Channelling the Unknowable

An interview with Ramsey Campbell, the modern master of weird fiction

I began reading Ramsey Campbell as a teenager, and his books quickly gave me a sense of being in the presence of an idiosyncratic talent unrivalled in the weird and horror field. In contrast to much genre writing, his novels aroused unease through the masterful cultivation of atmosphere rather than jump scares. His fine prose style, coruscating and understated, vivid and subtle, seemed the perfect instrument. It instilled in the reader a building sense of dread as characters pursued the next shocking revelation in their struggle with bizarre forces that a part of us had always sensed lurked far out in the shadowy corners of the quotidian world, but that we lacked a vocabulary to classify or explain. The man could write.

S.T. Joshi, an immensely erudite scholar and the author of Ramsey Campbell, Master of Weird Fiction, due out in 2021 from PS Publishing, provides the following assessment: “Ramsey Campbell is easily the greatest writer of weird fiction in our time, and perhaps any time. His prodigious output, coupled with the consistently high quality of his work, sets him apart from nearly all other writers in the field.”

Nearly all of Campbell’s work is set in the U.K., and he is as adept as evoking eerie rural landscapes (see the opening of “The Hands”) as he is at depicting the blighted inner city. But it is the latter setting, in particular, that comes across with disturbing immediacy in novels like The Doll Who Ate His Mother (1976), The Face That Must Die (1979), Incarnate (1983), The Last Voice They Hear (1998), Silent Children (2000), and Thieving Fear (2008).

“Campbell is a pioneer in urban horror, in psychological terror, in the intense fusion of sexuality and horror, in the use of weirdness and terror to illuminate personal conflicts and social evils, and so much more,” Joshi states.

It’s not every day that one gets to ask questions of an author one has admired for the better part of one’s life, but the indefatigable Campbell, who published his thirty-third novel this year, The Wise Friend, and has more projects in the works, recently was kind enough to grant an interview about his remarkable body of work, its influences, and the contemporary weird scene.

Ramsey Campbell
Ramsey Campbell (selfie by Ramsey Campbell).

Washburn: Not to put it too crudely, but issues with authority crop up often in your writing. Reading your early collection, Demons by Daylight, one notes that a fair number of the characters attend schools where corporal punishment is unduly relied upon. There are also stories in Dark Companions featuring sinister, abusive school staff. Does personal experience with such institutional “demons by daylight” inform this aspect of your work?

RC: It certainly did as far as schools were concerned. By no means all the teachers at my grammar school (which is to say a private high school in England) were reprehensible–one, a chap called Ray Thomas, was exemplary in communicating his enthusiasm for English literature and the language–but far too many shouldn’t have been let anywhere near the boys they had at their mercy. Nothing in my stories involving such figures even slightly exaggerates my experience.

Ramsey Campbell

There’s a sense in which the school staff in The Searching Dead, the first volume of my recent trilogy–characters not directly based on anyone, but certainly authentic – represent my coming to guarded terms with those aspects of my past. That said, I think my stories from a youthful viewpoint should remind us how vulnerable we were at that age, which is a recurring theme of mine and I think a salutary one. Corporal punishment – only between consenting adults, I’d say, but here’s to that.

Expanding on that theme, are the corrupt police in your novel Incarnate meant to be taken as just a few isolated bad apples, or are they perhaps in a sense “demons by daylight”—symptoms of a social ill so pervasive that to encounter it in daily life is not out of the ordinary?

My own encounters with the representatives of the law have mostly been benign, even with the several plainclothes chaps who raided the house where I lived with my parents in the late sixties – I’d been incautious enough to advertise a copy of de Sade’s 120 Days for sale (banned then but now available unexpurgated as a Penguin Classic). It’s the abuse of authority that concerns me, not authority itself. Thus in Obsession, which I wrote immediately after Incarnate, one of the central quartet of characters is a policeman, and certainly has my sympathies. My trilogy has a balance, I think – a couple of decidedly menacing officers but several benevolent ones, including a member of the trio of protagonists. Still, I’m increasingly disturbed by the prevalence of abuse, not least how public some of its perpetrators seem to believe their behaviour can be without leading to consequences for them.

Another leitmotif is young characters who work in movie houses and have a cinephile streak. Again, one can’t help being curious about a possible autobiographical angle here.

I never worked in cinemas, but I fell in love with the cinema pretty well simultaneously with starting my career as a writer. Though there’s little direct influence, two films I saw in my mid-teens–Buñuel’s Los Olvidados for its marriage of surrealism and realism so extreme it approaches the surreal, and Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad for the way its narrative disjunctures produce profound disquiet – pointed me on the writer’s route I followed once my tales became more personal. Certainly the references to the cinema in my tales derive from my own experiences and enthusiasm, and I reviewed films for the local BBC for almost forty years. The film columns I wrote for Video Watchdog will soon appear as a collection, and I’m working on a study of the Three Stooges, Six Stooges and Counting.

As you surely know, there are those who find a level of social meaning in the writings of H.P. Lovecraft. Characters’ fear of cosmic horror is taken as a metaphor for concerns over demographic transformation and civil disorder. Some of your novels, like Incarnate and The Face That Must Die, feature dark cityscapes where the unknown might manifest itself in more than one way. Do you see thematic continuity with Lovecraft here?

It has never occurred to me – it certainly wasn’t a conscious echo, even a distorted one. I think it comes rather out of concerns with the threats that can underlie contemporary urban life, but in my tales such threats are often represented or underlined by uncanny manifestations. I’d say that leads back to the Fritz Leiber of “Smoke Ghost” more than to Lovecraft, but of course he was an influence on Fritz, not least as a literary mentor.

The character of Edmund Hall in The Doll Who Ate His Mother is fascinating. He’s a smutty true crime writer who helps track down evil for all the wrong reasons. What was the inspiration for this character?

At this remove I don’t recall where he came from, to be honest. He wasn’t based on anyone I knew or had observed. I’d say he embodies exploitation, but a late friend took the view that Hall was simply doing his job, rather as Jean-Pierre Melville said he regarded the photographer in Deux Hommes dans Manhattan as behaving when he propped up a corpse to get a better shot.

Do you think we will ever learn more about the elusive “Errol Undercliffe” who inspired you early in your career—his origins, life, work, and publications?

I’ve never been able to find out any more. Perhaps future researchers may.

Are there any aspects of your work that you think not understood as well as they could be? 

I wouldn’t mind if folk found more laughs in it.

In recent years, you’ve contributed stories to Black Static, which is an excellent publication all around. But apart from Black Static, Cemetery Dance, Weird Fiction Review, and a very few other publications, the paying market for weird, horror, and slipstream fiction seems painfully limited for some of us in the field. What is your sense of the market nowadays?

Well, anthologies come and go, and it usually isn’t too long before another anthology series appears and survives for at least a few volumes. Magazines – I fear they generally don’t last too long, at least not as showcases purely for our fields. Remember how The Magazine of Fantasy almost immediately had to add and Science Fiction to its title. These days I think it’s as hard to keep our kind of magazine alive, and so more power to the titles you cite.

“Horror fiction has an honorable literary tradition, preserved in an unbroken progression since Poe by its best practitioners.”

I’ve long thought of you as our field’s analogue to J.G. Ballard—a writer of high literary merit even for readers with no particular interest in the field with which he’s associated. Is the common distinction between genre writing and literary writing a useful one?

It’s not a distinction I would make. Horror fiction in particular has its roots in the mainstream. Even in my lifetime it was common for anthologies of short fiction to include horror stories without drawing attention to the fact, and the same was true of single-author collections–see W. W. Jacobs, Elizabeth Bowen, Nigel Kneale, Elizabeth Jane Howard, Graham Greene, Kingsley Amis…To put it another way, horror fiction has an honorable literary tradition, preserved in an unbroken progression since Poe by its best practitioners.

Thank you for comparing me with Ballard! I’ve long admired his work, and was so much in awe of it that the only time I met him (when we were both signing new books at Forbidden Planet in London) I gaped pretty well wordlessly for an endless minute or so. I think he influenced some of my shorter tales – some of those that have an isolated central figure in an environment that reflects their psychology. Other science fiction writers had an influence too: Philip K. Dick’s sense of the unreliability of everything we take for granted was part of my early experience, and the fiction of my old friend Brian Aldiss encouraged me to let more of myself into my tales – the whole man, if you like, rather than excluding any of it for generic reasons. 

It seems that squabbling over whether to read and value Lovecraft, and other writers in our field who pose problems for contemporary “woke” sensibilities, takes up increasing amounts of people’s time. Has our field become too politicized?

Not just our field – civilised discourse seems to be on the wane, and aggressive disagreement is increasingly the norm. An example–I was recently condemned for describing Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation as controversial (which, given its historical and artistic importance–celebrated by its listing on the American Film Institute’s top hundred–seems a reasonable epithet) rather than agreeing it was simply evil. Sadly, too many people who had never heard of Lovecraft now know him simply as a racist, rather as if Wagner were to be known purely for antisemitism. Still, history and culture move on, and I suspect balance will be regained, so that Lovecraft’s considerable achievement is appreciated while his regrettable attitudes are acknowledged (as is the case with Wagner). 

There truly haven’t been many cinematic adaptations of your work. Would you like to see more?

Certainly. I love the cinema in all its forms. For the record, I’d rather have a good film in itself than a dully faithful adaptation that lacks filmic life.

To which writers, of any time and place, do you return most often?

In a word, Nabokov. I just reread Bend Sinister for the first time in almost sixty years, the very copy I bought after being overwhelmed by Lolita, as a result of which I acquired everything else I could find by the author. Bend Sinister is still extraordinary, a disturbing blend of comedy (often nightmarish) and outright horror. I often dip into Kingsley Amis’s Memoirs, having already read the book through, when I want a few minutes’ fix of flavoursome prose. Robin Wood has been my favourite film critic ever since I read the first edition of his Hitchcock monograph, and I often reread his work, sometimes disagreeing.

In our field, I’ve reread Lovecraft over the decades and have found even more to admire – the careful complex structures, the modulation of the prose (quite the reverse of the parodic version of his style even some of his admirers promulgate). And I frequently go back to Aickman, finding the enigmas more haunting than ever and the hints at explanations more suggestive. I’m reminded of how in my teens I watched Resnais’ Muriel three times in a single week (as long as it lasted in Liverpool) and advanced from haunted bewilderment to imaginatively grasping the experience.

To this reader, your 2013 short story collection, Holes for Faces, has a different feel from the early books referenced above, which is not unexpected given how long you’ve been writing. In some of your stories in Holes for Faces (i.e. “The Rounds” and “With the Angels”), and also in The Wise Friend, have you perhaps made a conscious move toward a quieter and more oblique sort of weird and macabre tale, relying strongly on the power of suggestion, in the spirit of writers like M.R. James? 

I’d say that at most the collection exemplifies a tendency I’ve had as a writer ever since I began to write like myself. I don’t go in for graphic horror unless it’s essential to the tale, and it frequently isn’t in mine. Aren’t early stories such as “The End of a Summer’s Day” and “The Companion” pretty oblique, even enigmatic? The uncanny and the psychological, often inextricably entwined, have always engaged my imagination, and I think the most I’ve changed in those areas has been to refine my approach, the prose as well.

Mind you, for me the tale of terror that aspires towards awe is the highest form of our field – “The White People,” “The Willows,” “The Colour out of Space”–and every so often I make a feeble leap in that direction before collapsing back to earth. Recent novels of mine–the trilogy (The Searching Dead, Born to the Dark, The Way of the Worm) and The Wise Friend, for instance–have made their bids for the height, but I wouldn’t like to say how successfully.

Given the subject matter of certain of your more recent books, I can’t help wondering whether you consider the internet generally and social media specifically to have played a largely harmful role in contemporary society. 

I wouldn’t be without it. I find it invaluable as a research tool, though of course it must be used critically. In the midst of the present sluggish catastrophe it has allowed me to talk to readers and students, which I hope means as much to them as it does to me. But it’s also capable of loosing the monsters we all are or can be, which is why I do my best to keep careful control before posting or responding–there’s a monster in me too. I think we’re seeing the consequences of a largely uncensorable medium, which confronts anti-censorship folk like me with the reality we wished for. It’s a sobering experience, but on balance I support the medium. I just wonder when we’ll know how it has altered human consciousness, perhaps by adding an extra level.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020).

3 thoughts on “Channelling the Unknowable

  • November 12, 2020 at 3:12 pm
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    One of the most impressive interviews with Ramsey Campbell I’ve read in a long time. Excellent.

    Reply
  • November 13, 2020 at 8:11 am
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    An excellent interview. “Holes for Faces” is one of the most amazing collections of horror fiction I’ve enjoyed in many years. Stories such as “The Long Way” and “Holding the Light” produce such a powerful atmosphere of dread at times that most horror movies simply pale in comparison.

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  • November 13, 2020 at 8:57 am
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    Great interview with a great writer. Meaningful questions and thoughtful answers, well expressed. Thanks!

    Reply

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