Monday, October 14, 2013

Ramsey Campbell Interview

I'll admit that I stole this image from the Liverpool Daily Post.

If you consider yourself a serious reader of fiction but don't know who British horror novelist Ramsey Campbell is, it's time you were introduced. I have written of Campbell before; below is an excerpt of that post:

Ramsey Campbell is widely considered to be one of the best (if not the best) horror writer currently active....[I've included] some quotes about the writer himself:

"Britain's most respected horror writer." -Oxford Companion

"Campbell writes the most terrifying horror tales of anyone now alive." -Twilight Zone Magazine 

"Campbell is literature in a field which has attracted too many comic-book intellects, cool in a field where too many writers--myself included--tend toward painting melodrama. Good horror writers are quite rare, and Campbell is better than just good." -Steven King 

"Ramsey Campbell is one of the modern masters of horror...He has a genius for infusing horror into the everyday, piling up small moments of dread and confusion and fear until they become insurmountable." -Tim Pratt, Locus

"The greatest living writer of horror fiction." -Vector

"Ramsey Campbell is the best of us all." - Poppy Z. Brite

"The best horror writer alive, period." - Thomas Tessier

"The most sophisticated and highly regarded of British horror writers." - Financial Times

I could go on, and believe me, I'm tempted to. But I think you get the idea. Of his multitude of books, there are thousands upon thousands of positive reviews. Most of them go beyond the average, "So scary I had to leave the lights on!" or "Skin-crawling terror!" (whatever that means.) You get the sense in reading these reviews that there is something not being expressed. Absolute phrases like "greatest" and "most" are rarely used in the world of review, for they can sound extreme or ignorant.  And yet here we have dozens--if not hundreds--of individuals proclaiming "he is the scariest", "he is the most sophisticated", and of course "he is the best." Of all the reviews I have read of Campbell, the one has come closest to my personal feelings, and it seems, to those who have tried to express their awe for Campbell's work is this:

"It doesn't seem enough to say that Ramsey Campbell is a master of the horror genre." - Publishers Weekly

What is it about Campbell's work that makes it so great? He takes his time to set the stage; he tells you all about the world the story takes place in usually long before things get truly weird. He transforms everyday objects and scenarios into items and encounters dripping with implicate menace. The protagonists are real; in fact, they are just like you. For you, too, would be slow to see the danger around you in the same situations these characters are in. You, too, would not want to believe that such horrors were even possible. Campbell is about as far away from buckets-of-blood-shock-o horror as you can get. The books are not spectacles or "thrillers" in the typical sense. They are private moments of sinister confusion. They are deliberately slow. They manipulate you more than you would like to allow. Once, I read a line in a book of his which was innocuous at first, but when I understood the double meaning several lines later....I was terrified by what had almost happened. In that moment, it was not a story or a book, it was the very real possibility of a gruesome death, or worse. I was surprised (to say the least) to find two or three tears has leaked out of my eyes. Not tears of sadness or joy; tears of fear. His implications alone are terrifying...

Hopefully that gets you excited about the uncommon honor we have today here at Great Work Review; I had the pleasure of interviewing the man himself. This is an exclusive interview for GWR. Below is the entirety of that interview. I am truly grateful to Mr. Campbell for taking the time to do this with me. I'm sure you will find his insight into art and horror more than interesting.    

      When did you first get interested in writing? When did you realize you could make a career out of it? Was there ever a time when you seriously considered doing something else, if so, what?

I still have my first attempt at a novel – Black Fingers from Space by John R. Campbell (aged 7½), and illustrated by him too. The interested, not to say unwary, reader can find in my collection Ramsey Campbell, Probably all the chapters I wrote. Before I was twelve I was already writing my first completed book, Ghostly Tales. The stories in it were patched together like Frankenstein’s monster from fragments of fiction I’d read. Lovecraft gave me a focus when I was fourteen – something specific to aim to equal, not to say imitate – and August Derleth provided the encouragement and more importantly the editorial advice. By eighteen I had a book out, but it wasn’t for another nine years that I actually thought of writing as a career. Foolhardiness helped, and my wife helped more – if she hadn’t been teaching fulltime we wouldn’t have been able to afford my leap into the unknown. It wasn’t for another five years that I actually started to make a living. Before going fulltime I should explain I had a day job – four years in the civil service followed by another seven in the public libraries in Liverpool.

      This question might be difficult to answer in some ways, but I’m quite interested in your take on this. You have garnered very high praise from hundreds of reviewers and (perhaps more significantly) from your peers in the field of fiction writing. Many people have gone so far as to call you, “the best living,” “the scariest writer,” “Britain’s greatest horror novelist,” and, “the best of all time.” What is it about your work or style that people respond to?

Well, you should really ask them. But I’ve had quite a lot of readers say that once they’ve read a fair amount of my stuff they find themselves seeing aspects of the world in its terms or, I would hope, recognising what I’ve drawn attention to. What I hope is that my tales make us (the author included) look again at things we’ve taken for granted.

       I think a lot of North American readers (myself included) are familiar with your work thanks to the recommendations given by high-profile writers such as Stephen King and Peter Straub. Would you agree with that? I’m interested in your opinion of King’s work, as well as Straub’s.

I’m very fond of both. Peter’s a great elegant stylist who has created his own literary form, an insidiously uneasy mating of the supernatural and the crime story. Steve impresses me more and more as a great moral writer, an enviably fluent storyteller, a real taker of risks (who else would dare call his books by titles such as Misery and Desperation?), an innovator who hasn’t yet received due credit for it that I’ve seen, and crucial to the development of the modern horror novel. I could enthuse at more length about both, believe me – well, I have in introductions to their books (imminently Pet Sematary).

       Is there a writer currently working who you feel doesn’t have the credit he or she deserves? Who and why?

There are quite a few candidates, but let me choose just one – the British novelist Steve Mosby. He’s categorised as a crime writer but can equally be regarded as a horror novelist – an uncommonly disturbing one. His work is characterised by narrative play that never detracts from the suspense or the moral rigour of the tale. I’d say the perfect start to reading him is Black Flowers, which even has a touch of the uncanny in the tainted landscape where some of the events take place. But all of his books are very well worth knowing – The 50/50 Killer is the one he suggests as a starter, and that’s splendid too.

       I know you started out writing Lovecraftian stories (please correct me if I’m wrong about that), but now you certainly have a style which is all your own. Was that something that you consciously developed, or something that more-or-less cultivated itself over time?

It was pretty well instinctive but also the product of influence. Even in that first book of mine (The Inhabitant of the Lake, certainly Lovecraftian) I was already moving away from modelling my style on his (which, let’s remind ourselves, are very various, much more so than his detractors acknowledge) in tales such as “The Render of the Veils” and the ones that followed. But I was now reading widely outside the field. Graham Greene enthralled me and became an influence, but the real revelation was Nabokov – Lolita when I’d just turned seventeen and then every other book of his I could find. His work opened me up to the huge possibilities of language, and even “The Stone on the Island” shows how liberated I felt. I managed to get what I wanted to do right in “The Cellars”, and then got it wrong in a couple of years’ worth of first drafts, which I eventually rewrote and collected in Demons by Daylight (they also included “Cold Print” and “The Scar”). The rest – well, I hope I’m still developing.

       As I mentioned earlier, I also want to be a novelist and—like you—I am drawn to the horrific, the strange, the frightening. My wife, as well as various friends of mine, have asked me why I’m specifically interested in horror. You’ve been a major figure in the industry for decades; are there certain traits you’ve noticed among writers of horror fiction? Any insight into what it might be that attracts some individuals to it, but not others? 

It’s a cliché, but we seem to be quite amiable folk on the whole. Bob Bloch used to mention our grins, and he was a lot of fun himself. I’d say we’re attracted because it engages our imagination – why else write it? And it doesn’t engage those who aren’t attracted, any more than writing in other fields engages me (which is not in any way to belittle those genres).

       They say that behind every great man there is a great woman. I’m not sure if this is universally true, but you have acknowledged your wife Jenny in the beginning of many (if not all) of your books, thanking her for her work as “first” editor and the many other contributions she makes to your work. How much do you think her insight, knowledge, and influence shows up in your novels? How integral would you say she is to your writing process?

She’s absolutely crucial, and not just for the reasons you cite – as I mentioned, she kept us for five years when I set out as a fulltime writer. Quite a lot of my work is based on her experience – any stuff about teaching is likely to be owed to her decades in the job, and the Fancy family in The One Safe Place were all too typical of the kinds of clans she encountered. She acts as continuity editor sometimes, and sometimes suggests what might come next or soon. But just by being with me and reading my stuff she’s enormously supportive – I know too many writers whose partners never want to read what they write and who wish they would.

       There is a long-standing stigma in certain literary circles against “genre” fiction (such as horror, fantasy, sci-fi, etc.). When and why do you think this stigma developed, and why do you think some people see these genres as inherently separate from “serious” literature?

The field is often associated with its most disreputable elements. Too many horror writers seem to have little more ambition than to try and be more disgusting than one another. I once described such writing as Janet and John primers of mutilation. Me, I think the best horror fiction is a branch of literature, and I believe it has just as much scope. One quote sums up the attitude the field too often encounters. Years ago the husband of a lady who was interviewing me said “If he’s so good, how come he writes horror?” This said, I don’t think it’s the whole story – there’s always been a reasonable amount of appreciative criticism in the mainstream media and in studies of the field. But folk who don’t know the field may understandably have difficulty in sorting out the good stuff, especially if it’s all marketed as a single homogenous entity. As to when it developed – well, we might want to lay some of the blame on Christine Campbell Thompson, who said of her Not at Night series “From the first, I set my face against literature.” She hardly needed to say so, with the exception of a few of her choices (Lovecraft, for instance).

       In both Incarnate and in The Face That Must Die, you take the reader into the minds of highly disturbed people. In both works you seem to have gone to great lengths to show their point of view in a way the reader can almost identify with. For example, Horridge’s actions in Face make sense to him, and—in reading the book—we can understand why. Talk a bit about that process, and what you find interesting about such an effect.

I think it’s because I lived with it for most of the first half of my life. My mother was a paranoid schizophrenic (undiagnosed, so far as I know). From a very early age – certainly no more than three years old – I had to distinguish what was real from her perception of it. Long before my teens I was aware of how she would justify and rationalise her delusions to herself, and I was pretty young by the time I gave up trying to persuade her that (for instance) a nightly BBC radio soap opera (The Archers) wasn’t full of coded messages addressed to her – some by well-wishers, others by her enemies under assumed names. I got used to this quite quickly – it was my childhood, after all, and it didn’t really occur to me to compare it to others. But I have to confess that Horridge, prejudices and all, was largely based on her, and my upbringing may well explain why I’ve continued to be fascinated by how such minds work.

       I’ve noticed you like to use themes in some of your books, which you mirror in the language and word-choice. Examples of this would be the themes of wheat and dogs in Ancient Images, cold and symmetry in Midnight Sun, or water and the unknown in Creatures of the Pool. What do you like about this? What do you feel it adds to your work?

I hope it won’t sound too horribly pretentious if I say I sometimes feel my stuff puts me in mind of music. I’m not talking about quality, just form. I can’t really write a tale until I have some sense of a central theme, and then, as you’ve spotted, I tend to organise the material around it and use images to articulate it. Particularly in the short stories and also some of the novels – The Grin of the Dark, for instance – I think the episodes form a series of variations on the theme. Sometimes they’re traditional in form – true of most of my ghost stories, I think – and sometimes, as in “The Hands”, the variations can be less immediately recognisable as such.

My favorite book of yours is Midnight Sun, which touched me and terrified me in turns. I’ve even gone so far as to call it my favorite novel overall, and it’s one I’d love to tackle on this blog in the future. Can you talk a bit about the process of working on that novel? Do you yourself see it as special or noteworthy against your other books?

It was probably the hardest novel to write of any of them – so far, at any rate. In particular the first draft of the opening section felt like trying to push the burden of the thing uphill day after day. I actually stopped at the end of that section and reread it to convince myself that it was even worth going on with the book. I think my ambition for the book may have been too conscious – to write a novel that depended not at all on physical violence, even the threat of it, and went instead for awe. I’d say it was an honourable failure and wish it were much better. Still, I continue to make my feeble leaps towards awe – The Kind Folk is the latest one, I suppose.

       Which of your books do you consider the best and why?

It’s usually one of the newer ones, and then I begin to see its myriad flaws. Right now I’m quite fond of The Grin of the Dark as perhaps my most sustained comedy of paranoia, and also as a book that says something about the way the internet (in many ways a great boon) releases the monsters within us.

       I read once that you said The Parasite was the worst book you had written, which amused me since it was one of the first of yours I read, and I quite enjoyed it. Do you still have that opinion? In the books you think are the worst, what is it about them you feel you failed at conveying or creating?

The Parasite – I think it simply struggles too hard to be as frightening as possible, to impose an experience on the reader rather than simply allowing me to convey how the material feels to me. Early in writing Incarnate I made the decision to stop striving to be scary and to force the material, and since then I mostly haven’t – if I catch myself at it I do my best to stop.

       At the beginning of Midnight Sun, you included a quote from David Aylward’s The Revenge of the Past: the Cultural Meaning of Supernatural Literature, reading: “Writers [of supernatural fiction], who used to strive for awe and achieve fear, now strive for fear and achieve only disgust.” Upon finishing the book I reflected on that and saw it more as a guideline for reading the book than as a thematic connection. Aylward is almost certainly (at least in part) referring to Lovecraft in his creation of “awe.” What do you think it is about this kind of awe that frightens people? What has been the effect on the industry in moving away from awe?

I don’t know if it’s frightening so much as elevating to a level where terror becomes almost a numinous experience. I think of “The Willows” and “The White People” but also the last movement of Janáčeks Sinfonietta and also the Agnus Dei from his Glagolitic Mass (where the orchestral response always sounds to me like an answer from something utterly and perhaps terribly alien, or else the voice of the void). I don’t altogether agree with Aylward – surely writers such as Thomas Ligotti and Mark Samuels still reach for awe. But I think it’s the highest ambition of the form, and I’d be happy to see more writers attempting visionary horror. Meanwhile the horror tale is doing much in terms of social comment and psychological enquiry, though.

       I’m not going to delve too much into your work as a film reviewer, but there is something you said along these lines once about the cinema that I think deserves some time here. You mentioned that out of all the horror movies made these days only the darker films of David Lynch really frighten you anymore. Do you think this is an inherent failing of films, or is this a problem with the direction the industry has taken? What are some examples of horror movies which, in your opinion, failed in their goal to be scary?

I think the failing may be mine, not that of the films. In any case, horror doesn’t have to be scary – all it needs to do, like all good art, is to make us look again at things we’ve taken for granted. Disturbing us is worthwhile too. So, for instance, of late I’ve admired such different films as Kill List, The Children and Valhalla Rising, all of which seem to me to achieve both. I won’t single out films that don’t – suffice it to say that a lack of imagination and inventiveness is liable to leave me unengaged. I don’t necessarily ask for originality, just a sense that the material has been authentically imagined – hence I liked The Sixth Sense, for example. And I don’t demand scariness – just as one instance, I don’t find Tod Browning’s Dracula frightening, but now I’ve seen it on Blu-ray I’ve rather fallen in love with the film (which had previously seemed too distant to reach me, too muffled by the ageing of the available copies).

       You’ve also said that a major problem with many horror writers today is that they have not read any horror fiction older than themselves (citing M. R. James as an example of what should be read, if I remember correctly). Why do you feel it is important to have a knowledge of past writers when attempting to write?

I think you should be thoroughly familiar with the great tradition of any field or form you’re working in. Learn from the greats and build on what they achieved. Lovecraft epitomises how that can be done, as does Fritz Leiber – two of many essential writers to get to know.

       What do you feel is important for fiction writers (in general) to do or know? What about horror writers specifically?

Tell as much of the truth as you can. And that applies just as much to horror writers as to any other kind. Write only what engages your imagination – anything else is hackwork. Find your ideal routine and stick to it if you possibly can – mine involves starting work about six in the morning every day (yes, every one).

       Any other closing thoughts you’d like to add?

Right now I’m wrangling with the title for my novel in progress – Bad Thoughts or Think Yourself Lucky? I’ve had quite a productive year, it seems – one novella out (The Last Revelation of Gla’aki, which seeks to return to my Lovecraftian roots in a way that isn’t wholly unworthy of his inspiration and to reclaim some of his original vision for his mythos from all the additions and distortions that lesser writers such as me have introduced since) and one to come, The Pretence. And if I can continue this shameless self-promotion*, I just brought out a new collection – Holes for Faces – in which, though not by design, all the tales are about youth or age and quite often both.

       And finally, what scares you?

Gullibility. The vulnerability of children. The increasing reluctance of people to intervene when they see or suspect wrongdoing. The espousal of beliefs that deny the right to question. The growth of fundamentalism, which means more and worse of the previous trait. The willingness of the mass (which may well mean all of us) to find scapegoats. The growth of the notion that literacy and other standards are less important than they used to be. I hope I needn’t explain why any of that is frightening when all of it is everywhere you look.


For those interested, I've compiled a list of the recommendations Campbell made during the interview here: If you found this interview enlightening, share it with someone. If you've never read a Campbell novel, now is the perfect time to begin.

-MA 10.14.2013

*Shameless self-promotion, huh? You can find some of my own fiction work here: