Simon Bestwick recently chatted with the legendary British horror writer, Ramsey Campbell. Author of such classics as The Parasite, The Influence, The Face That Must Die, Ancient Images, and more recently, Ghosts Know, Holes for Faces, The Booking, and the forthcoming The Searching Dead, Campbell has won more awards for his writing than any other living horror writer.
Simon Bestwick: You’ve had, to date, an enviably productive career: thirty-one novels (thirty-five including your film novelisations of Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula’s Daughter and The Wolfman), five novellas, fifteen story collections and now a book of limericks, along with fourteen anthologies as editor and countless individual short stories and non-fiction articles. What do you attribute this productivity to?
Ramsey Campbell: It’s a compulsion, Simon. For a long time, and increasingly now, I grow frustrated if a day goes by when I’m not either writing or working on what I’ll write next or rereading a draft as a preparation to rewriting it. Admittedly that’s not the case when I have to get up early to travel, but otherwise it’s every day, Christmas and my birthday too. I imagine you know the satisfaction that having just completed a novel or even a short story brings, but half an hour (if that) after finishing a first draft I’ll be pondering what to write next. To put it somewhat more positively, I’ve more ideas than I’ll ever be able to develop, and I’m anxious to get as many of them into fictional form before I bequeath the rest to whoever would like them.
SB: Since 2013, you’ve worked extensively in the novella form, producing The Last Revelation Of Gla’aki, The Pretence and The Booking. Aside from the early (1973) work Medusa, you’d only written one other novella over your career–Needing Ghosts in 1990. What’s drawn you in more recent years to this particular form?
RC: Blame the publishers, or thank them. It was my good old friend Pete Crowther at PS Publishing who suggested I might write a novella set in a Northern seaside town where the influence of something from my Brichester Mythos had taken hold. I duly wrote The Last Revelation of Gla’aki, which turned out significantly longer than I was expecting. This meant that I hadn’t time to write a new novel for the annual launch we’ve had for quite a few years at Fantasycon, and so I promised PS a new novella instead, The Pretence, based on an idea I’d been planning to develop. More recently Chris Morey at Dark Regions approached me to contribute to his ongoing series of novellas of psychological horror, and The Booking was the result–again, developing a couple of ideas that had been waiting for the impetus. The crucial point about novellas for me–I’ll only write one if I feel that form is best suited to the idea. That’s to say, it mustn’t be an extended short story nor yet a condensed novel.
SB: Your most recent novel, The Searching Dead, is a particular departure for you in that it’s the first part of a planned trilogy, your previous novels all having been stand-alone. What prompted this?
RC: I have to invoke Pete Crowther once again, who gently but persistently kept suggesting that I should write a horror trilogy. Jeff VanderMeer pipped me to that post, which will tell you how long I’d been pondering the proposal. As with novellas, I wasn’t going to use the form unless there was a substantial reason to do so, and eventually I realised that the three volumes could take place in different periods of the last century and this one–more importantly, that there was a thematic reason why they should. I just hope the cumulative effect across the three volumes justifies their existence.
SB: Have you ever been tempted to revisit any of your other characters or stories?
RC: Not the central characters–I feel I’ve said what I had to say about them–but the odd figure has reappeared, especially the shadowy ones. So Peter Grace from The Parasite has an offstage confrontation with Arthur Pendemon in the past that leads to Thieving Fear, and John Strong from The Doll Who Ate His Mother and his occult influence are glimpsed again in The Kind Folk. Indeed, despite his fate in “The Franklyn Paragraphs”, Roland Franklyn looms once more in that novel. In all these cases I’ve been trying in a small way to consolidate my Brichester mythos (not necessarily using the Severn Valley as its location).
SB: In the 1970s you wrote a number of stories set in and around the fictional town of Brichester; you returned to the setting in 2003’s The Darkest Part Of The Woods, and in 2013’s The Last Revelation of Gla’aki. Similarly, both Gla’aki and the new trilogy, The Three Births Of Daoloth, involve entities that you contributed to Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos around the same period. What inspired you to revisit these early creations of yours, and how has your relationship with them changed?
RC: Brichester and the towns and villages around it were my attempt to invent a British equivalent of Lovecraft’s Arkham territory at August Derleth’s behest, you’ll recall. I first abandoned the setting in 1965 when I wrote what I still think is my first real tale of my own, “The Cellars”, which was based very solidly in Liverpool. One Severn tale I tend to overlook is “Dolls”, the first of my tales of sex and death, which returned to Camside for its historical setting. The stories you cited are a different matter, though. I was going back to themes and motifs to which I felt I’d done less than justice first time round. One instance I regretted for decades was “The Insects from Shaggai”, which ruins a great story idea that Lovecraft didn’t live long enough to use, and so I tried to do it more justice in The Darkest Part of the Woods, where I hope it conveys a little more sense of the uncanny rather than (clumsily) the monstrous. That’s also why I revived Gla’aki and Daoloth – I hope they bring a bit of cosmic terror with them in their reappearances.
SB: If you could only write either novels, novellas or short stories, which would you choose and why?
RC: I think novels, because they generate the most energy and inventiveness. They help me do what I most like to do when I’m working on a first draft in particular–surprise myself with scenes and images I didn’t know I was going to write until I came to write them. That’s part of the appeal of coming up here to my desk every day–indeed, a motivation.
SB: What role does social commentary play in your work, and do contemporary social and political events influence its development? Is Brexit likely to inspire any works from you?
RC: I think social commentary has been there pretty well from when I started writing like myself–even such an early tale as “The Scar” (written in 1967) addresses not just the vulnerability of children but how child abuse can be ignored or even justified by witnesses (a theme that keeps cropping up in various forms in my stories). The Face That Must Die confronts homophobia and to a lesser extent xenophobia–I believe it may be the earliest anti-homophobic horror novel, and insofar as it’s a crime story with no supernatural element, perhaps it’s a bit of a forerunner in that field too. I do think that themes like the denial of moral responsibility that the cult in The Nameless embraces, and more generally the notion of espousing a belief system that denies the right to question, have a social resonance. Our old friend Joel Lane found echoes of Margaret Thatcher in Victoria, the revenant in The Influence, with her insistence on hoary values. Of late the internet and its psychological temptations have figured in my stuff. Brexit hasn’t yet prompted any tales, but who knows? I’m sure John Horridge must be cheering it, wherever he is.
SB: The ethos that pervades your work seems to me essentially a humanistic one, but it’s also shot through with a sense of the numinous. How do you reconcile the two? Does religion play any part in your life?
RC: I think there’s a tension between them when they meet in my tales–between the cosmic and the personal as well. Maybe if I were more aware of that it wouldn’t be so productive. Not much of an answer, I know, and my only excuse is agnosticism, however timidly and vaguely I define mine. I can’t pretend to have any definite religious faith, though I’d like to believe in some kind of benign afterlife. While I think, let me add that I know the motto I want on my stone: “Find the golden light.”
SB: Other than your progression from writing stories in the Lovecraftian mould to finding your own distinct voice, what do you feel has been the most significant change in your work over the years?
RC: Growing at ease with the novel as a form, I think, a process that really started with Incarnate (at least, that was the first one where I threw away most of my preconceived plot and followed my instincts instead).
SB: What comes after the trilogy? Do you have anything in mind at this stage?
RC: Years ago I started working towards a novel called The Black Pilgrimage, but as I developed some of the ideas I’d gathered, the book strayed so far from my original concept that it became something quite different (to be precise, The Kind Folk). This meant that so many of my original ideas weren’t used that I plan to have another go, and I envisage writing The Black Pilgrimage after all.
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