicably, a brilliant man like Derleth permitted in his own dismayingly predictable Lovecraft pastiches.

Campbell, fortunately, seems to have mastered that trick of dancing just beyond our reach. Most of his stories have a hazy, dreamlike quality in which events are comprehensible when taken by themselves as discreet units, but in which they are piled upon one another so frantically that one gets lost in the swirl. Take, for example, the mad rush of images that we find at the beginning of "The Lost":

It was in Rudesheim that I had my first important insight into Bill's character. The previous night, outside Koblenz, we had caught a bus in an unsuccessful attempt to find the town centre and when our three marks fare ran out had been...

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Alan Ryan (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Rustlings and Slitherings in the Shadows," in Book World—The Washington Post, April 25, 1982, p. 9.

[Ryan is the author of short stories and a horror novel. The Kill (1982). In the following excerpt, he praises Campbell's Dark Companions.]

Stand in a bookstore, near a display of horror fiction, and you're very likely to hear readers exercising the single most compelling literary criterion for the genre. "Is it scary?" they want to know. There are other, and perhaps more dignified, standards to be applied, but "Is it scary?" is the bottom line.

Ramsey Campbell's stories are scary. He has been writing them, and building his reputation...

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Peter Cannon (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: A review of Cold Print, in Crypt of Cthulhu, Vol. 4, No. 8, Lammas, 1985, pp. 42-3.

[In the following excerpt from a review of the retrospective collection Cold Print, Cannon expresses a preference for Campbell's later stories over his earlier ones, finding them more effective and characteristic of the author.]

Britisher Ramsey Campbell stands today as one of those rare horror writers (of which T. E. D. Klein is perhaps the leading American exponent) who follow in the classic tradition of H. P. Lovecraft, not by adapting the superficial trappings of the Mythos, but by focusing on the creation of mood and atmosphere, through the use of a...

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Ramsey Campbell (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Dig Us No Grave," in Fantasy Review, Vol. 9, No. 3, March, 1986, pp. 35-6.

[In the following essay, Campbell discusses the current state of the horror fiction genre.]

The tale of supernatural terror often deals with the cyclical nature of things: the ghost that always returns, the events that are repeated from generation to generation, the personalities that are reborn. As well as dealing with the cyclical, the genre suffers from the process too. Perhaps it should: we shall see.

"I believe ghost story writing to be a dying art. It's just possible that another Montague Rhodes James may appear one day, but I profoundly doubt it." So wrote H....

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Clive Barker (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "The Bare Bones: An Introduction," in Scared Stiff: Seven Tales of Seduction and Terror by Ramsey Campbell, Warner Books, 1987, pp. ix-xii.

[Barker is an English short story writer, novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and film director known especially for the horror stories published in his popular six-volume collection, Clive Barker's Books of Blood (1984-86). In the following excerpt from an essay that was written in 1986, he commends Campbell for his ability to blend sex and horror in Scared Stiff.]

Death and the Maiden.

It's an eternally popular subject for painters, and in a sense for writers and filmmakers too. What does the...

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Kim Newman (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Campbell Is Coming," in New Statesman, Vol. 115, No. 2974, March 25, 1988, p. 28.

[An English critic and playwright, Newman is the author of Nightmare Movies (1985), a critical history of horror film since 1968, and coauthor of Ghastly beyond Belief (1985), a celebration of the most ridiculous moments from science fiction books and movies. In the following excerpt, he finds that Campbell's most affecting stories in Dark Feasts combine "almost surreal ghastliness and almost too-real urban decay. "]

Campbell's importance as a force in modern British horror is . . . demonstrated Dark Feasts, a representative selection from the first 25...

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Jack Sullivan (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Ramsey Campbell: Dark Feasts," in Horror: 100 Best Books, edited by Stephen Jones and Kim Newman, Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc., 1988, pp. 216-18.

[An American educator and critic, Sullivan is the author of Elegant Nightmares: The English Ghost Story from Le Fanu to Blackwood (1978) and has edited Lost Souls: A Collection of English Ghost Stories ( 1983) and The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural (1986). In the following essay, he states that Campbell's strength as a writer lies in the suggestive quality of his fiction, which creates in the reader the realization that "something lurks in the corner of the page even more chilling...

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Gary William Crawford (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "The Lovecraftian Tales" and "The Tales of Illusion," in Ramsey Campbell Starmont House, Inc., 1988, pp. 11-15, 16-25.

[A short story writer, poet, and critic, Crawford is also the editor of Gothic, a journal of Gothic literature studies. He has published essays on such Gothic writers as Robert Aickman, J. S. Le Fanu, Walter de la Mare, and Oliver Onions, and contributed to Horror Literature: A Core Collection and Reference Guide (1981). In the following excerpt, Crawford surveys Campbell's short fiction.]

As Campbell remarks in his introduction to Cold Print, . . . his collection of Lovecraftian stories, "The first book of Lovecraft's I read made...

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Ramsey Campbell (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: An introduction to Waking Nightmares, Tom Doherty Associates, 1991, pp. 1-6.

[In the following essay, which was written in 1990, Campbell discusses the intent and sources of inspiration for the stories collected in Waking Nightmares.]

Horror fiction can be many things. The field includes the ghost stories of Sheridan Le Fanu and M. R. James, not to mention the best tales of Russell Kirk. It ranges from the psychological terrors of John Franklin Bardin to the philosophical terrors of Samuel Beckett's The Unnamable and Not I. It embraces both the supernatural visions of Algernon Blackwood at his best—"The Willows," 'The Wendigo"—and the...

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Michael A. Morrison (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Patterns, Demanding to Be Read . . . ," in Necrofile: The Review of Horror Fiction, No. 2, Fall, 1991, pp. 4-6.

[In the following excerpt, Morrison celebrates Waking Nightmares and Dark Feasts as evidence of the continuing development of Campbell's skill as a writer.]

If you're a Campbell enthusiast, you already know you want [Waking Nightmares]; if not, I recommend it as an introduction to his recent work. Read in conjunction with the thirty stories in his twenty-five-year retrospective Dark Feasts (1987), these nineteen tales, all published during the Eighties, confirm his continuing growth and mastery.

The first...

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Ramsey Campbell with Stefan Dziemianowicz (interview date 1992)

SOURCE: An interview in The Count of Thirty: A Tribute to Ramsey Campbell, edited by S. T. Joshi, Necronomicon Press, 1993, pp. 7-26.

[The interview was conducted primarily in July 1991 and updated in December 1992. In the following excerpt from the interview, Campbell talks about the beginning of his career, focusing on his short fiction.]

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S. T. Joshi (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Alone with a Master," in Necrofile: The Review of Horror Fiction, No. 8, Spring, 1993, pp. 6-8.

[An American editor and critic, Joshi has written extensively on authors of weird fiction and is the leading figure in the field of H. P. Lovecraft scholarship and criticism. He is also the editor of The Count of Thirty: A Tribute to Ramsey Campbell (1993). Here, Joshi reviews Alone with the Horrors and examines Campbell's appeal as a short story writer.]

I am on record as saying that Ramsey Campbell is the most significant weird writer of our time, and perhaps the most significant since Lovecraft. [Alone with the Horrors: The Great Short Fiction of...

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S. T. Joshi (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Ramsey Campbell: Before and after Lovecraft," in The Count of Thirty: A Tribute to Ramsey Campbell, edited by S. T. Joshi, Necronomicon Press, 1993, pp. 27-31.

[In the following essay, Joshi traces the influence of H. P. Lovecraft in Campbell's short fiction, noting that Campbell developed his own distinctive literary style in Demons by Daylight.]

Although he does not have even a fraction of the popular following of Stephen King and Clive Barker, there seems to be general agreement amongst critics in the field that British writer Ramsey Campbell is the leading weird fictionist of our time. But like Lord Dunsany and Algernon Blackwood, Campbell has more often...

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Simon MacCulloch (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: "Glimpses of Absolute Power: Ramsey Campbell's Concept of Evil," in The Count of Thirty: A Tribute to Ramsey Campbell, edited by S. T. Joshi, Necronomicon Press, 1993, pp. 32-37.

[In the following excerpt, MacCulloch explicates Campbell's concept of evil as illustrated in the story "The Guy. "]

He believed that the worst murders were inexplicable in terms of the psychology of the criminals. One of the criminals he'd interviewed had described a sense of being either close to something or part of something which the act of torturing had never quite allowed him to glimpse—a sense that he was trying to assuage a hunger which was larger than he...

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