I read my first Ramsey Campbell novel, Creatures of the Pool, in October 2010. A little over ten years ago. Yes, I know. A little late to the party, right? But, like so many other horror authors, Ramsey Campbell was just another name I’d heard spoken reverently as “an author all aspiring horror authors should read.”
Ten years ago, I was still mostly reading exclusively Stephen King and Dean Koontz (nothing whatsoever wrong with either of those fine writers) and whatever Leisure Fiction ARCs I received in the mail. I hadn’t yet experienced my transformative night with F. Paul Wilson, Tom Monteleone, and Stuart David Schiff. I’d only sold a handful of stories, none at professional rates. My first book hadn’t come out. Most importantly, I hadn’t yet embarked on my journey of literary discovery, which would change how I thought about horror fiction forever.
Then I received the Leisure ARC of Creatures of the Pool in the mail. Soon, I found myself wading into a mysterious, depth-less pool of imagination which had me unsettled and off-kilter from the very first page. As Gavin Mcadows searches for answers about what has happened to his missing father, as he tries to unravel the former’s strange research, as well as the watery, batrachian secrets hiding under his city, I felt just as lost and adrift as Mcadows himself. The novel’s surreal, hallucinatory first person present-tense narrative left me unfocused, confused, and desperate to finish the novel and find answers to secrets men probably should not know.
Thus, I had become “baptized” (ironic term, considering the novel’s watery nature) into the horror fiction of Ramsey Cambpell, and I would never be quite the same, again.
After Creatures of the Pool, I read Ancient Images and Obsessed. They were unlike anything I’d read up to that point. The search for a lost — and possibly cursed — horror movie in Images provided a fascinating backdrop for a quiet, creeping horror story about supernatural, ancient folk beliefs. I’m sure other authors have written novels like it, but for a still-young horror writer, the melding of a very-realistic search for a (albeit fictional) horror film starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi with the supernatural opened up all sorts of ideas for me. The novels’ verisimilitude only made the “horror” that much more effective.
Obsession was a wholly different novel altogether, in that no clear supernatural culprit is ever presented. Indeed, in this work, Campbell’s supernatural touch is very light. It’s there, hiding in the corners, but so much of Obsession is about the characters themselves. How their lives may or may not have turned out how they wanted, how they dealt with tragedy, adversity, and illness. The real horror in this novel is life, mistakes, failure, and desperation. At that time, I was still attempting to write stories which screamed “horror!” and I can’t overstate the impact this novel, in particular, had on me.
This is not to say that Campbell doesn’t write more “traditional horror” (traditional in the sense of featuring “monsters,” “ghosts,” or supernatural culprits). His works certainly do offer these trappings, but like the best kinds of “thoughtful” or, dare I even say “literary” horror, Campbell’s works find their roots in the human condition.
The Hungry Moon isn’t just about a demonic Druid entity, it’s also a critique on religious fundamentalism and intolerance. The Incarnate’s plot sounds identical to a least half a dozen low-budget horror movies — “a controlled experiment studying prophetic dreaming creates an evil entity” — but it’s much more than that. It’s a sweeping, epic dark fantasy novel examining the lives of all those involved in said experiment, and how it has affected them years afterward.
Two books represent perfectly what Ramsey Campbell is capable of. The first is The Booking, a novella about a man so desperate for work he takes an opening at an odd bookshop called Books Are Life without a second thought. As per usual in a Campbell tale, this story brims with a creeping disorientation and mounting confusion that works upon the reader just as surely as it works upon the story’s protagonist. And, as also per usual in a Campbell tale, when we finally learn the “truth” about the store and its strange owner, we are presented with a uniquely human kind of horror tale.
The second is The Overnight, about the beleaguered staff of a “big box” retail bookstore having to work the overnight shift stocking shelves. It’s not only a wry satire about the ridiculousness of retail businesses in general, it’s also about how generations of violence and bloodshed seeps into the very ground, leaving a stain that will always resonate down through the ages. Especially as we learn that, untold generations ago, civilization after civilization fought and bled and died horrifically for the land on which this bookstore — and the entire strip mall it’s in — now sits. The malevolence in this novel is inexorable. It’s slow, it’s creeping, it lurks in the shadows and advances from the corner of the eye, but it prevails all the same, in the end — just like Campbell’s horror upon us, his readers.
As powerful as his novels are, Campbell’s short fiction is twice as powerful, drawing their strength from the uniquely odd combination of tangible characters living in a mundane world which inevitably crosses over into a dark, surreal nightmare-scape from which there is usually no escape. I often come away from Campbell’s short fiction with the haunting realization that something quite terrible has happened, and even if I’m not sure what has happened, exactly, I know it’s awful, and am haunted for days afterward. His short fiction collection Alone With the Horrors (which I’ve read through twice, now) presents some of the best surreal and weird horror fiction tales which more than stand up to the best the genre offers today.
There’s “The Chimney,” about a boy’s fear of something hiding on the chimney to the fireplace in his room — a fear which isn’t nearly as childish as he thinks. “Cold Print,” about a man whose taste in books is very…specific, and how his need draws him to a bookstore he should’ve stayed away from. “Out of Copyright,” about an unscrupulous editor who gets what he deserves. Or, one of my favorites, “The Voice of the Beach,” about how the shoreline — where the tide comes in over the sand, and where the sand seems to be ever encroaching over everything — is a far stranger place than it seems.
Cold Print collects some of Campbell’s finest Lovecraftian fiction and cosmic horror. I’ve always maintained that I adore Lovecraftian fiction best when it’s written by others. Stephen King, for one. Also, Ramsey Campbell. “The Church in High Street” and “The Inhabitant of the Lake” are two of his finest. Indeed, I would venture to say — especially with Creatures of the Pool — that Campbell has harnessed all the best aspects of Lovecraftian horror, and (like King turning the state of Maine into a haunted region) has transformed urban and rural England into a quietly seething cauldron of eldritch weirdness. Holes For Faces is also a fine collection, the title story “Holes For Faces” offering up all the classic Campbellian disorientation and dislocation you’ve come to expect from his surreal brand of horror.
I could go on, and also, to be quite fair, I still haven’t read all that Ramsey Campbell has to offer. Because of that, and because he’s still busy producing some of the best horror fiction available, I’ll be able to shiver and ponder over his creeping brand of horror for years to come. If you haven’t yet taken the dive into the deep, murky waters of Ramsey Campbell’s imagination, do that today.
Kevin Lucia is the Reviews Editor for Cemetery Dance. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. His first short story collection, Things Slip Through, was published November 2013, and his most recent short story collection, Things You Need, was released September, 2018. He’s currently working on his first novel. For free monthly fiction, book reviews, YouTube commentaries, and three free ebooks, visit www.kevinlucia.blogspot.com and sign up for his monthly email newsletter.