Ramsey Campbell Interview

“Ramsey possesses a vision of the world, and all it contains, unlike any other,” Clive Barker wrote in the 1986 World Fantasy Convention program book. “He finds the shadows with unerring skill, and picks out from scenes and situations that most of us would find quite unremarkable pieces of darkness embedded there like glass shards in a car wreck victim… here is a world where everything is in flux; in which the mind has at best a tenuous hold on its perceptions, and something scrabbles perpetually at the foundations of any certainty.”

Barker tried to explain what it was about Campbell’s writing which attracted people in his introduction to Scared Stiff:

“Campbell has earned a considerable audience, and countless critical plaudits, by creating a world in which much remains unsaid and unseen, and the fear he creates is as much wed to our individual interpretation of what the prose is implying as derived from anything the author explicitly reveals.”

Stephen King, in Danse Macabre, his overview of modern horror fiction, presented his own interpretation of the Campbell style:

“Campbell… writes a cool, almost icy prose line, and his perspective on his native Liverpool is always a trifle offbeat, a trifle unsettling. In a Campbell novel or story, one seems to view the world through the thin and shifting perceptual haze of an LSD trip that is just ending… or just beginning… As when one is journeying on mild LSD, there is something chilly and faintly schizophrenic in the way his characters see things.”

“Fear of the dark is the most childlike fear. Tales of terror are customarily told ‘around the camp-fire’ or at least after sundown, because what is laughable in the sunshine is often tougher to smile at by starlight,” King says in Danse Macabre, then adds the following footnote: “Now and then someone will run brilliantly counter to the tradition and produce a piece of what is sometimes called ‘sunlit horror’. Ramsey Campbell does this particularly well; see his aptly named collection of short stories Demons by Daylight.”

Campbell’s style and world view developed slowly: he began his career as a writer of Lovecraftian horror stories, beginning his apprenticeship at a very early age:

“I began to write ghost stories when I was eight or nine years old. My mother encouraged me eventually to do a book of them, so between the ages of eleven and twelve I did, I actually finished the thing when I was twelve. And believe me, it shows! The stories were patched together like Frankenstein’s monster from bits of favourite horror stories… bits between which there was no discrimination.

“I completed this book in longhand, and illustrated it in crayon, quite hideously! And I did what is an unforgivable thing: I sent this handwritten book off to publishers. One of them I sent it to was Boardman’s: Tom Boardman Jr. was one of the first, if not the first, publishers in Britain to do science fiction seriously in hardcover.

“I got this very kind letter back from him, to my amazement, saying, ‘we don’t publish ghost stories. It’s a very hard business being a professional writer, but if you persevere, we’re sure you’re going to make it, because this book is showing real imaginative qualities.’

“I remember I also sent it off to Collins, who immediately passed it on to their children’s fiction desk. But since it was full of people having their eyes gouged out and eaten, I’m sure that didn’t please them too much at Collins, children’s publishing then not being what it is now. That was it really, nobody published the book, so it went into the back of the drawer.”

At the age of thirteen or fourteen, Campbell joined the British Science Fiction Association, and began borrowing copies of Weird Tales from their postal library.

“The guy who ran the library was Jhim Linwood. He said I should get in touch with this other guy, Pat Kearney, who also read people like Lovecraft: clearly not a lot of people in the BSFA would be caught dead reading things like Weird Tales! We were outcasts and ought to be put in touch with each other. And Pat published a fanzine, in which he published my first Lovecraftian story. It was very much imitation Lovecraft, full of me trying to write New England dialect and setting stuff around Arkham and so on, which believe me wasn’t too convincing! But it at least launched me into fandom.

Later, at the suggestion of Pat Kearney and American fan Betty Kujawa, Campbell sent some of his stories off to August Derleth, who had founded Arkham House to preserve H.P. Lovecraft’s stories in book form in the States. Campbell recalls his writer-editor relationship with Derleth in his introduction to the Dark Companions collection:

“Most writers start by imitating their favourites. Mine was H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s style seemed easy to imitate, and so did his monsters. I wrote half a dozen stories in the manner of Lovecraft, with titles such as “The Tower of Yuggoth,” and sent them to August Derleth… Derleth liked them enough to tell me how to improve them – by describing fewer things as eldritch and unspeakable and cosmically alien, for a start, and by re-reading the ghost stories of M.R. James to learn suggestiveness.”

Ramsey Campbell’s first professionally published short story was “The Church in High Street,” which appeared in the August Derleth-edited anthology Dark Mind, Dark Heart in 1962. Derleth’s Arkham House eventually published a collection of Campbell’s Lovecraftian short stories, The Inhabitant of the Lake and Other Less Welcome Tenants, in 1964.

“You could tell I was seventeen when I finished the book,” Campbell has observed. “But all the same, it began my career.”

Robert Hadji, in his entry on Campbell in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural describes these stories as “precocious pastiches.”

What was it about Lovecraft’s work that appealed to Ramsey Campbell?

“The sense of awesome horror. Just that sense of something considerably larger than he ever puts into words. I found that immensely exciting and exhilarating. It was as awesome as it was terrifying, and he did that for me more completely than any other writer. And in some ways he still does. A story like Blackwood’s “The Willows,” or Machen’s “The White People,” is arguably better than most Lovecraft, but I think most of Lovecraft is better, for me, than most of Blackwood. Particularly because of the way that the structure of the story and the use of language are part of the build up of that sense he was trying to convey.

“I do believe imitation is a perfectly legitimate way of starting out, of developing your craft while you actually find out what you want to write about. It seems to me that once you’ve found your own themes, then your writing is going to follow and become more individual as well. I’m always a little bit suspicious of those people who are afraid of the notion of, or who oppose the idea of, imitating as being bad for a writer. I think if you haven’t got enough personality to get beyond the imitation you start by doing, then perhaps you haven’t got enough personality to express anyway.”

But, as he points out in the Dark Companions introduction, “literary imitation is rather like ventriloquism — trying to say things in someone else’s voice — and just about as limited a skill.”

“I was getting very impatient with Lovecraft, which is very unfair, it wasn’t Lovecraft’s fault at all. The strange thing was, just as Lovecraft had attempted to create a new kind of horror fiction to counteract what he saw as the excessively conventionalised kind of occult fiction, so I began to feel that Lovecraft’s own fiction was excessively conventionalised. Too much was explained, and there was too much of a structure into which a lot of the stories were fitted, and I wanted to get away from that, and go back to the horror stories which were basically about the unknown, and communicated a sense which they didn’t necessarily state directly.

“And, as I say, this was extremely unfair to Lovecraft, because it was people like me who had come along and filled all the gaps which he had carefully left unfilled. So I shouldn’t have been blaming him at all.”

“By now I’d left school and was working in the tax office, where I wrote stories at my desk in the lunch hour, surrounded by bureaucratic activity and ringing ‘phones. No wonder my surroundings began to appear in my stories, and so did my growing obsession with movies and the dying cinemas where I caught up with the films of the previous thirty years. Since my first book was an imitation of Lovecraft’s horrors, it had been a way of sidestepping my own fears… but now I was beginning to write about them, perhaps because I was gaining enough confidence as a writer to be more honest about myself.

“While the supernatural elements weren’t autobiographical, the feelings were – particularly the descriptions of how it felt to be afraid. During my school-days I’d been terrified of going to the Catholic grammar school, where they were fond of using corporal punishment, but now I found there were many other things to fear: women, and answering the office ‘phone, and talking about myself, and going to parties where I knew almost nobody… Well, I needn’t go on; most of it is in my stories somewhere.”

Campbell spent four years working in the tax office, and another seven working in public libraries. Then when his second collection of short stories, Demons by Daylight, was published in 1973, he decided to write full time, and has done so ever since.

“In ‘Demons By Daylight’ and that sort of story, in which I did become like myself, I was actually trying to get away from Lovecraft. It also came very much from reading Fritz Leiber, stories like ‘Smoke Ghost,’ and all the Chicago stories, and discovering that there was a kind of supernatural fiction you could write about contemporary settings, which weren’t using the settings as a contrast, but in which the supernatural actually came out of the everyday. And that struck me as being a real possible road to follow. And off I went.”

If Campbell felt that this was the kind of story he wanted to be writing, he admits to being far from sure that this was the sort of story he could get published.

Demons by Daylight was the kind of book which you really did not write at that time. You particularly didn’t write it for Arkham House. Because, although Derleth was as anti-censorship as I was, he really felt there were lots of things you shouldn’t put into horror fiction, including sexual detail and bad language and all that kind of stuff, and Demons by Daylight has a lot of taboo details, certainly for the period.

“During the years I spent writing it, I often used to think: Derleth is going to loath this, he’s never going to touch it. When I’d finished it, when I typed the last page, I seriously felt — this isn’t going to be worth it, I’m just wasting my money paying the airmail on this, because he’s not going to want it.

“But I did send it, and of course he did publish it, although it didn’t appear until after his death. It’s strange because I think he felt that this was worth publishing, and yet his piece about it in the Arkham House catalogue is about as terse as you can get. It actually says: Campbell’s second book gives adequate proof of his growth. Now, that’s not the most rave comment you ever heard from a publisher for a book he’s trying to promote! So one suspects he did have his reservations about it, and about why I was doing it, but he must have felt that this was going to happen sooner or later.”

Robert Hadji, in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural: “Campbell discovered his own identity as a horror writer by reaching within himself, drawing upon personal experiences, fears and phobias… Having found his way, Campbell developed over the next few years a personal aesthetic of horror, rooted in recognizable human behaviour within a contemporary environment suffused with menace. In such a world, paranoia is a reasonable response to reality, and uncertainty becomes the only certainty.”

Going on to examine the Campbell aesthetic Hadji says: “His protagonists are young, alienated, selfish: neither evil nor innocent, merely victims. Their fears and insecurities leave them vulnerable to assault by the amoral supernatural forces they carelessly arouse or that chance upon them. The casual, hollow relationships they engage in offer distraction, but no solace: ties that do not truly bind cannot hold back the darkness. Campbell’s emotional landscape is over-whelmingly pessimistic, corroded by dread and despair. The visual texture of the stories has the disjointed clarity of a bad dream…”

Hadji later states that Campbell’s prose style well suits his subject matter, being “terse but rendered with poetic attention to sonority” and possessing “a compelling rhythm that sweeps the reader along on a tide of anticipation and apprehension.”

Little wonder then that Campbell has a reputation as being a writer of pretty grim stuff. But while Campbell’s fist novel, The Doll Who Ate His Mother (1976), and his second, The Face That Must Die (1979), are incredibly dark pieces, more recent novels are leavened by the kind of grim humour which often appeared in the author’s short fiction.

Though it might be akin to asking ‘do you laugh at your own jokes’, I wondered if Campbell ever scared himself whilst he was writing.

“Yes, absolutely! You very much hope that you do scare yourself. I’m particularly delighted if I happen to re-read something and think: My God, that’s pretty unnerving stuff. That’s great…”

And does he ever sit at his desk and feel disturbed that this stuff is coming from his subconscious?

“Not in that way, no. If it disturbs me, then I’m delighted! I’m thinking: My God, this is disturbing, I must get it down! I’m not likely to think: This is disturbing, what am I doing here? Although, I’ll be honest, there are things that I have re-read and thought: This is pretty strong stuff. I’m thinking particularly of the first murder The Face That Must Die. It took me a day to write just that scene, from the beginning of him starting in with the razor, to the end of that with the unfortunate guy actually being dead. And when I re-read that, in proofs I suppose, I really thought: My God, this is grim! But I knew where it was coming from when I was writing it.

“Although I very often have that experience where the book is going in a direction that I couldn’t predict, or there are things coming out that I didn’t know I was going to write when I began. That seems to me to be an entirely positive thing, and I anything but react against it.

“I had a strange thing at a writers’ group I was invited to. One guy in the audience had written this strange poem which seemed to be full of apocalyptic imagery, and he was very scared of it. He was quite unhappy about reading it aloud, and he was actually trying to deny that he’d written it himself; he was saying: I felt as if something possessed me, some evil force… I found it bothersome that a writer should say that. I mean, it’s coming from inside yourself, where else can it be coming from? I think unless you accept that, you’re on the way to being in a bad way as a writer.

“In a way this seems to me to relate to the kind of writing which says: This is about an evil person, look how evil they are, I’m showing you, they are evil, they are nothing to do with me, I am demonstrating that they’re monstrous… Well, again, I don’t see that at all. You’re writing about them, you’re inventing them, therefore they’re part of you. There’s something wrong with the kind of fiction which tries to pretend they’re not.”

So he sees evil in his stories as coming from within his characters, rather than from something external?

“It relates to something within the characters in some way, that’s right; because I’m very suspicious of the notion that uses evil as a kind of alibi for something we’re perfectly capable if doing ourselves, because that’s only a short step from saying: The Devil made me do it…

“The trend after Halloween was to say: He’s psychotic, therefore he does it, and we don’t actually need any more explanation, this is what psychotics do, they chop people up. But I don’t think that’s very helpful either. I think a writer’s got more of a duty to look deeper than that.

“But yes, essentially, that’s it: I don’t view evil as some sort of thing ‘out there’ that has got nothing to do with us. I think that’s a real cop out, basically.”

Are horror readers, perhaps, more honest about themselves: admitting that things in the world, or inside their heads, scare them?

“That can be true up to a point, but it depends very much on who you’re reading. There clearly is a sort of horror fiction which does precisely the reverse, and says: It isn’t anything to do with us, folks, because we recognise it as evil and it isn’t inside ourselves; or if it is inside ourselves, all we need is for a priest to come along and regain his faith, shake a crucifix at it, and jump out of the window having taken it upon himself, and we’re all right again. There clearly is a readership who goes to horror fiction for reassurance. A sort of substitute for religion, I suspect, in some cases.”

There are readers who want to escape from their fears, and others who want to confront their fears, for whatever reason…

“I think that’s right, yes. I’m obviously very much for the confrontational variety. It’s the kind of fiction I like to read as well as to write.”

Do you have to have personal fears to be a horror writer?

“I would have thought so. It’s difficult to know what else you would be doing. If I don’t feel it, why write it? That’s certainly my view. But, of course, there may be others who disagree with it. But I would find it difficult to know why they are doing it, in that case… except as some mechanical exercise, but that just makes for bad art.”

Does Campbell write about his own fears to exorcise them?

“Well, maybe… [LAUGHS]… Except I’m not sure I’ve exorcised them so much as made them slightly more …easy to perceive.”

Campbell’s novels fall into two quite distinct categories: the fast-paced psychological thriller, such as The Nameless and The Doll Who Ate His Mother, and the longer ‘creeping unease’ – kind of novels, such as The Hungry Moon and Incarnate. Which does he most enjoy writing?

Hungry Moon was quite a lot of fun to write because I sort of let it splurge out after a while, and every sort of strange thing that suggested itself for the narrative that could decently be incorporated, was. The same with Incarnate. I think the longer the book is, the more fun it has been to write, probably.

“But I do tend to alternate between things like The Hungry Moon and then a small scale thing like The Influence, where the implications are large.

Ancient Images is, I suppose, a kind of extravaganza, with lots of different sorts of horror being discussed or dealt with as the book goes on.”

Where does the inspiration for something like Hungry Moon come from?

“That’s one of the curious things — if you trace a novel back to where it originates, it can often be a quite unlikely source. My original idea for that book was I wanted to deal with the notion of a supernatural darkness. James Herbert had done it in The Dark, and it seemed to me there were other things to be done with it, so I thought I’d have a go. Once I’d established the notion of the darkness, it had to fit in with the question: What was it for? And it seemed to me eventually, to make the people welcome the light, whatever it might be. And then it was a question of: How does it get stirred up? And I rather liked the idea of it being stirred up by the forces of good, rather than the forces of evil. And it all came from there.

“I think I liked the idea of it being in the place in the countryside with the least sunlight, I think that began it.

“The other thing which is interesting about The Hungry Moon which I think justifies the absurdity of the whole thing, as far as it is absurd, is that once I’d invented the central legend of The Hungry Moon, I actually found more and more details, and legends, and bits of folklore and so on which could be brought to bear as apparent evidence. And what I hope the book was doing was demonstrating how easy it is to find immense amounts of evidence for just about anything you can think up. In a sense, counteracting the Fundamentalist’s gullibility. And I think that was the way the book worked. I don’t know whether it worked that way for everybody…”

Campbell describes Midnight Sun, recently published in paperback, as “a big supernatural novel, like The Hungry Moon, but maybe more organised, more coherent… I wanted to try and do a big, atmospheric, supernatural novel.” Some reviewers, Mark Morris among them, have described the novel as being, to a certain degree, autobiographical.

“It’s autobiographical to the extent that it is about a writer and his wife and two children, and clearly one draws on one’s own experiences for writing anything. Generally when I’m writing about kids it’s Tam and Matt who I’m writing about, or at least drawing on them, and things they have said tend to creep into the text sooner or later.

“It’s not as autobiographical as all that in the larger sense. What it is about is how the writer at the centre of the story tends to consume everything around him. Indeed, that is what the Needing Ghosts is about. Needing Ghosts is like the darker elements of Midnight Sun pushed further, in a way.

“But in Midnight Sun the tension is really between the visions which the writer-husband is progressively having, which lead him into a sort of — well, into, it’s fair to say, a visionary state. It also affects things around him and begins to make reality change, and brings to life something which is totally inhuman and unlike anything we can grasp.

“It is an attempt, if you like, to fuse cosmic and psychological terror. It’s something I have wanted to do for a while. It’s also very much an attempt to get back to the sort of horror fiction which brought me into the field in the first place — the Lovecraft and the Machen, and so forth, which had a largeness of vision.

“So on the one hand it’s about that, and on the other hand it’s about the way he puts his family in great danger and ends up risking destroying either them or himself. And I think it’s fair to say that that is the dialectic of the book — between the wife’s view point and the husband’s view point. Or the sort of ‘creativity no matter what’ view point, and the wife who is attempting to keep this family together under increasing threat.

“It was also an attempt to do a horror novel with no physical violence in it. I wanted to do a novel where the terror is awesome and not in any way repulsive. I wanted to see if I could do that at novel length. In fact, there is an act of violence very late in the book, but that is not what you feel the book is leading up to while you’re reading it.”

Campbell admits to having had some problems in writing the novel.

“I had tremendous difficulty with Midnight Sun, for whatever reason. I had long stretches — longer than usual — where I felt: I’ve lost it completely and I don’t know what I’m doing here. The story’s not working, and the characters are not working… I eventually finished Midnight Sun, did the rewrites and delivered it, and then started in on Needing Ghosts.

“On the whole I was pretty pleased with Midnight Sun once I’d finished it, after fifteen months of wrestling with it. But I sort of felt I’d achieved what I’d set out to achieve. I suspected that it wouldn’t mean a great deal to a great many other people, but in fact it’s taken off quite well and my trying to be true to myself as a writer has turned out a popular book”

Needing Ghosts is a slim volume published in the Legend Novella series. Just how long is a novella?

“Mine was twenty-six-and-a-half thousand words, just about. It was the first attempt I’d made at that kind of length since the mid-seventies, when I did a science fiction story which wasn’t anything like as long. Indeed, Deborah Beale spent some time persuading me that I was going to do one for her, because I wasn’t sure really whether I had an idea that would fit into something which was neither a short story or a novel.

“Then I got an idea which was actually relatively open and relatively strange, and it seemed to me that it contained possible elements which one could develop at some length, but not necessarily at novel length. So I said I would write it as a Legend Novella.

“I wrote it immediately after Midnight Sun. After probably no more than three days work on Needing Ghosts, it actually took off so fast that I was getting up every morning wanting to know what happened next, thinking: My god, I don’t believe this, where is this going? I was having to run to keep up with my own story. It virtually wrote itself. It’s encouraging that that can still happen, thirty years into one’s career.

“The rewrite consisted largely of redoing one scene where the central character is talking to a writers’ group, and I thought: This scene slightly over-emphasises the theme — or one of the themes — of the story somewhat. So I toned that down. Otherwise it was more like dreaming onto the page than anything else I’d ever written.

“People have said that it is actually like living through somebody else’s nightmare, so that… kind of sums it up, I think! Other people seem to feel about Needing Ghosts the way I feel about Eraserhead… I can’t say fairer than that, right?”

Needing Ghosts is illustrated with a series of black and white drawings by an artist called Jamel Akib…

“He is a new guy who I think Deborah discovered. He’s got a strange style: there’s something sort of slightly fluid about the figures. There’s a sense that they’re maybe about to change into something… a change for the worst, usually! Which is very appropriate to one of the things the story is doing.”

Campbell’s most recent novel is Count of Eleven, which he was in the process of writing when I last spoke to him. He had this to say about the novel in progress:

“It is, I suppose it is fair to say, a crime novel. It doesn’t have a supernatural element in it. It seems to me that Needing Ghosts unlocked one aspect of my writing, or opened it up a bit more, which is the tendency towards black comedy. There’s whole stretches of Needing Ghosts which, I think, run as bizarre comedy.

Count of Eleven actually starts almost as a comic novel, and the comedy gradually gets darker and darker. It seems to me that there is going to be a point where you confront the horror, but I haven’t yet. There are moments of horror, but it is a sort of horrid comedy. Terrible things have happened, but the comedy is somehow continuing. Maybe that’s the way the book is going to push, I don’t know. So what people are going to make of it we must wait and see.”


Originally published in the fanzine Other Times

Thanks again to Nick Cairns who was also with me on this one.