Three reviews and the first part of a feature on the work of Ramsey Campbell that originally appeared in Black Static #40 (and if I get time I’ll post the second part tomorrow):-
RAMSEY CAMPBELL: FIFTY YEARS OF HORROR
Described as “Britain’s most respected living horror writer” by The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Ramsey Campbell has received more awards than any other writer in the field and assembled an enviable body of work. The small acorn from which this mighty oak has sprouted was The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants, a slim volume of Lovecraft pastiches published in a limited edition of 2,009 copies by August Derleth’s Arkham House in 1964 when the author was only eighteen years of age and going by the name J. Ramsey Campbell.
In 2011 PS Publishing released a limited edition of THE INHABITANT OF THE LAKE & OTHER UNWELCOME TENANTS (Drugstore Indian Press paperback, 336pp, £7.99), giving the collection its correct title and adding a lot of supplementary material, plus some striking illustrations by Randy Broecker, and then in August 2013 they added the title to their Drugstore Indian Press paperback range, and now fifty years after the book first appeared here I am reviewing it. Next issue we’ll cover Frankenstein.
The first thing to say, is that the stories are unabashedly Lovecraftian in their provenance, the collection a series of love letters to the creator of Cthulhu and so many other horrors, as the author readily admits in his introduction to the 1964 edition, with the influence of HPL obvious on nearly every page.
Opening story ‘The Room in the Castle’ has a scholar discovering various clues to the location of a monster’s place of imprisonment near Brichester and then setting out to prove his theory with suitably dire consequences. ‘The Horror from the Bridge’ is set over a period of many years in the town of Clotton, telling of a strange house by the river and how its inhabitants, a black magician and his son, schemed to release an elder race and how they were thwarted. There is something of wonder about ‘The Insects from Shaggai’, with an alien race travelling from one world to another in an endless odyssey, hoping to escape the thing that pursues them and seeking to enslave others, including those humans who wander into a dank wood and find their obelisk city. ‘The Render of the Veils’, which I reviewed previously when PS released it as a standalone chapbook, concerns an attempt to pierce the veils of reality and see things as they actually are, unfiltered by human consciousness.
An artist moves into a dilapidated house in a remote area, seeking isolation and a brooding atmosphere to inspire his work, but gets a little more inspiration than is good for him courtesy of ‘The Inhabitant of the Lake’. Three students get lost in the country and stumble across ‘The Plain of Sound’, the residue of an attempt to contact an alien race, an attempt that caused disaster for all connected with it. A writer moves into a house with an unsavoury reputation, and then must prevent ‘The Return of the Witch’ with help from the local doctor. ‘The Mine on Yuggoth’ is sought by an occultist who needs the metal that comes from there to help him attain immortality, but things go very wrong for him in a story that hints at awe inspiring cosmic spectacle as much as it does terror. A man seeks to cheat death and inherit his own property in ‘The Will of Stanley Brooke’, but an observant solicitor realises what is going on and takes steps to sets matters right, in the least Lovecraftian of the tales, one that plays with structure. The victim of an occult assault seeks euthanasia at the hands of a prominent surgeon in ‘The Moon-Lens’, the potent atmosphere and sense of something dreadfully awry informing and driving the story forward.
So how do these tales measure up after all this time?
Most of what’s on offer deals with familiar tropes, and the majority of the stories come with an underlying subtext that’s two parts let sleeping Shoggoths lie to one part of careful what you wish for. Seekers after dangerous or forbidden knowledge, such as Parry in ‘The Room’ and Kevin in ‘Render’, invariably end up biting off more than they can chew, while artistic types seem especially prone to the terrors these stories contain, almost as if we are dealing with monsters from the Id. Unsurprisingly, the subtlety of Campbell’s later work is mostly missing here, but the prose and plotting are more than competent and there is evidence of a strong and original imagination at work, albeit operating within the parameters of another’s template. In stories such as ‘Insects’ and ‘The Mine’ that imagination is seen at full stretch, conjuring up visions of other worlds and forms of life in a universe that is not only stranger than we know but perhaps stranger than we can know, with an emphasis on mankind’s unimportance in this greater scheme of things. And so Campbell, like Lovecraft before him, gives us a sense of cosmic awe, a chance to marvel at the rich diversity of creation, but with a minatory and sobering subtext. Where he stands apart from Lovecraft most obviously is in the English setting of these stories, giving us shadowy rustic settlements and antique towns to rival those of HPL’s New England in the sense of desuetude they convey, the feeling of places where the walls are thin and some other, horror laden reality is just the one wrong step away.
About forty percent of the book is classified as appendices and this section opens with Campbell’s ‘A Note on the First Drafts’, telling us what to expect before leading into typescripts of the stories as first submitted to Arkham’s August Derleth. A more diligent and industrious reviewer might do a line by line comparison of these drafts with the published stories, but I’ll content myself with observing that the main difference is they use Lovecraft’s own settings – Arkham etc. – while for the revised stories Campbell was advised by Derleth to use more familiar English settings and create his own terra incognita to explore. ‘The Box in the Priory’ is the first version of ‘The Room in the Castle’, while we also get drafts of ‘The Horror from the Bridge’, ‘The Tower from Yuggoth’ and ‘The Insects from Shaggai’.
Three other stories feature. Seeking employment with a friend, a man journeys to ancient, rotted Kingsport, only to encounter the menace of ‘The Tomb-Herd’. A traveller in Araby confronts ‘The Face in the Desert’, a story considered the weakest of those submitted and which Derleth chose to exclude from the collection. ‘The Church in High Street’ is ‘The Tomb-Herd’ revisited in an English setting and was published separately in an anthology by Derleth as a teaser for the collection.
In an ‘Afterword’ Campbell gives us more of the history of the book, how it came into being, and his thoughts on the stories now, how they could be improved or altered, and finally we have reproductions of correspondence with Derleth, with his editorial amendments and some of the reasoning behind the changes. All in all, this is an enjoyable collection and an important document that marks the first, faltering steps of one of the genre’s finest practitioners, giving us some historical perspective on Campbell’s career and valuable insight into its genesis.
Campbell’s admiration for Lovecraft is an abiding feature of his work and he continues to play in the master’s sandbox until the present day, as witness recent novella THE LAST REVELATION OF GLA’AKI (PS Publishing jhc, 137pp, £12), which takes its title from a forbidden book and monstrous deity Campbell created back in 1964 to add verisimilitude and depth to one of the stories in Inhabitant.
University librarian Leonard Fairman goes to the seaside town of Gulshaw to track down a copy of the eponymous work, a rare Victorian occult tome, but the man who promised to donate the text to Brichester University Library only has one of the nine sections. The other eight have been divided up among prominent citizens of the town, and to possess them Fairman must visit each in turn, his stay in Gulshaw prolonged by several days and nights as a result. During his time there he sees plentiful signs that not all is right with the town, such as fungal growths and strange jellyfish congregating on the beach at night, while the local produce is having an effect on his metabolism. Also, reading from the book each night before he goes to sleep produces weird dreams, or possibly they aren’t dreams but waking nightmares, a premonition of what is to come.
The Lovecraftian tropes are obvious, with the central ideas of the old gods returning, insular communities and damned texts resonating strongly. Where Campbell comes into his own is in the creation of atmosphere and the careful plotting behind the book. On every page we get clues that things have gone awry, such as the strange performance at the theatre and the affair at the old people’s home, the visions Fairman has of the beach at night and the various hints that the town’s inhabitants are not quite right, with their constant refrains that convey the idea of his staying in Gulshaw, and the meals that are fed to him of unknown provenance. The novella’s strength lies in how these elements all fit into the greater design, so that we the readers have some idea of what is occurring even if the hapless Fairman doesn’t, with everything culminating in a ceremony at the church, but by this time Fairman has been traduced and is ready to fulfil his role in the future to come, with an extra frisson courtesy of girlfriend Sandra’s imminent arrival.
One thing that particularly struck me is how unthreatening the townsfolk are, at least outwardly; they’re not the inbred and misanthropic hybrids of Lovecraft’s oeuvre, but just ordinary folk with a different set of beliefs, and you never have the sense that they mean Fairman any harm, with constant reassurances vouchsafed. It’s a radical departure from the canon, and at times the novella reads like a Lovecraft version of The Wicker Man, with Fairman as Officer Howie, lured to a pagan community and gradually gulled into fitting in with their agenda, rather than fulfilling his own, though by the end Fairman has been transformed in a way that was beyond Howie. Finally, underlying it all is a sense of the power of the written word, the idea that in some way the book and Gla’aki are related, perhaps even interchangeable in some cosmic litany, that as with the Christian religion in the beginning was the word, and words call the universe into being. One of Campbell’s very best, this novella is proof that there is still plenty of life left in Lovecraft’s mythos, that in skilled hands it can still give rise to work every bit as startling and challenging as that produced by its progenitor, and a demonstration of how far Campbell has come since the publication of Inhabitant.
Campbell’s other recent novella THE PRETENCE (PS Publishing hc/jhc, 79pp, £12/£25) is an entirely different kettle of fish. The end of the world has been predicted by the group known as the Finalists, a worldwide cult, but when the moment comes nothing happens. Paul Slater is on a plane and there is only a spot of turbulence. Returned home to his family he finds that everything feels different, that their reality has changed in some indefinable way and underlying it all is the need to stay constantly in touch, to preserve and reinforce the family unit. His wife and children also have memories of something taking place at “the moment”, an earth tremor for one, a bad dream for another. And this effect ripples out into society, but nobody must speak of it.
There’s something profound going on here, the novella touching on philosophical concerns and with a subtext that will reward further investigation. At the heart of the book, if I understand it correctly, is the idea that reality is a construct of consciousness, and the implication of the story seems to be that the world actually has ended, but its existence is extended by a vigorously enforced system of belief, a kind of faith if you prefer; the power of positive thinking and consensus reality are taken to a wholly unprecedented level as faceless officials intervene in individual lives to ensure that certain questions are not asked, that nothing is allowed to undermine the common belief. The characters receive endless hints that the world really has ended, an existential paranoia that eats away at the edges of their collective lives, with distances foreshortened and sounds distorted, underpinning it all that desperate need to keep in contact with each other, to constantly reaffirm their existence in other’s eyes. Eventually they can’t continue in denial, can no longer filter out all the things that are wrong and carry on as if none of it matters, leading into the book’s resolution, a vision of ultimate nullity with the bond between loved ones the last thing to fade away.
While I’ve no doubt that Campbell’s concerns run deeper, it’s possible to find echoes here of a different kind of consensus reality, the political narrative that has increasingly gained ground since 9/11 and the War on Terror, with individual freedoms sacrificed for some supposed greater good. A policeman informs Paul Slater that “Everything you are is in the system”, but later Paul reflects that “I’m fine. It’s the system that isn’t”, only to make such claims is to invite a response. Two officials visit Slater at his workplace and warn him that by expressing doubts and disturbing people he risks placing himself and his family in jeopardy. “Order shapes the world” one official tells him, establishing a further link between belief and the reality it structures. But at the end of the book Paul and his family opt for the unknown rather than this tenuously maintained reality. Campbell leaves us to decide for ourselves if they have made the right choice.