Ramsey Campbell: The Nightmare Man

I thought I’d start my discussion of ‘Masters of Horror’ by talking about my favorite horror author of all time, and perhaps one of the most unappreciated horror authors ever. The shelves of your local bookstores, which no doubt carry dozens of copies of the latest King and Koontz may at best have one recent Campbell novel lurking about. If you’re a fan of horror, though, and you’ve never read any works of Ramsey Campbell, you haven’t read horror.

The British native Campbell has been a published horror writer for over forty years now, and started his career like many of the greats: writing pastiches of H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror. He quickly distinguished himself as a unique voice with a beautiful, eloquent literary style. To me, horror has never sounded so good.

I mentioned in my introductory post on horror masters that good horror authors typically have one or more ‘themes’ to their work – general concepts or visions that are expressed frequently by the author. Ramsey Campbell arguably has three. He has written numerous novels and short stories about serial killers, and is perhaps one of the first authors to do so in the first person – The Face That Must Die is copyrighted 1979. He is a masterful author of erotic horror – his best works are compiled in the book Scared Stiff.

The thing that Ramsey Campbell does best, though, and better than anyone else, is distill nightmares from the depths of the subconscious and transfer them, unadulterated, onto paper. As you read his works, you will have the odd feeling that you’ve experienced these tales before, somewhere deep inside yourself. In fact, Ramsey Campbell is the only author whose fiction has practically made me doubt my own sanity by the time I was finished reading.

Why is he not better known and appreciated? Part of this may simply be the subtlety of his work. You won’t find many ‘jump-out-in-your-face-and-yell-boo’ monsters in his writing. His stories are filled more with that thing that moved just out of sight when you turned to look, that person who you’re sure is following you but you can’t quite see, that feeling you have that something is standing right beside your bed, waiting for you to look. Furthermore, I tend to find his novels are not quite as powerful as his short stories, which has probably hurt his commercial success. I suspect it is simply harder to maintain that building, unsettling tension throughout the course of a novel.  His short stories, however, are as close to perfect as one can get.

It’s worth mentioning that he is also a master of misdirection. A number of his stories (I won’t tell you which ones) are not about what you think they’re about. He’s also got a magnificent sense of humor. The afterword to Scared Stiff and the acknowledgments to Obsession are almost alone worth the cost of the books.

One other aspect of Ramsey’s work is extraordinary: the last lines of his stories are eloquent and carry a powerful kick. This is the aspect of his work that I’ve tried to emulate the most in my own fiction writing. This emulation is so strong that I usually have the last line of a story written first, before anything else. This was even true for the novella I wrote last year. You could say that a lot of my stories are Campbell pastiches.

What, then, would I recommend of Ramsey’s writings? This list, while woefully inadequate, is hopefully a good starting point:

***

1. Ancient Images. Probably my favorite Campbell novel. A colleague’s mysterious death prompts a woman to continue his search for a mythical lost, never released film by Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. The search leads deep into the history of the film and into even deeper secrets beyond.

2. Obsession. Four teenagers receive mysterious letters: “Whatever you most need I do. The price is something that you do not value and which you may regain.” On a whim, the teens sign the agreements, with horrific consequences. Years later, the debts they owe begin to be reclaimed…

3. Alone with the Horrors. A compilation of the definitive early short stories of Ramsey Campbell. Among my favorites:

End of a Summer’s Day. A short, sharp nightmare.
The Chimney. A child’s fear of Santa Claus leads down a dark path.
Down There. A woman stays late in the office, but is not alone.
Seeing the World.  Everyone’s worst nightmare: vacation pictures.
Just Waiting. A pleasant picnic outing.
Again. I can’t even describe it, other than to say: completely fucked up.

4. Scared Stiff. A compilation of Campbell’s erotic horror tales. Loveman’s Comeback I find particularly horrifying.

5. Strange Things and Stranger Places. A more recent short story compilation. Three of my favorites are here:

Run Through. A man struggles to find an object in his house. If this one doesn’t seem somewhat familiar, none of them will.
Little Man. A teenager seeks solace by playing with the murder machine, a mechanized penny arcade machine that acts out a serial killing.
Needing Ghosts. Also damn near indescribable. This was the story that nearly drove me batty. I finished it alone, late at night, and felt so nervous and disoriented that I had to call a friend to calm myself down. And I don’t scare easily.

6. Ghosts and Grisly Things. The most recent story compilation. The story A Street Was Chosen describes an experiment in a dry, clinical tone that will be appreciated by any scientist. I don’t know the funding agency for this work, but I’m staying the hell out of their way.

***

Campbell is still prolific, though I find his more recent work less impressive than his early achievements (I still read them all, though).  He has a website where information on his latest works and appearances can be found.

True connoisseurs of horror fiction know that many of the most effective tales scare you more with what you don’t see than with what you see.  I would say that Ramsey Campbell is the best living artist of this type.

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5 Responses to Ramsey Campbell: The Nightmare Man

  1. Pingback: Subtle, unsettling horror: Picnic at Hanging Rock (updated) « Skulls in the Stars

  2. Melina says:

    very interesting. i’m adding in RSS Reader

  3. Kristine says:

    I soooo agree with the note on “Needing Ghosts.” Very, very scary, indeed.

  4. Carlos says:

    I have to agree with you, Campbell is very underrated, but he is after all an acquired taste, people desperate to find graphic horror won’t appreciate Campbell’s masterful language. I have the impression though that Campbell’s an undisputed master when it comes to the short form, even his novels seem to be an expansion of his tales, since they are composed of small scenes. Nobody since the old horror masters has written scarier stories than “The Guide”, “The Hands”, “The Companion”, “This Time” or “The Show Goes On”, to name just a handful.

    Although I don’t think Campbell is my favorite of all time (that would probably be either Lovecraft or Machen), I do think that he is the best horror author of the second half of the twentieth century.

    In a time when horror AND literature are forbidden words, Campbell has managed to survive. Too bad there aren’t many like him out there.

  5. Pingback: Subtle, unsettling horror: Picnic at Hanging Rock (updated) | Skulls in the Stars

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