Saturday, June 20, 2015

Ramsey Campbell: Not Quite Long Lost


On a summer evening long ago, I wandered with a group of underground urban explorers to Drawbridge, a ghost town slowly sinking into the marshes of South San Francisco Bay, a stone’s throw from San Jose, yet weirdly isolated, as abandoned places always are, a lonesome nub in the world.

Our group entered one of the dozen or shacks yet to be claimed forever by the mud of the bay. Some of us had brought along stories and poems to share.

As twilight deepened and shadows rose up the plank walls, I read to my companions a story called “Again,” about a needy soul on a walk in the lonely English countryside and the needy thing he finds in an old abandoned cottage--like the one we stood in, all of us perilously balanced on rotting sagging floor boards or ankle deep in burbling mud, the ground breathing under our feet, crows cawing as they swung and flashed by like swift black spirits outside the windows.

O, how they reacted, exploding with cries of shock and outrage for a tale that, while rooted in the work of M.R. James, was cruelly, grotesquely modern and alarmingly vivid, explicit, and poetic as it pulled us into its ghastly quagmire.


The author of “Again” was not one of the names that pounce on the minds of American horror readers:  Stephen King, Peter Straub and Dean Koontz, for example. This name belongs to the best writer of horror you’ve never heard of, one from England--Ramsey Campbell.

Campbell, who has won more awards for his fiction than any of three names above—started his career in the early 1960s with a series of admittedly grinding H.P. Lovecraft pastiches. Then, sometime in the mid-1970s, (due maybe to the influence of psychedelics), his style underwent an abrupt, unnerving change, the kind where the wall you’re leaning on, flips on a hinge and spins you into another, secret room.

His writing became both hallucinatory and more skillful. His imagery became strange and colorful beyond words, almost as though he was under assault from synesthesia. His prose traveled into different atmosphere’s and reached around deadly twisted corners. The air itself breathed menace.

Meanwhile the characterizations deepened, from pale blunderers opening wrong doors, to realistic, complex, sympathetic men and women whose minds are cracking, as the world cracks under and all around them.

When I started reading Campbell’s work in 1980 (led to his Rosemary’s Baby novel The Parasite after the transforming experience of Peter Straub’s Ghost Story), what struck me wasn’t that he wrote good, smart scary stories, but that he was such a good good writer: eloquent, daring, experimental, inventive.

Campbell was—and is--a true literary writer, but one who openly, defiantly dwells in a genre of ill repute. From my view, horror fiction may be a where an artist can do as he pleases, take risks while both entertaining and challenging readers willing to go along. No worries about the highbrows from the book page of The London Times or the marketing crews of the Big Seven Publishers and their greedy shareholders demanding absurd profit margins.

Campbell’s usual haunting ground is his native Liverpool, a grim industrial place; nary a Beatles’ tune is heard. (Admirably, Campbell avoids Beatle references almost entirely, except for some rare satiric asides in one novel. Ohh, it would be so easy to play that tune, wouldn’t it?)  His 1980s fiction is shadowed by Thatcherism. His fiction since then is no sunnier and just as daring.
is 1980s fiction is consideredHHHH

Campbell is amazingly fecund, being the author of over twenty novels and countless short stories. As with most horror fiction, his best work is in short stories, which can still be found in the U.S. in collections such as Alone with the Horrors (which I recommend first of all). You will shudder, of course. And you’ll be amazed at his blazing talent.


Campbell’s novels tend to fall short with me, though some are more than worthwhile: The Face That Must Die; The Doll Who Ate His Mother (two that deserve best-title awards); Ancient Images; and Secret Stories, an offbeat take on the serial killer genre. (An early edition of Face, from now-defunct Scream Press contains a revealing and disturbing autobiographical essay.)

The Long Lost, a novel from 1991, features many of Campbell’s greatest strengths, and some of his weaknesses. It tells the story of an English couple, David and Joelle Owain, on holiday in David’s native Wales. While exploring a deserted island near David’s ancestral village, just offshore in the Irish Sea, they find a very old woman, Gwendolyn Owain, living alone. She miraculously produces an old photo of herself standing companionably alongside David’s family.

Persuaded that Gwendolyn is David’s long lost relative, he and Joelle take her back to their home in the modern city of Chester and set her up in a nearby nursing home. Days later, they invite her to their annual neighborhood barbecue, introduce her to their many friends. Gwendolyn brings along dessert, some intriguing, but nasty tasting cakes.

One of these cakes slips off the plate and lands on the grass. Not long after, the grass dies.

Worst, those who partook of the dessert find their lives falling apart, their sanity crumbling. No supernatural shadows here: just minds breaking down, everyday people going mad.

As with many of Campbell’s stories, its strongest suit is his skill at seeing through a character’s eyes. Campbell writes in a highly original oblique style where the characters see the world through warped and broken planes of glass. They respond diffiedently, and often mistakenly, to each other and to the events in their lives. The world seems beyond their grasp to where even everyday objects become portentous and inoffensive comments carry deeper meaning than intended. No one can see straight in Ramsey Campbell’s world. People in the grip of solipsism and a terrible, angry loneliness.

Nor can they talk to each other. I get the impression of people unable to even look each other in the eye. This leads to desperate sense of miscommunication, dislocation and alienation. The consequences are often fatal.

More frightening is Campbell’s talent for plunging into individual madness. Consciousness becomes smashed into even smaller shards that seemed to get sucked down a drain of terror.

This is especially true in episodes portraying a train operator’s revenge on his wife’s new boyfriend and a computer salesman’s furious reaction to being driven out of business. There is little in the way of gore and no supernatural presence at all, but violent descent into madness are disturbing to a degree more explicitly violent writers can never hope to match.

That said, The Long Lost has its issues. Campbell’s allusive style sometimes seems a little too clever for its own good. When he carries it over to his dialogue, the effect seems clumsy and ineffectual. In a few scenes, the characters spend so much time mumbling around their conflicts, their fear and rage muffled by English politesse and indirection, I wanted to yell: “Look, out with it!”

Nor is the ending entirely satisfying as we learn the secret of Gwendolyn’s identity, which seems rooted in old pre-Christian Celtic notions of sin and retribution through time. Campbell is reaching for the ineffable here, the boundaries and the source that so many tales of horror try to approach, but never can really reach. Genius that he is, that realm remains no less beyond his great talents.

Still, you really should give Ramsey Campbell a go, especially his short stories, even though his work—like many ambitious, midlist genre writers--is hard to find in the U.S. these days. This problem I’ll save for later fulmination.

Copyright 2015 by Thomas Burchfield

Thomas Burchfield’s latest novel is Butchertown, a ripping, 1920s gangster shoot-‘em-up, to be published later this year, along with his original screenplays The Devil’s Due and Dracula: A Tale of Power. His contemporary Dracula novel, Dragon's Ark, was winner of the IPPY, NIEA, and Halloween Book festival awards for horror in 2012. He’s also author of the original screenplays Whackers and The Uglies (e-book editions only). Published by Ambler House Publishing, those three are available at Amazon in various editions. You can also find his work at Barnes and Noble,  Powell's Books, and Scribed. He also “friends” on Facebook, tweets on Twitter, reads at Goodreads and drinks at various bars around the East Bay. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.