Monday, 18 June 2012

In praise of Ramsey Campbell

While Lewis Carroll opened the door of my imagination at a very young age, it was almost certainly Ramsey Campbell who made me want to be a writer, and a genre writer specifically. I would have been around 13 or 14 years old when I discovered his collection Waking Nightmares in my local library (a library is a place where you can borrow books for free! (I know, crazy isn't it? Won't catch on)). Before that time my horror reading had been pretty much limited to Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Richard Laymon and James Herbert. I had fun with all of those authors, but it was Ramsey's short stories that revealed to me how broad a genre horror is.

With this collection the possibility that horror offered blossomed in my mind, and I fell properly in love with the genre. This is a fine collection, with many great stories, but the one that stands out for me is 'The Trick'. The last line of that tale froze me with fear when I first read it, and re-reading it has not lessened the impact of the story.

I began looking for any of Ramsey's titles I could get my hands on and the next book I picked up was his novel The Count of Eleven.

As soon as I had finished it, I wrote Ramsey a letter. It was pretty much fan-boy gushing but I also asked Ramsey how he suggested I should go about becoming a writer, and what sort of books I should read. I was abolutely thrilled when Ramsey replied. He emphasised that it was important to read as widely as possible, not just within the genre. He also recommended some other writers in the field I may enjoy. Thus I found out about such authors as Robert Aickman and Fritz Leiber.

The next book of Ramsey's that became a fast favourite and an important marker on my road to discovering all that was best in the genre and developing as a writer was Demons by Daylight.

This is an earlier collection of works than either of the two books above, but is no less a brilliant selection. I would read some of these stories to friends. The Sentinels was a particular favourite, with its depiction of something pacing around the outside of an ancient stone circle.

When I went to university to study English (Luton University if you must know, don't laugh. It was one of the few places that took genre seriously and lead to me studying Science Fiction at Reading for my MA) I knew when it came to write my BA dissertation that I wanted to focus on horror. The title of that piece was Miserablism in British Horror Fiction. Miserbalism was a term that I came across in The BFI Guide to Horror. I think that Kim Newman wrote the entry and he took it to be a movement within the genre that focused on urban decay and social realism amongst the tropes of the supernatural. The main practitioners of this genre were listed as Ramsey Campbell, Joel Lane, Mark Morris (Mark has never struck me as miserabalist, much as I enjoy his fiction), Conrad Williams and Nicholas Royle. Using this entry in the guide as my launch pad, I decided to focus on these authors and wrote to many of them asking if it would be possible to interview them. Naturally, Ramsey was one of the authors I interviewed.

I arrived in Liverpool and Ramsey picked me up from the station. I remember thinking that he'd likely take me to a nearby pub to be interviewed. Instead, he drove me to his house and we sat in the backgarden, drinking wine and chatting for hours. I remember being overwhelmed at Ramsey and Jenny's hospitality and kindness, but also at Ramsey vast knowledge and enthusiasm. It was fascinating and deeply exciting to have this private audience with my favourite writer.

But that's Ramsey. He's a hugely generous person and is often the life and soul of any horror convention. I suppose the term Elder Statesman may seem a bit patronising, but Ramsey to me is a link to those great writers of the past (he knew Aickman, Robert Bloch and many others of the greats) and the future of the genre. Ramsey is still a hugely productive writer and his work has never been in danger of decline. His novels and short stories continue to be challenging, meticulously constructed and deeply unsetting. There is nothing quite like a piece by Ramsey. His style is unique. When I edited my first horror anthology, The End of the Line, Ramsey was the very first writer I asked to be involved. I was delighted when he accepted and his story, The Rounds, is a triumph of the short form.

I realise that a part of me is in danger of turning once more into that gushing fanboy that I once was, but sod it! A talent this prodigous, a man this generous with his time and advice to other writers and fans of the genre, deserves to be celebrated.

Mr Campbell, you are one of the greats and my life and work has truly been enrichedby your writing.