Ramsey Campbell interviewed by David McWilliam

Posted by David McWilliam on September 24, 2012 in Interviews tagged with , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Photograph by Peter Coleborn

The Oxford Companion to English Literature describes Ramsey Campbell as ‘Britain’s most respected living horror writer’. He has been given more awards than any other writer in the field, including the Grand Master Award of the World Horror Convention, the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Horror Writers Association and the Living Legend Award of the International Horror Guild. Among his novels are The Face That Must Die, Incarnate, Midnight Sun, The Count of Eleven, Silent Children, The Darkest Part of the Woods, The Overnight, Secret Story, The Grin of the Dark, Thieving Fear, Creatures of the Pool, The Seven Days of Cain and Ghosts Know. Forthcoming is The Kind Folk. His collections include Waking Nightmares, Alone with the Horrors, Ghosts and Grisly Things, Told by the Dead and Just Behind You, and his non-fiction is collected as Ramsey Campbell, Probably. His novels The Nameless and Pact of the Fathers have been filmed in Spain. His regular columns appear in Prism, All Hallows, Dead Reckonings and Video Watchdog. He is the President of the British Fantasy Society and of the Society of Fantastic Films. Ramsey Campbell lives on Merseyside with his wife Jenny. His website is www.ramseycampbell.com.

Alongside Glyn Morgan, David McWilliam co-founded Twisted Tales, an award-nominated series of horror fiction events, in 2010. Find out more, along with interviews, previews, and reviews, at http://twistedtalesevents.blogspot.co.uk/

Ramsey Campbell will appear at the next Twisted Tales event, Dark Conspiracies, on Tuesday 23rd October 2012. For more information, please visit: http://twistedtalesevents.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/new-event-dark-conspiracies-at-halton.html

Having published horror fiction over five decades, can you sum up what has maintained your fascination with the genre?

Its range, I’d say. Just in my own stuff I’ve moved from imitating Lovecraft to a more contemporary style of psychological horror (a trajectory Robert Bloch’s career also described) and tried to bring the supernatural tale up to my own date (as Fritz Leiber, another author influenced early in his career by HPL, magnificently did). Every so often I make a bid to scale the heights of awe that Blackwood and Machen’s greatest tales occupy. And maybe I’ve even discovered my own little niche in the genre, which I’d call comedy of paranoia. To sum up, I haven’t discovered the limits of the field, and I doubt I will.

How do you distinguish your comedy of paranoia work from other comedy horror, such as Shaun of the Dead and Psychoville?

Maybe that mine – or more correctly the experience of the characters who suffer from it – is closer to derangement and chaos? I’m open to argument on that one. I think it first became overt in Needing Ghosts, which was more like letting my subconscious loose than anything else I’ve written. It’s fair to say that not everyone thinks it’s comedy – indeed, our daughter found The Grin of the Dark too disturbing to finish – but it can make me chortle when I’m writing it. It may be part of a more general development in the field, encompassing The League of Gentlemen (much of which seems to me to be horror disguised as comedy, and not infrequently the mask threatens to slip) and the Final Destination films, which are surely black slapstick, with setups as elaborate as anything in Buster Keaton or Harold Lloyd and often, as in the work of those comedians, leading to payoffs quite other than those we’ve been led to expect.

What connections do you see between comedy and horror? On some levels, they would seem to be aiming for very opposing effects.

In some ways they do indeed, but I think there are similarities. Both often address taboos – are in the business of going too far, if you like – and perhaps both offer a kind of generic reassurance that allows them to discuss conventionally unspeakable themes. And crucially, both depend on timing to achieve their effects.

Your career as a writer began at a very early age, when you secured the approval and advice of the custodian of H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, August Derleth, as a teenager after approaching him with the stories that would go on to form your first collection of short stories The Inhabitant of the Lake & Other Unwelcome Tenants (1964). How do you think this formative relationship shaped your development as a horror writer?

I’d say it was crucial. He didn’t actually introduce me to rewriting – I’d already done some of that on my earlier non-Lovecraftian work – but he did send me generally in the right direction. In fact, very shortly after I read the only tale of mine he edited substantially (“The Church in High Street”) I set about developing his suggestions, but in my own way (in “The Render of the Veils”). I think his recommendation that I should use British locations led to my starting to use Liverpool a couple of years later (in 1965, with “The Cellars”). And he certainly supported by experiments without complaint – I thought he might baulk at my second book, since it was radically different from my Lovecraftian debut, but he bought it and used similar tales of mine in several anthologies. Without Arkham House, maybe you’d never have heard of me.

In light of the re-issue of The Inhabitant of the Lake (2012) from PS Publishing, how has the influence of Lovecraft on your work evolved over the course of your career?

It’s been subsumed, I think. The earliest tales in Inhabitant are very close imitations, but the trouble is that they introduce elements from the later codification of the Mythos, exactly what I don’t think Lovecraft would have wanted – the Mythos as he conceived it was intended as a riposte to what he saw as the excessive systematisation of the occult by the Victorians, a way of suggesting more than was shown. Then amateurs like me came along and filled in the gaps, rendering the whole thing far too explicit and robbing it of too much of its mystery. Once I realised this I made some attempts to compensate for my original errors. ‘The Voice of the Beach’ tries to create a sense of cosmic terror without any of the paraphernalia of the Mythos. (Fritz Leiber did something similar in ‘A Bit of the Dark World’, I believe.) ‘Cold Print’ and ‘The Other Names’ try to locate the Lovecraftian in modern urban society. I also annotated Cameron Nash’s letters to Lovecraft, of course. And there’s The Darkest Part of the Woods, but we’ll come to that. More generally, I think Lovecraft’s influence – his sense of structure, the gradual accumulation of detail to suggest terror – permeates much of my stuff.

In The Darkest Part of the Woods (2002) you explore Lovecraftian occult magic in the context of deteriorating relationships in a dysfunctional family. What was the appeal of this juxtaposition of the intimate and the numinous to you as a writer?

I think these elements reflect each other – at least, I hope they do. I’ve been working along these lines almost as soon as I abandoned the overtly Lovecraftian – for instance, with my first Liverpool tale (‘The Cellars’ from 1965), where the supernatural elements express the relationship. In The Darkest Part of the Woods the depth of the association between the family and their haunted environment only gradually revealed itself to me in the writing. That’s the kind of experience that makes writing (novels especially) worth all the doubts and hesitations for me. I would also say that I think Woods is my most nearly successful Lovecraftian piece, partly because I took The Case of Charles Dexter Ward as a model, a tale where the Mythos is barely referred to but still looms over or under it. I finally appreciated how Lovecraftian elements are often best conveyed indirectly, as he often did himself. In my book, for instance, I like the lines from the masque (‘Come man and maid, come dance and sing…’) which hint at something far darker than their bright lyrical surface. The whole book is an attempt to return to Lovecraft’s first principles, as The Blair Witch Project (consciously or otherwise) did.

When reading The Seven Days of Cain (2010), I was struck by the parallels to the contested nature of reality found in many of the paranoid novels of Philip K. Dick. Do you consider Dick an influence?

He may be – he’s certainly a favourite. I think I originally encountered some of his short science fiction – “Imposter” and especially “Colony” got to me. I should say the latter is a horror story, and I first read it in Galaxy when I was ten. A little later I found him in the sister magazine Beyond – that extraordinary tale of his “Upon the Dull Earth”. It haunted and terrified me, and still does. Of course all those tales are preoccupied with the nature of reality and identity. The other aspect that The Seven Days of Cain has in common with him is the ordinariness of the characters, I think.

You have long fought against the censoring of horror and unsubstantiated claims from mainstream political and media figures as to the damaging effects on the individual psyche and society itself arising from the popularity of the genre. This is amusingly expressed in your article ‘Turn Off’ from the non-fiction collection Ramsey Campbell, Probably (2002), your account of a ‘debate’ at the Wirral Christian Centre featuring Mary Whitehouse in 1987. Your story ‘Chucky Comes to Liverpool’ (2010) in Haunted Legends (edited by Ellen Datlow and Nick Mamatas), addresses the moral panic stirred up against the Child’s Play films as the cause of the murder of Jamie Bulger. Looking back to that time, do you think that there is now a more accepting attitude to horror or does it still hold pariah status?

I think the field constantly drifts in and out of favour. I often recall how it was when I originally encountered it in the 1950s. Just a couple of years after horror comics were banned in Britain, and only just before Hammer Films started getting pilloried in the press for being too graphic and sadistic, the august house of Faber & Faber brought out Best Horror Stories, edited by John Kier Cross and boasting a superbly lurid Felix Kelly cover. I suspect the book may have been an attempt to reclaim respectability for the field, though it contained some decidedly gruesome material (‘Berenice’, ‘Raspberry Jam’). It’s surely significant that Hammer Films later received a Queen’s Award for Industry, while you can find in public libraries (Liverpool, for instance) deluxe bound volumes of the very comics that caused the ban in the first place. Right now horror seems to be on the tentatively ascendant, I think. Even the occasional source of controversy, most recently Human Centipede 2, doesn’t seem to be regarded as representative of the field. Still, I’m betting it may find itself scapegoated once again in the future – call me a pessimist if you like.

Over your long career in horror you have served as a great champion of the genre, throughout its ‘drifts in and out of favour’. Can you name some of the writers you feel have added most to the field during your time in print, whether in terms of originality, creativity and/or technical ability?

Gosh, it may be quite a list. Steve King for reviving many of the field’s underlying themes in a highly individual voice. Peter Straub for his unique fusion of horror and crime fiction, elegantly written (and, in the same overlapping area but very much in his own way, Steve Mosby). Thomas Ligotti and Mark Samuels for keeping up the vitality of the thoroughly weird and cosmic. Lisa Tuttle for subtle unease, and M. John Harrison too – perhaps the most notable of the inheritors (not imitators!) of the tradition of the late great Robert Aickman, though let me celebrate Terry Lamsley too. T. E. D. Klein for epitomising the power of reticence and suggestiveness. Poppy Z. Brite and Caitlín Kiernan for lyrical horror. Dennis Etchison for great economy of style and eloquence. Reggie Oliver, Thana, Alison.

Out of the horror fiction published since 2000, can you name your top five novels and why?

Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves – far from detracting from the central experience of the book, the experimental form made me feel as if I were undergoing it myself, and I found the experience uniquely disturbing.

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go – a classic instance of a story that’s horrifying precisely because the narrator doesn’t think it is.

Adam L. G. Nevill, Apartment 16 – a haunted building tale that digs deep into the darkest psychology and builds up an extraordinary sense of dread.

Steve Mosby, Black Flowers – a compelling tale of suspense, a remarkably elaborate exploration of relationships between fiction and reality, a portrait of a tainted landscape as powerful as anything in Poe or Lovecraft – those are just some of its merits.

Graham Joyce, The Silent Land – a tale as poignant as it is disturbing, and those are two elements too seldom found in the genre, and too infrequently acknowledged when they are. An extraordinary novel by one of the treasures of the contemporary field.

In 2001, S.T. Joshi published an academic monograph on your work, Ramsey Campbell and Modern Horror Fiction, to which you contributed the introductory essay ‘My Roots Exhumed’. What is your response to academic engagement with your own work?

I’m entirely in favour of looking closely at a text. I still regard Robin Wood as the greatest film critic I’ve ever read – his Hitchcock monograph was a revelation to me in my teens – and I’m more than flattered when people take the same trouble over stuff I’ve written. Before S. T. (which is not in any way to denigrate him or his work) there were T. E. D. Klein, whose essay on Demons by Daylight convinced me I was getting right what I was trying to do, and Joel Lane, whose analysis of my early novels made even me look afresh at them, finding elements that are certainly there but weren’t consciously put in by me. That kind of thing can make all the labour worthwhile, believe me.

What can you tell me about your forthcoming novel The Kind Folk?

Right now I’m still aware what a swine it was to write, though now I’m a few chapters into the rewrite it has begun to feel as if it was worth all the trouble. It touches on magic more overtly than a lot of my stuff has, and there are some scenes I’m reasonably fond of. I was disconcerted for a while to learn that both Graham Joyce and Sarah Pinborough have new books that explore similar territory, but what the hell – we’re all individual writers, and I’ll be interested to see how different our approaches turn out to be.

Having such a prolific career and fantastic critical success, do you still have any goals that you hope to achieve within the field?

Just about all of them, believe me. If I had to sum up my career in a phrase I’d call it an honourable failure. I’ve never achieved the kind of horror fiction I admire most – the best of Machen and Blackwood, Lovecraft and Leiber – and so all I can do is keep trying. Well, I still have notebooks loaded with ideas…

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