Ramsey Campbell, one of the premier horror writers of the English-speaking world, is now 75, and has recently entered his seventh decade as a published writer. This is quite literally true. His first book, a collection of Lovecraft-inspired tales called “The Inhabitant of the Lake,” appeared in 1964, when its fledgling author was still in his teens. In the years since, he has produced a steady stream of novels, novellas and stories. Taken together, they constitute one of the monumental accomplishments of modern popular fiction.
Consider these numbers: To date, Campbell has published 37 novels, along with hundreds of short stories that have been collected in more than two dozen volumes. He has also published one volume of verse, two massive collections of assorted nonfiction and has edited some 20 volumes of new and classic horror fiction. In terms of both quality and productivity, his career has been a remarkable one, and shows no signs of slowing down. This year alone, Campbell has published three new books.
“Ramsey Campbell, Certainly,” a 600-page follow-up to 2002’s “Ramsey Campbell, Probably,” offers an assortment of autobiographical reflections, along with cogent commentary on such subjects as censorship, plagiarism, classic weird fiction and the ongoing influence of H.P. Lovecraft. This generous volume not only offers a glimpse into the mind behind the stories, but also serves as a curated guide to the best that horror has to offer, both in fiction and films.
“The Village Killings and Other Novellas” gathers all of Campbell’s work in the novella form. This collection of five stories and an essay leads with “Needing Ghosts,” arguably the author’s most disturbing and disorienting piece of fiction, and ends with the title story, a newly published tale that reveals an affinity — and affection — for the classic, Golden Age detective story. (Another story, “The Enigma of the Flat Policeman,” was written under the influence of John Dickson Carr, master of the locked room mystery.) This is a strong, long overdue collection that offers a surprising glimpse into the range and variety of Campbell’s literary interests.
The final installment in this year’s Campbell trifecta is the novel “Somebody’s Voice” (Flame Tree Press). This is quite simply one of the best novels Campbell has ever written. The premise is simple. Alex Grand, a crime novelist whose career has reached a crisis point, agrees to serve as ghost writer for Carl (formerly Carla) Batchelor, an embittered survivor of childhood sexual abuse. The act of collaboration reveals the fault lines in Alex’s carefully constructed version of his own past and leads to unexpected — and painful — revelations. This is a beautifully structured novel that deals forthrightly with uncomfortable issues — sexual abuse, gender politics, repressed memories — and moves steadily toward a conclusion that is both affecting and, in retrospect, inevitable.
Throughout his long career, Campbell has mastered the art of generating a sense of sustained unease. In book after book, he has created an instantly recognizable world in which the most commonplace scenes, settings and objects assume a sinister, potentially menacing air. It is a world in which — to contradict the title of one of Campbell’s finest novels — there is no safe place. Against the backdrop of a harsh, often malleable reality, Campbell has created some of the most uncompromising horror fiction of recent decades. Newcomers to his daunting backlist may need a bit of guidance. Here are some titles to consider.
“Incarnate” (1983) is an ambitious account of an experiment in lucid dreaming that goes disastrously wrong, as dreams and reality become increasingly indistinguishable, and something unexpected is set loose on the world. “The Overnight” (2004) is a classic account of a night spent in a haunted bookstore. In Campbell’s hands, this most benign of settings turns dark and ultimately lethal. “The Face That Must Die” (1979) is an exercise in pure paranoia. In this one, we see the world through the claustrophobic viewpoint of the mentally ill John Horridge, whose delusions — and rampant homophobia — will have tragic consequences. “Ancient Images” (1989) makes effective use of Campbell’s love of movies — he is also a prolific film critic — in a story centered on the rediscovery of a lost horror film starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.
And then there are the stories. There are far too many to deal with here, but a few of Campbell’s more anthologized tales come readily to mind. “The Companion” describes a visit to a deserted amusement park that leads to a frightening — and enigmatic — encounter. “Mackintosh Willy” concerns the murderous aftermath of the death — and subsequent desecration — of a homeless derelict who lived in a Liverpool, England, park shelter. “The Chimney” is a twisted Yuletide tale in which something other than Father Christmas visits on Christmas Day.
The best source for these stories and many others is a two-volume set (“The Companion” and “The Retrospective”) issued by Britain’s PS Publishing, which has done so much to bring Campbell’s work — both old and new — to the reading public. As another dismal year approaches its end, that work seems more and more relevant. Like his American counterpart, the equally prolific Stephen King, Campbell has been providing dark and addictive pleasures for a good many years. May he continue to do so for a good many more to come.
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Bill Sheehan is the author of “At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the Fiction of Peter Straub.”