This post is part of an ongoing series on 101 weird writers featured in The Weird compendium, the anthology that serves as the inspiration for this site. There is no ranking system; the order is determined by the schedule of posts.
Ramsey Campbell (1946 – ) is an award-winning horror-fiction author from Liverpool, England, mentored by Lovecraft protégé August Derleth. In his stories, largely evoking working- or middle-class settings, Campbell manages to update the weird tale and apply his keen ability to evoke both subtle supernatural horror and portraits of modern life in England. One of the preeminent writers of his generation, Campbell has also edited influential supernatural fiction anthologies; three of his top ten favorite stories are reprinted in The Weird (‘The Willows’ by Blackwood, ‘Smoke Ghost’ by Leiber and ‘The Hospice’ by Aickman). ‘The Brood’ (1980), as noted by the anthologist when first published, ‘has the cumulative effect of a nightmare from which one cannot awake’.
Grady Hendrix is a frequent contributor to Tor.com and author of the recent 80’s-inspired horror novel, My Best Friend’s Exorcism. In this contribution to the Weird Writers series, Hendrix examines a story by an author who influenced him as a horror writer.
— David Davis, editor of 101 Weird Writers
Ramsey Campbell’s fiction is crazy. Not in the sense that it’s arrow-through-the-head wacky, nor in the sense that it’s over the top, but in the clinical sense of the word. Campbell writes horror that gets its mileage by deploying the effects of mental illness. His characters are gripped by depression, their perceptions can’t be trusted, inanimate objects are conscious, living creatures behave like automatons, personalities are overridden and replaced, consciousness is detached from physicality. More than that, Campbell seems determined to induce these symptoms in his readers. His style is his substance.
Born in Liverpool, much has been made of his childhood devotion to H.P. Lovecraft and his early career as a Lovecraft impersonator. His first published story, “The Church in High Street,” was set in the Cthulhu mythos, and his first collection of short stories, The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants, contained nothing but variations on Lovecraft, with their locations changed from New England to plain old England. But Campbell was done with Lovecraft by the age of 23. A far more fruitful way to think about his writing is to take seriously what he wrote in an essay at the end of his second novel, The Face That Must Die, “The object of writing is to tell the truth.”
Campbell writes the way schizophrenics think. His descriptions are crazy-making, full of visual miscues and the confusion of organic verbs with inorganic nouns. Porches “sprout tubular metal scaffolding,” and doors and suitcases are invested with agency (“The porch door had opened. When it had displayed its gap for a while, a suitcase emerged.”) and usually the narrative voice is linked to the distorted perceptions of characters who are delusional, dreaming, or mad:
“The clock was chanting: see you on Jan, see you on Jan. His mind listed places he must wipe, over and over. Had he forgotten one? The door. The doorknob. The table. The chair in which he’d sat. The cup — he must wipe all the cups, to make sure.”
All of the examples above are taken from his first two novels, The Doll Who Ate His Mother (1976) and The Face That Must Die (1979), both of them slim volumes about psychopaths, neither of which was a financial success. Campbell was writing a lot of short stories at the time but his agent was convinced that all the money was in big fat novels, like the ones Stephen King was writing. In 1980, all the horror guys were publishing 400 and 500 page books and getting rich. Didn’t he want to get rich, too? And so Campbell wrote The Parasite, a big fat horror novel about a woman who experiments with astral projection and winds up becoming possessed.
There’s nothing wrong with The Parasite, but you get a much more concentrated dose of Campbellian terror in his short story “The Brood,” published that same year. Blackband is a depressed veterinarian, well on his way to total dehumanization by the vast metropolis where he lives, spending his days with pet owners he loathes, spending his nights staring out the window at the homeless people who shamble down his street like lost souls. He’s fascinated by The Lady of the Lamp, his nickname for a woman who trudges in circles around a streetlamp all night long. When she disappears he tracks her to her squalid home and enters her ruined basement where he finds disgusting worms, hatched from nearby eggs, feeding on a cat that may or may not still be alive (Campbell is typically vague on this point). Blackband goes to fetch gasoline and returns to burn the place down, but he winds up becoming food for this newborn brood.
The one Lovecraftian trick Campbell still uses is keeping his monsters offstage. When Blackband sees the creature that laid the eggs, Campbell describes it as “a stain” an “inverted coat” and he tells us what it doesn’t feel like (“something that was not flesh”) rather than what it does, much as Lovecraft prefers to go on about “indescribable horrors” rather than describing them. Which would seem to be the job of a writer. But Lovecraft, and Campbell, want to invoke a feeling in their readers, and Campbell had decided that the best way to do that is to mess with their minds.
“I do value the shift of perception fiction can achieve,” he said in an interview. “Within the narrative and within my mind.” If Campbell believes that “the object of writing is to tell the truth” then the fact that all perception is untrustworthy is the truth as he lived it. As he writes in an afterward to The Face That Must Die:
“For as far back as I can recall my mother showed signs of paranoid schizophrenia: she was convinced that radio programmes and newspapers contained secret messages for her; she would recognise people as someone quite different and insist that one was disguised as the other.”
He writes that this experience taught him, “That one’s perception of reality (or, in this case, my mother’s) need not be the same thing as objective reality.” Never was this more obvious than when he writes about his own experiences with altered states:
“At times my own indulgence in this [acid] brought me unnervingly close to my mother’s condition, especially when I suffered a protracted nightmarish flashback not long before I began to write this book [The Face That Must Die]. As I penned the tenth chapter I saw the words start to writhe on the page and found it difficult to continue, but I did.”
Campbell doesn’t want to describe actions, he wants to alter perceptions, and giving oneself over to his writing feels a bit like losing one’s mind. Sounds are heightened, perceptions are warped, hallucinations loom. Reactions are divorced from their causes so that they become alien and strange, and his descriptions of horror go hand-in-hand with descriptions of squalor. Reading his books, one begins to feel strongly that their room needs to be cleaned and that bugs are crawling over their skin.
Seen in this light, Lovecraft pales as an influence and some of Campbell’s other favorite authors seem much more relevant. Philip K. Dick played with reader perceptions in some of the same ways and Campbell praises several of Dick’s stories for how they monkey with notions of reality and identity. Campbell’s twisting of words comes from Nabokov whom he cites as “a crash course in how much more you could do with language.”
The problem with Campbell’s work is that it’s hard to sustain this kind of effect for long without driving readers mad. The Parasite begins with a heady seance set piece in which a bunch of children lock a little girl in a dark room along with something unwholesome. By the end of this prologue the reader is wrung out, stressed out, and a little bit burned out. As Campbell said in an interview about this book:
“The problem I’d set myself, which I don’t think you can sustain for novel length, is that it’s from the viewpoint of the character to whom it’s all happening, and she’s aware of what is happening to her. All I think you can do is convey her sense of mounting terror and panic, but there’s a limit to how much you can do that.”
Campbell’s novels are good, but his style really shines in his short stories, each of which feels engineered for maximum intensity, to make the reader feel off-kilter, unable to trust his or her own perceptions, unable to trust the perceptions of the characters, unable to even trust the language on the page. They’re designed, in other words, to make you feel crazy.