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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