Filler content with Ramsey Campbell – Part 2

And following on from yesterday’s blog entry, here’s the second part of the Ramsey Campbell feature that appeared in Black Static #40:-


There’s a similar reality dysfunction in Campbell’s most recent novel, with an overlap between our world and that of THE KIND FOLK (PS Publishing signed jhc, 219pp, £39.99), the fae or fairies of folklore and related creatures, those who live in the magic places and the hinterland between realities.

It opens with a scene that is as painfully topical as last night’s reality TV, with the Arnold family on a talk show hosted by Jeremy Kyle wannabe Jack Brittan. Father Maurice suspects that son Luke is not his offspring, but the get of his brother Terence, only DNA testing proves otherwise. But there is another surprise in store, a revelation that throws the subject of Luke’s paternity up in the air. Luke wants to forget the whole matter, only finds that he can’t. Uncle Terry knows something, but dies before he can reveal the secret. In the house he inherits, Luke discovers many things of an occult nature and an old scrapbook that hints at much more. An up and coming comedian and regular on the club circuit, Luke finds that the bookings he starts to receive take him to the places Terry visited and listed in the scrapbook, but the people he seeks out all seem to be scared of revealing more about the circumstances of his birth. He also witnesses some events that imply non-human creatures have taken an interest in him, and the fears remain regardless of how he attempts to rationalise them away.

The novel starts in a thoroughly modern vein but quickly escalates into familiar territory, a tale of a changeling and thwarted attempts to discover the secret of his birth, this in turn leading to even darker revelations. As so often with Campbell, suggestion is at the heart of the action, with hints of terrible monsters lurking in the scenery, of forbidden rites and places where worlds intersect, a hidden history known only to the cognoscenti. It’s all done with admirable aplomb so that, even as we come to identify fully with Luke, we can feel his life unravelling, sense the things that pluck at its edges even before he does. There’s nothing especially new here, but if it’s a familiar tale then it is also one that has seldom been told so well, with fresh changes rung on nearly every page and an overwhelming feel of the ineffable at work in human affairs, of a reality that lies in counterpoint to the rational, scientific world view and which resists our attempts to trivialise the most important aspects of existence. And yet, even as it shows that our world is richer than we can imagine, that there is more to reality than is dreamt of in our finest philosophies, the book is tinged with sadness, a feeling that for the Kind Folk this is a final fling, that they are passing from human memory and we will never know their like again in a world where the Jeremy Kyles stand triumphant and subvert our need for the miraculous into an overweening preoccupation with the mundane. Campbell ends with a note of hope, but it is the small echo of a reed pipe creeping into the vacuum that remains after the muzak of modern life has reached its crescendo and the audience has left for home.

Within the context of Campbell’s oeuvre GHOSTS KNOW (PS Publishing hc, 236pp, £19.99), the novel before The Kind Folk, is unusual in that there is no obvious or central supernatural element. In fact, one could make a case for it being a mystery novel, with a possible grace note or two of the outré.

The main protagonist is radio talk show host Graham Wilde, who regards it as part of his role to tackle bigots and those he thinks of as fakes. This puts him on headlong collision course with celebrity psychic Frank Jasper, who has offered his help to the Goodchild family in the search for their missing daughter Kylie. Graham intends to expose the psychic as a fraud, but instead everything he does turns round and bites him on the arse, with Jasper hinting that somehow Graham may have been linked to the girl’s disappearance. The audience turn against Graham and the police have him marked down as a person of interest, as does Kylie’s thuggish boyfriend Wayne, while Graham’s temper pushes away those who might help him, including girlfriend Christine, and damages his career. Suspended from the radio station, Graham realises that his best hope of redemption is to discover what really happened to Kylie Goodchild, even though to do so will place his own life in danger.

There are several strands to this short novel. One concerns racism and bigotry, which is seen in the callers to Graham’s radio show and the jokes of the barkeeper at the pub he frequents, and which Graham believes he is meant to combat, a backdrop of resentment, the current on which all the rest of the action floats. Another strand takes in deception and manipulation, most obviously seen in the tricks of so-called psychic Jasper, but also in Graham’s own attempts to shape public opinion, which so badly backfire on him, and the way in which he conceals important things from Christine, the person who has the most right to know what is going on in his life. Lastly there is the theme of anger management and lack of self-control, with Graham continually on edge and ready to lash out, an attitude that has its roots in the dark events that took place in his childhood and which costs him dearly as situations that could have been contained escalate out of control and sometimes turn to violence. While he may ultimately be proved right, Graham is not an entirely reliable narrator as everything is filtered through his self-righteous and more politically correct than thou attitudes.

With cracking dialogue, deft characterisation, scenes rich in black comedy, and more subtexts than you can point a medium’s planchette at, this is a first rate example of Campbell’s craft. The author’s greatest achievement though, is to take a relatively straightforward mystery plot and use it as a sounding board to test aspects of modern society, the things that we should all question, with the dystopian side of the picture represented by Frugo, the corporation with a finger in every pie and a pie for every finger, the epitome of a bland tyranny, an outwardly benign and superficially reasonable despotism, which in a way only makes it all the more insidious. I loved it.

We started this feature with Campbell’s first collection of short stories, and so it seems only right that we should end with his latest. With fourteen stories, one previously unpublished and one that first appeared in Black Static, HOLES FOR FACES (Dark Regions Press pb, 250pp, $15.95) is a rare treat for lovers of the type of horror story that respects the traditions of the genre while bringing something new and thoroughly modern to the table.

Marsden gets off a train by mistake in ‘Passing through Peacehaven’ and finds that he is alone on an isolated platform, with the words coming over the tannoy making no sense and his unease growing. In a final twist it appears that Peacehaven may not be a station at all, but something else entirely, the story constantly shifting tracks and creating bafflement in the reader and a feeling of unease to mirror that of its protagonist. An old man is reminded of somebody he would rather forget when his grandchildren make an unusual gesture in ‘Peep’, the story proceeding with resentment between the generations bubbling away beneath the surface, the feeling that different standards apply, and the protagonist’s fear of crossing some tentative line, while the underlying subtext hints at the “haunting” as a possible manifestation of senile dementia.

A smugly complacent man is enlisted as a “friend” in a TV quiz for ‘Getting It Wrong’, but his refusal to be made a fool of has serious consequences for both himself and the contestant he is meant to be helping, the story deftly tying into modern crazes and giving them a decidedly macabre twist, Campbell coming down firmly against the cynicism of those who feel generosity of spirit is a character flaw. Todd checks into the wrong hotel in ‘The Room Beyond’, the Belgrave instead of the Bellevue, but the text is littered with clues that his problems are a bit more complex than that, Campbell deftly using word play to hint at the true state of affairs, and the story progresses smoothly to the protagonist’s own horrific moment of realisation. On holiday in Italy with his parents, Charlie is frightened by the visions he has of people with ‘Holes for Faces’ after a visit to the catacombs, the story obliquely told, with things seen from the corner of the eye until we reach the moment of epiphany, with the protagonist’s awareness of his own mortality, the skull beneath the skin.

In ‘The Rounds’ a man sees a Muslim woman leave a briefcase behind on a train and reunites her with this lost property, only for it to then reappear on the train provoking further attempts to set things right, the story playing with our fear of the stranger, the protagonist becoming a victim of his own ability to imagine the worst, a product of the prevailing zeitgeist. David’s family Christmas is tainted by his grandmother’s fears of an illuminated Santa Claus that she thinks is real in ‘The Decorations’, the subtext of the story hinting at senile dementia but then with events reinterpreted through the eyes of an imaginative and impressionable child so that what happens becomes something monstrous and terrifying. Fraith gets lost in ‘The Address’, unable to find the railway station and instead ending up at a school where the pupils appear to be punishing their elders in revenge for bullying and abuse, and he finds himself a victim while feeling that he should in fact be one of the accusers, the horror of the story rooted in the unfairness of the situation and the way in which childhood revisited is never quite what we expect.

A man is forced into repeat patterns of behaviour in ‘Recently Used’ as he attempts to reach his injured wife in hospital and make his peace with her, the story hinting at the futility of deathbed reunions and that we should say whatever needs to be said now, before it is too late. In ‘Chucky Comes to Liverpool’ adults protest the showing of the Child’s Play movies, but in harping on about their evil reputation they infect the mind of a young boy leading him into violence. Campbell here deals with the serious theme of how horror films, and presumably books also, can affect us, and appears to find that any attempt to protect the young will backfire, giving the images of horror a prominence and more power than they might otherwise possess.

Childhood memories are distorted and infect the present day in ‘With the Angels’, when two sisters visit their childhood home, the story effectively conveying how the misunderstandings of the  past can linger and taint our lives for ever after, sometimes with tragic consequences as here. When a teacher gives a pupil an advent calendar as a reward in ‘Behind the Doors’, the boy’s grandfather is reminded of his own ritual humiliation as a child, compelling him to adopt past patterns of behaviour and act to bring about closure, though Campbell interjects an ambiguous note so that we don’t really know how justified the protagonist is in his antipathy to the aptly named Mr. Smart.

Tom attempts to give his cousin a Halloween fright in ‘Holding the Light’, but himself becomes the victim as something macabre intrudes into their play, the story full of subtle touches of detail that create a growing sense of menace before the final reveal, or rather the final lack of any reveal, just suggestion and the dying of the light in an admirably understated ending. A boy takes ‘The Long Way’ to the flat of his disabled uncle to avoid passing an abandoned house with a figure on sticks lurking in its doorway, resulting in tragedy. Last story in the book, this is one of the most effective, with images that linger in the mind’s eye and disturb long after the story is done, memorable characters such as the crusty Uncle Phil and nephew Craig, who finds solace by writing the horror stories that his parents so disapprove of and believe responsible for his dark imaginings. It blurs the line between horror and self-deluding fantasy with an admirable skill and dexterity, keeping the reader off balance.

Looking back, it seems that childhood and old age are recurring themes in these stories, with the fears and misunderstanding of youthful ignorance mirrored in the confusion of those approaching the end of their lives with an accompanying diminishing of the mental faculties and sense of temporal displacement. Campbell writes horror stories and does so splendidly well, but his subject is always human nature itself, and it’s one that he understands well.

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