|Ramsey Campbell with his wife Jenny,|
photo by Kathleen Probert
The Oxford Companion to English Literature describes Ramsey Campbell as “Britain’s most respected living horror writer”. He has been given more awards than any other writer in the field, including the Grand Master Award of the World Horror Convention, the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Horror Writers Association and the Living Legend Award of the International Horror Guild. Among his novels are The Face That Must Die, Incarnate, Midnight Sun, The Count of Eleven, Silent Children, The Darkest Part of the Woods, The Overnight, Secret Story, The Grin of the Dark, Thieving Fear, Creatures of the Pool, The Seven Days of Cain and Ghosts Know. Forthcoming is The Kind Folk. His collections include Waking Nightmares, Alone with the Horrors, Ghosts and Grisly Things, Told by the Dead and Just Behind You, and his non-fiction is collected as Ramsey Campbell, Probably. His novels The Nameless and Pact of the Fathers have been filmed in Spain. His regular columns appear in Prism, All Hallows, Dead Reckonings and Video Watchdog. He is the President of the British Fantasy Society and of the Society of Fantastic Films.
Ramsey Campbell lives on Merseyside with his wife Jenny. His pleasures include classical music, good food and wine, and whatever’s in that pipe. His web site is at www.ramseycampbell.com.
AN: For an author whose mastery of language I have long admired, I’m very keen to know something about your writing process. What is your approach to writing a first draft and your subsequent rewriting process?
RC: I very rarely plot much in advance. Once I’ve begun to focus on developing an idea I gather any amount of material around it. This all goes in my notebook (one of them – I always have at least one for the imminent novel or the novel in progress, another for random ideas and also any short story I’m about to write). Many of the notes for a story often get abandoned as I form a clearer picture of it – of the characters and the situation, for instance. Sometimes a tale may move so far away from my early notes for it that I’ll use some of them elsewhere. For instance, the novel I was planning to write as The Black Pilgrimage has already travelled so far away from that notion that I’ve dropped that title and renamed it as The Kind Folk.
I’m here at my desk every morning I’m at home (Christmas and my birthday too), usually in time to see the dawn. Certainly I’ll be working on the first draft of a tale about six in the morning, when I’m generally most creative. One thing I’ve learned in fifty years as a writer is always to compose the first sentences before I sit down to write. I generally work until late morning on a first draft, sometimes later. If we go away the tale in progress goes with me.
I was also lucky to learn very early in my career – even before August Derleth sent me editorial advice – to enjoy rewriting. These days I do more of it than ever. Absolutely everything in a first draft has to justify itself to me to make the final version, which is pretty nearly always significantly shorter than the first one (anything up to twenty per cent shorter, I’d estimate). The first drafts of fiction are always longhand (with the solitary exception of “A Street Was Chosen”, written in the form of an experimental report, which I couldn’t write except on the computer) and the rewrites are at the keyboard.
AN: Are you conscious of your ideas and themes for stories gradually filtering and distilling in your imagination, or do they come at you suddenly?
RC: Sometimes suddenly, sometimes they lie forgotten or almost so in my notebooks for years. Not to boast, but I do find ideas are the easy part – it’s developing them that takes so much work. Anything at all can set me off initially – I still owe Sylvester Stallone a debt for the five or six lines of dialogue in Rocky II that instantly suggested to me the basis of my old novel Obsession (not my title, which was to be For the Rest of their Lives). Thieving Fear came out of the image of the trapdoor that proves not to be one – I liked that so much that I built a novel to house it – but it had been in my notebook for several years before I was apparently in the frame of mind to take it anywhere. I recall going back to it a number of times and not being able to work out what to do with it. There have been a number of cases where I’ve suddenly seen how to put two dormant ideas together and they immediately came alive in the form of a tale.
Another thought – I was writing the afterword to a new edition of Dark Companions (imminent from Samhain in America) and did my best to turn up the notes on which the stories were originally based. I was amazed to find that “The Companion” was founded on a set of notes so different from the actual story that they’re still available to be written into a tale, and I’m planning to do that soon. Waste not, want not…
One more observation: you may know this yourself, Adam – it’s all too easy to be distracted from the story in progress by the next idea, which seems so much more inspiring than the one you’re working on that the temptation is to follow the will-o’-the-wisp. I’ve only ever done so once, back in the days of The Inhabitant of the Lake. It worked then, but I’ll never risk it again.
AN: I’ve never really considered the social class of writers in relation to modern horror fiction, but a notion struck me at WHC 2010 after attending a large number of panels: it seemed to me that the major British horror writers of the last forty years that I have heard speak in public and have read – yourself, Brian Lumley, Clive Barker, James Herbert, Graham Masterton – may have working class backgrounds or backgrounds from the lower middle class. As I look at the lesser in profile, who form part of what we can only hope is a new wave of British horror, like myself, David Moody, Gary McMahon etc, as well as most of the writers I have met who emerged between these points chronologically, a similar pattern seems to emerge. And yet, the late Victorian and Edwardian forebears of horror from James, the Bensons, Wakefield, Del La Mare, the other James and Wharton, seem to present an almost “Oxbridge” precursor set and the more traditional representation of classically educated British writers. My own experience in publishing is that it is a predominantly a middle to upper middle-class preserve. I have wondered if the critical dismissal of the post war horror field as pulp fiction might have something to do with it being perceived as low class and low brow. Do you think social class amongst British writers has any bearing firstly on who now writes horror with dedication (not as a dilettante), but also why they write it? And could horror writers be, in a curious way, angry young men?
RC: And women, we hope! There’s certainly more willingness on the part of horror writers to engage with social conditions and issues of class than there used to be. Right now writers such as Joel Lane and Gary McMahon and Simon Bestwick – I could go on for pages – are very concerned with these themes. Jim Herbert was a pioneer in this regard, and I was having a go at themes of a similar kind early on (with “The Guy” in 1968, for instance). It isn’t only British – look at Steve King from the early short stories onwards, or the oppressive sense of class snobbery in Peter Straub’s Mystery. We’re often told that modern horror writers have taken the genre out of the Gothic castle and the country house into the everyday, as if authors such as Le Fanu and M. R. James weren’t already using mundane settings that would have been familiar to their readers. But I do think that some authorship has moved down a class – no equivalents for Lady Cynthia Asquith or Lord Halifax, not even many writers such as Robert Aickman, who was familiar enough with weekends at country mansions, I believe. It could be argued that horror really made this shift in the EC comics, which reflected in their physical gruesomeness the wartime experiences of some of the contributors. I think disreputability has always dogged the genre, though, and eventual (usually historical) respectability is also part of the recurrent cycle.
AN: In my reading experience, there are few writers who have instilled a change in my perception, in the way I see the world, for some time after reading their work. Sometimes this is even twinned with an element of disorientation, as if from waking or from being transported by poetry. Alongside Robert Aickman, M John Harrison and Thomas Ligotti, I consider you to be one of the chief purveyors of what often feels to me like a surreal and strange force that underwrites your work. The first time I can remember experiencing this quality in weird tales came from stories like Lovecraft’s ‘The Colour out of Space’, Maupassant’s ‘Le Horla’, Machen’s ‘The White People’ and Wakefield’s ‘Immortal Bird’, which are stories not necessarily typical of the full body of these author’s respective works, but almost all of your novels and short stories that I have read, as with Harrison and Aickman, sustain this power. Could this be the distinction of a poet from a prose craftsman? Is there an innate imaginative power you are conscious of calling upon when you’re in the zone while writing? If so, do you ever try to fathom its source?
RC: I never would, Adam. To the extent it works (and I’m happy that it does for you) I believe it’s instinctive. I recall Jack Sullivan once asking me if I’d considered therapy (not that I was being especially deranged at the time, but I think he’d just learned of my family background) and I was equally wary of that. I don’t need to know the sources of my writing – indeed, I’ve a feeling that being too aware of them might risk robbing them of energy. Often I realise much later what I was writing about - the father with the hidden face in “The Chimney”, for instance, or the mothers who turn monstrous in my novels of the early eighties, or the father who does so in Nazareth Hill, representing my own fears about how I might be capable of behaving. It may be interesting to note that some readers thought I was writing about drug experiences (in Demons by Daylight) years before I’d had any. I’m reminded that Arthur Machen caused himself to have a protracted mystical experience after having written about them in his fiction for years. Language and imagination may expand our minds more than we can predict, and perhaps they sometimes prefigure the possibilities or prepare the way – I’m happy to think so.
To come back to the business of fathoming sources – I was sixteen when I first saw Last Year at Marienbad and became aware that an enigma can be more satisfying than any explanation. I think too much horror fiction explains more than it should, for my taste anyway. One more thought: the only contemporary filmmaker whose horror films genuinely affect me with dread – half a dozen of them, and to a level of intensity that’s only just bearable at times – is David Lynch, and I’m guessing his method is pretty intuitive.
AN: Personal spiritual beliefs may be the least important thing about writing supernatural horror. Reading your collected non-fiction some time ago – Ramsey Campbell, Probably – I think I came away with the impression that, like Edith Wharton, you didn’t believe in ghosts, but were still frightened of them. Is this a fair impression, or entirely the wrong set of runes I am casting about with? As we’ll both be meddling with the supernatural at the Occult Horror event at Halton Library, I feel obliged to ask what your take on the possibility of the supernatural is?
RC: Well, as I get older I get more agnostic. I grew up being terrified of M. R. James’s spectres without necessarily believing in an afterlife, particularly once I threw off the kind of Catholicism that being taught by Christian Brothers had imposed on my mind for a few years. But it’s too easy to use your childhood as an excuse for what you are, and I’ve had the odd experience that my rationalism doesn’t always quite contain. Has this affected my fiction? Maybe a few recent stories don’t hold the supernatural at such a metaphorical remove as most of mine do. I’m still mostly trying to convey the aesthetic experience of terror, however – it’s what brought me into the field in the first place. My ghosts and less nameable forces embody a sense of the uncanny – well, they try.
AN: Horror is one of those genres that comes with a specific set of reader expectations (often marketed by publishers as a guarantee of terror that will make the reader leave the lights on) and if the work is not terrifying a writer has somehow failed. A tall, if not, unachievable order; so could this expectation, perhaps the USP of horror, actually be a hindrance? You once wrote in an editorial, that the goal of your own work was to be disturbing. I found that liberating. As your own work consistently explores paranoia and a kind of psychic distress in your use of the uncanny, do you think this a more relevant approach to affecting a reader with horror in the modern age?
RC: I don’t think I’ve ever set out to scare the reader – certainly not for decades. It’s rather that I write what I write because that’s how it feels to me – that’s what engages my imagination and takes shape there. I’ve often been intrigued to find that material that didn’t strike me as especially unnerving when I wrote it proves to affect some readers more intensely – the scene in the derelict Preston theatre in The Grin of the Dark was one example. But disturbing the reader – yes, that’s a worthwhile aim, and doing so to myself too. Making us look afresh at things we’ve taken for granted – that’s unlikely ever to become unnecessary. If I had to offer a single phrase to describe much of my recent stuff I’d call it comedy of paranoia.
AN: In terms of your writing, what’s next for Ramsey Campbell?
RC: Much and then, I hope, still more. As I mentioned, The Kind Folk will be the next novel. I’ve another collection in view, Holes for Faces, and another one of non-fiction, Fresh From Frugo. As well as all those, PS will publish definitive editions of Demons by Daylight and of my later Lovecraftian tales. On top of all that Centipede Press will be publishing an enormous retrospective two-volume collection of my better tales, and the title came to me in a dream the other night – Fearful Implications. You heard it here first!
Adam Nevill was born in Birmingham, England, in 1969 and grew up in England and New Zealand. He is the author of the supernatural horror novels Banquet for the Damned, Apartment 16 and The Ritual. He lives in London and can be contacted through www.adamlgnevill.com