Ramsey Campbell Critical Essays

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.