a demon by daylight
cold print talks to Ramsey Campbell on three decades of horror
Ramsey Campbell is the horror writer’s horror writer. Peter Straub considers him to be ‘one of the few real writers in our field. In some ways. . . the best of us all.’ Clive Barker’s opinion is that ‘Ramsey Campbell writes prose as incisive and elegant as anything the mainstream can offer,’ and Jonathon Carroll calls him ‘a storyteller who repeatedly leaves you stunned with a flick of a phrase, or an insight that can honestly be called awesome.’ His press isn’t bad either, one paper proclaiming him to be ‘generally considered the nearest thing to God’ in horror fiction.
The nearest thing to God suggests we go down the pub, and thereafter expounds passionately upon the terrors of real ale drinking: ‘There was one hideous thing that looked as though if you switched all the lights off the place would glow with its radiation. I think I had half a pint and then left it atop the table. People apparently sat and gazed at it for the next hour.’ Luminous beer notwithstanding, it is this ability to unveil the horrors lurking behind the most innocuous, everyday situations that has earned Ramsey Campbell universal critical acclaim and more awards for horror fiction than any other author.
The notion persists that authors must mirror their own works in some way. Campbell of course dashes expectations immediately, being extraordinarily amiable and animated. So animated that drinks go flying to the ground wherever we sit. Leaping up again, he proclaims that he’ll just ‘glower out the door periodically’ to find us a table outside.
What a nice day, he enthuses. No shying away from bright light then.
No towering gothic castle either, nor ivory tower, nor writer’s garret. His house is instead an unintimidating shade of yellow, and the disturbing J. K. Potter pictures on his walls interspersed with photos of, even more disturbingly, Laurel and Hardy.
Slapstick doesn’t feature greatly in the works of Ramsey Campbell. So what is it that marks out a horror writer as being different from the rest of the literary fraternity? Campbell attributes his own particular view of the world to the connection of his formative reading made with his own circumstances growing up in 1960s post-war Liverpool. ‘There was probably a period when I was reading and trying to imitate Lovecraft, whilst equally exploring what was then a considerably ruined Merseyside landscape. Whole slews of ruined streets, which I was perfectly happy to wander through on my way to odd, out of the way cinemas. And because I saw the city all around me as this kind of gothic, almost supernatural landscape, I think a lot of that fed into my writing.’
The writing continued, Campbell soon rejecting Lovecraft’s model but maintaining as a basis for his developing style Merseyside’s and later Britain’s, shadowy landscape. The end result was, unusually for a horror author, a certain respectability as Campbell found himself inheriting the critical mantle of horror’s gentry. What Campbell admits to as a thread of ‘exportable Britishness’ in his writing translated in critical terms into what The Guardian labelled the rightful tenancy of ‘M. R. James country.’
I put it to you, Mr. Campbell, that you do indeed inhabit M. R. James country, and furthermore that your fiction is peculiarly and uniquely British.
‘It’s certainly not National Trust Britain.’ No, I flounder, but surely James is your single biggest influence?
‘Fritz Leiber, I would say, ultimately.’ Good Lord! An American?
‘The one person who acted as a beacon within the field to aim towards was Leiber, and particularly his big city supernatural horror stories – things like Smoke Ghost, which is the first one I ever read I think, but certainly the one that most deeply impressed me.’
‘Rather than the big city being the setting which is invaded by the supernatural, in Leiber it’s the grimy, everyday big city which is the source of the supernatural – that’s the crucial difference. Leiber I think actually unites Lovecraft and M. R. James as a writer, because while his settings have a distinctly Lovecraftian feel – the big city as a kind of gothic landscape – at the same time his spectres have very much that Jamesian quality of something which you see out of the corner of your eye, or can’t quite be certain that you’ve seen. Fritz I think regarded M. R. James as possibly the greatest supernatural horror writer.’
As Campbell talks of the Jamesian talent of suggesting ‘more in a sentence, maybe even a phrase, than most writers can do in a page,’ it becomes swiftly apparent that he is that rarest of things – a writer with more to talk about than himself, with not only an encyclopaedic knowledge of his genre but also a boundless enthusiasm for it.
Fire a name at him and watch him talk. Lovecraft?
‘I think he was a first rate writer in comparison to almost everybody else in the field, personally. The parodic notion of Lovecraft is sometimes all that people criticise, and I think one has to go back and look at what he actually did – which was to bring together essentially the tradition of supernatural horror up to that point, building on what he saw as their strengths and also I think doing away with what he saw as their weaknesses.’
August Derleth? ‘Derleth’s heart was not particularly in horror, although he wrote some good ghost stories. I think his heart was mainly in American regional writing, in that he wrote some very fine stuff about Wisconsin. I think he was a mainstream writer who tried to write too much, for a variety of reasons. One reason was he was actually supporting Arkham House pretty well singlehanded, even when it went into years of financial decline. So alas ultimately he did write too much, and some of his later supernatural stuff is, alas, not very good. I corresponded with him for many years, and I remember one memorable occasion where he said he was supposed to have a doctor’s appointment that Sunday, but the doctor didn’t turn up so he wrote a novel. Well, you know, what can I say? I think that’s being a little too prolific.’
Clive Barker? ‘Hellraiser I liked very much indeed. After the press showing in London there was kind of a silence and somebody said, ‘It’s not the sort of film you watch, it’s the sort of film you survive.’ Which I thought was a pretty decent sort of compliment. I told Clive that, and he was quite pleased.’
Kingsley Amis? ‘The Green Man is, I think, a fine supernatural horror novel.’
And how could we forget, er, Vladimir Nabokov? ‘The great revelation. Lolita in particular in terms of just what you could do with prose, other than the Lovecraftian very single-minded focusing of the style.’
It’s an impressive leap from Russian literary masters to spine-chilling journeys into terror, yet Campbell makes it with the sure footedness of a particularly agile cat. But then Campbell’s writing has always leant more towards the psychological, the disturbing, the half remembered bad dream. So is Ramsey opposed to the more violent and visceral work of his genre contemporaries? ‘No not at all. I’m not opposed to good writing of any kind, and I’ve absolutely no problem with graphic horror.’
Not even a little problem?
‘No, I’ve no problem as a writer, never mind as a consumer of it. I mean there is the odd scene in the odd story of mine – The Face That Must Die tends to go on for some considerable length about how long and difficult it would be to kill somebody with a straight razor. The One Safe Place actually – it seems like that one scene of the father being kicked to death in the street goes on forever. It certainly did to me when I was writing it. What I found I was actually conscious of was that I quite seriously found I was putting off writing the scene. And equally, reading over the first draft I find it just as upsetting to reread as I did to actually write it in the first place; which I think is not an answer to the question, but perhaps a parenthetical point that you write these things not to make other people feel it, you write them because you feel it. Otherwise there would be no point in writing it in the first place.’
But other authors are guilty of doing just that, surely?
‘Well, yes. I think the very basic distinction is that to me there’s a difference between the kind of graphic horror where which appeals to the imagination – The Books of Blood, as an example – and the kind of graphic horror which is a substitute for the imagination. It reads like someone has opened an autopsy manual and regurgitated half a page of it into the story. I name no names, but I’ll let you think about it. And similarly, horror movies which seem to be about nothing except people being eviscerated. I don’t find it morally objectionable, I find it basically extraordinarily boring, that’s my real objection to it. My objection is to bad art, and clearly I think there are certain moral questions to be asked there.’
Yet in The One Safe Place you make the point that horror videos have little or no effect, and make a fine job of ridiculing the moral majority.
‘Well, yes, I’m wholly opposed to censorship – I think it’s just as simple as that. The more censorship I see the more I dislike it, essentially. I actually see criticism as the civilised alternative to censorship, actually attempting to make people look again at what they consume. But the notion of banning a load of old garbage, I don’t see it personally. I remain quite unconvinced that watching a video makes you go out and do something like that. Or, it would be truer to say that I think the connections between what people who are on the edge watch and then what they go out and do is so blurred that you can’t identify the stuff that you’re going to ban. I mean the text cited by more killers than any other as something that caused them to go out and do it is the Book of Revelation. So, if we’re serious about texts that do it, we ban the Bible. There was certainly the case of a guy who saw The Ten Commandments, the Charlton Heston movie, who apparently then went off killing prostitutes, because again he’d seen this ‘U’ certificate big Hollywood epic, which I don’t think anybody would seriously want to ban on the basis that it caused him to do that. And yet if not, why not? If the argument is genuinely ‘If we can show that this causes somebody to go out and do this we should ban it’, then let’s be serious and ban everything that’s caused that. Let’s ban The Beatles’ White Album, let’s ban The Catcher in the Rye. But people aren’t serious about that, what they’re actually saying is ‘Horror looks to us like something more marginal, so we’ll identify this as a scapegoat and do away with it because more people will agree with us for doing that and banning it.’ And I’m certainly not remotely in favour of that attitude.’
Although Campbell expresses these views succinctly in The One Safe Place, the novel itself is certainly less marginal than anything he’s previously written. With the last book being an anthology and The One Safe Place a straight thriller, is he making a move away from the genre towards something more legitimate, respectable even?
‘I’m certainly not trying consciously to move away from it, no not at all.
I think it’s more that I feel sufficiently at ease with the novel that I don’t feel the need to force it into being horror if it isn’t necessarily wanting to go in that direction. I mean The Count of Eleven is in many ways a slapstick novel – it’s about a serial killer, but I still think it’s a comic novel – and the reason I think it’s a horror novel is because it doesn’t stop being funny when you feel it ought to stop. Which takes me right back to Nabokov – I mean, one of the things I learnt from Lolita was that there’s a murder scene in that which is disturbing precisely because it’s played as near slapstick. So, as far as I’m concerned I’m still writing horror. What I’m just doing is finding out how big and capacious a field it is. Equally I regard The One Safe Place as a horror novel in some ways. I don’t see it as any big departure, but to me an absolutely natural outgrowth of what I’d been writing previously. I see it as a move in a particular direction, but only in terms of a movement that has been going on in any number of novels leading up to it – and the novel I’m working on now is a ghost story, a supernatural horror story, a haunted place book – so I certainly have not left the field!’
He pauses, and frowns.
‘I certainly hope not. I like it too much.’