Ramsey Campbell Criticism - Essay

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

(Short Story Criticism)

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)

(Short Story Criticism)

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)

(Short Story Criticism)

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)

(Short Story Criticism)

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)

(Short Story Criticism)

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)

(Short Story Criticism)

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)

(Short Story Criticism)

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)

(Short Story Criticism)

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)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1606 words.)

Michael A. Morrison (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

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)

(Short Story Criticism)

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)

(Short Story Criticism)

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)

(Short Story Criticism)

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)

(Short Story Criticism)

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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