Ramsey Campbell on bookstores, scary limericks, and ‘The Booking’
For the third book in the Black Labyrinth line of psychological suspense novellas, Chris Morey, owner/publisher of Dark Regions Press, turned to a master of the form: Ramsey Campbell. It was a move Morey has long envisioned making.
“Ramsey Campbell was a must for the Black Labyrinth imprint,” Morey said. “I knew I wanted an original piece from Ramsey for the imprint on the day that the imprint first materialized.”
Morey got his wish, and earlier this week the preorder period for Campbell’s The Booking began. The story sounds like classic Campbell:
Kiefer is desperate for a job when he comes upon an opening at a curious bookstore in England, BOOKS ARE LIFE. He approaches the owner for a job and gets it, learning quickly that the owner is stranger than the books that he sells in the shop. As he continues to help the bookstore’s transition to the internet, he discovers oddities in the shop and has increasingly strange visions and encounters.
We here at Cemetery Dance Online were honored to get a few words from Campbell on The Booking and its inspiration.
(Interview conducted by Blu Gilliand)
CEMETERY DANCE ONLINE: Tell us a little bit about your new novella, The Booking – what is it about, and what inspired it?
RAMSEY CAMPBELL: I always carry notebooks, and by now I have many years’ worth of them full of ideas, some of which I doubt I’ll ever have time to develop, while others nest in there and gather energy until it’s time for them to be told as tales. Shortly after we lost the late and greatly lamented Joel Lane (a very fine writer who was far more interested in praising and analysing other people’s work than talking about his own) I was struck by an idea that I’m sure would have appealed to him, about someone desperate for employment who gets a job that isn’t nearly what it seems. Elsewhere among my notes was the idea of somebody obsessed with the notion that insects may be electronic devices used to spy on him. It’s not uncommon for ideas I’ve had to mate together and produce a better one, and these did when I began to work out the basis for The Booking. As it turns out, our protagonist Kiefer is hired by the owner of a second-hand bookshop (who apparently distrusts the internet to the point of detestation) to list all the stock and put it online. However eccentric the bookseller is, he’s a good deal odder than he appears to be, and so is the shop. Perhaps Kiefer will never leave them again.
How did you end up bringing the book to Dark Regions Press?
I didn’t—it was commissioned by Chris Morey, who simply asked me to write a novella of psychological horror. I’ve written quite a few stories of the kind over the decades—I should think The Face That Must Die is the earliest, and incidentally perhaps the first example of anti-homophobic horror—and I imagine that’s why I came to mind.
The Booking is, like all of the stories in Dark Regions Press’s Black Labyrinth series, a tale of psychological horror. What is it about that approach to horror that appeals to you, both as a writer and as a reader?
My taste for it may be to some extent a product of my childhood and early adulthood. To put it succinctly, my mother was a paranoid schizophrenic—as far as I know, undiagnosed until almost the end of her life—and by the time I was three years old I had to distinguish between what she thought was real (for instance, that radio programs contained messages addressed to her) and actual reality. You may well think that explains the concern with the untrustworthiness of perception that underlies, or indeed is at the core of, much of my stuff. I’m sure it also led me to quite a few favorite works of fiction—Paul Ableman’s I Hear Voices (narrated by a schizophrenic), the three nightmarish early novels of John Franklin Bardin, and Thomas Hinde’s The Day the Call Came. The last one influenced my work quite a bit, and I was delighted to say so in an introduction to the recent reissue by Valancourt Books.
The Booking deals with the world of bookstores and collectors, two topics near and dear to my own heart. What are your thoughts as far as book collectors? Do you have a preference between a well-loved old paperback or a lavishly designed and illustrated hardcover edition?
I’ve been a collector for most of my life, especially once I discovered I could buy copies of Weird Tales when I was eleven and, in my early teens, that Arkham House books could be had. Alas, like most folk, I’ve sometimes needed money in a hurry for domestic matters, and both those collections have gone. Just the same, our house is full of bookshelves that are full of books. If I’ve a favorite old paperback, I’m quite likely to invest in a more permanent hardcover. I’m not so much a buyer of special editions as I used to be, but that’s not to say I don’t love them (not least various splendid editions of my own stuff).
What are some of your favorite bookstores? Do you prefer the well-organized stores, or do you like to dig through the stacks?
Believe me, you’d have a hard time keeping me out of either kind. I actually worked in the local branch of Borders (long gone and much lamented) for a few months in 2000, and back in the sixties I went to work in public libraries—in both cases I greatly enjoyed helping people to find books, as well as being surrounded by them. So I’m fond of organised bookshops—in England the dominant chain is Waterstones, the excellent Liverpool branch of which frequently puts on events with horror writers—but equally of the haphazard second-hand variety, where you have to search for the kind of thing you like and, in my experience, stumble upon other items you mightn’t have realized you would like.
Early reviews of The Booking cite your use of atmosphere and setting in increasing the characters’ sense of paranoia and isolation. Did you choose this particular setting specifically for that reason?
No, they grew naturally out of it, much as the tale itself did. As the labyrinth of books spread, so did the ramifications of the tale. That said, since the paranoia is a mental state, it can befall my characters pretty well anywhere.
You’ve written short stories, novellas, and full-length novels throughout your career. Do you have a preference? Is there a certain length that you feel best serves the horror genre?
I think they all have distinct merits—the short story in terms of succinctness and thematic concentration, the novella that can intensify the cumulative effect of the short horror story (perhaps especially in terms of atmosphere), the novel because of the creative energy it can generate and how it can grow organically. I’m an instinctive writer on the whole, and I’m happiest when a story surprises me with some development I hadn’t anticipated. Novels do that most often.
You’ve won a variety of awards throughout your career, including the 2015 World Fantasy Association Lifetime Achievement Award. At this point and time in your career, how important is that kind of recognition?
Well, it makes me feel as if I still have something to offer, and that’s a good way to feel—not a delusion, I hope. If I could mention one more honor, last year Liverpool John Moores University made me an Honorary Fellow for (their words) outstanding services to literature. I don’t mind admitting I was especially happy with that, not least because in my speech at the ceremony I said I was also accepting on behalf of our field.
What’s coming next from Ramsey Campbell?
The American hardcover of my novel The Kind Folk is due from Tor in August. In September, PS in Britain have The Searching Dead, the first novel of a trilogy belonging to the Brichester Mythos but set in 1950s Liverpool. At the same time PS will be bringing out Limericks of the Alarming and Phantasmal, fifty famous horrors that I’ve monstrously transformed into limericks. Here’s a sample—one that isn’t in that book but sets the tone or lack of it:
If you booked at the premium rate
No wonder you’re scratching your pate.
With the personal service
You’ll be worse than nervous
When you stay in room 1408.