An Interview with Ramsey Campbell
by David Mathew
Ramsey Campbell has been publishing horror fiction for over thirty years. He is the most respected living horror writer, with more awards for his work than any other writer in the field. His dark, brooding, psychological tales depend far more on the use of atmosphere and suggestion - showing only what needs to be shown - than they do on the use of pages of blood and gore. Regarded as a serious artist, he has been called the Horror Writer's Horror Writer. His latest novels (The House on Nazareth Hill appeared in paperback in 1997) have received some of his best ever reviews.
The following interview took place at his home in Wallasey in England, where he lives with his wife and two children.
David Mathew: I'd like to start by throwing back at you a quote that you made twenty years ago. "The horror story is one of the few popular forms that has not been cheapened; the only one which has retained the force of a cumulative tradition." How far do you still go along with that statement?
Ramsey Campbell: I would almost contradict myself and say that for a while the field has been in danger of sinking under its own dross, basically. For instance, I used to co-edit Best New Horror with Steve Jones and the reason I gave it up was, fundamentally, I got dispirited with the amount of garbage that had been published and which I had to read in order to jettison it in favour of the stuff that we did choose. The positive implication is that there is still enough good stuff every year to make a good fat anthology. So it hasn't gone under. But I think there has been a new generation of writers who are trying to be more disgusting than one another, and it just seems pointless. The field has survived things like this before and I'm sure it will do so again. Probably what will happen is that there'll be a reaction against that... I'm not by any means saying that I'm opposed to graphic detail in horror fiction, or I wouldn't have done the introduction to Clive Barker's Books of Blood. The point is, to show as much as you need to show for the purposes of the story. On the other hand, I feel there is a whole slew of these people who feel the point is to be as disgusting as possible for as many paragraphs as possible. Then again, the Splatterpunk anthology The Book of the Dead has me in it, and I think it would be fair to say that M.R. James was trying to be more frightening than Sheridan Le Fanu.
DM: Do you feel that you ever try to go further, in that sense, with your own work?
RC: Not quite. In a particular story I might try to go further and see where it leads. The One Safe Place turned out to be that kind of novel, insofar as after a while I found myself thinking, How much worse can this family be? What worse can they do that I would believe in?
DM: What I found interesting about that novel was the clash of moralities, where both groups, at least to a certain extent, believe themselves to be in the right. The Fancy family can't believe they're actually doing anything wrong; when somebody in the family dies or goes to prison it's somebody else's fault.
RC: Even if I had set out to write Good versus Evil, it wouldn't have worked for me, and I would've ended up writing what you saw. In fact, it did start life slightly differently, as books often do, when I saw a straightforward report in our local newspaper. Somebody had been broken into twice in the course of a week, and there was this identikit portrait of a particularly evil-looking bugger! It occurred to me that all identikit pictures look extraordinarily malevolent, and one reason presumably is that that's how it looked to the victim. If you were forever passing people who looked like that on the street, then you wouldn't go out on the street, I suspect. And it occurred to me: what would happen if the subject of one of these portraits objected to being depicted in this fashion and came back to object. Instant, that was the genesis of the novel.
We were going to have the American family moving to Britain under the impression that it was the Britain of James Ivory, or the Beatles movies. Don, the hero, the father, was going to encounter the guy who takes against him and it would become apparent to the reader as it became apparent to the American Travis family how huge a clan they were up against. But the more I wrote that there was going to be a 12 year-old boy of the Fancy family just as there was a 12 year-old boy of the Travis family, the more it seemed to me that he was the focus of the novel. Where I wanted to go was his viewpoint, to show through his eyes the forces that were in the process of creating him. And so we had to sacrifice the surprise for a bit more insight. I'm always a great believer in showing people's viewpoints from their viewpoints and leaving it to the reader to sort out any irony that's implicit. So in The Face That Must Die [Campbell's second published book] I hoped that the reader would be sufficiently taken aback without my having to nudge and say, 'Look, this is supposed to be disturbing! It doesn't look that way to the character but that doesn't mean it can't look that way to us.'
DM: In terms of ironies implicit, it's interesting that in The One Safe Place, both boys - one from a loving family and one the child of domestic violence - end up being boys who perpetrate violence.
RC: I think that's the strongest irony. You can read the ending as being almost an upbeat positive eye-for-an-eye, Sally Fields-grabs-the-gun type of ending. But that's not the way I see it at all. In a way, the deepest irony is precisely that Marshall Travis picks up the gun.
People have asked whether I saw The One Safe Place as being a very conscious departure, and the answer is no. Certainly while I was writing it, it felt like a natural development from what I'd been doing previously. Ten years ago, however, I would have probably felt the need to make it more macabre.
DM: If you had written it that way, do you think you would have looked back on it in the way that you now look back on, for example, the eerie voices in The Nameless? In the new introduction you say that they were one ghostly voice too many.
RC: I think that's exactly right. It's overstating it.
DM: Is there any work that you look back on and wish that you hadn't done it quite as you did?
RC: All of it! Or nearly all, in different ways. The Parasite is the classic example, as far as I'm concerned, where it seems to me that the book simply gets more and more shrill - because there's nowhere else for it to go. The problem I'd set myself, which I don't think you can sustain for novel length, is that it's from the viewpoint of the character to whom it's all happening, and she's aware of what is happening to her. All I think you can do is convey her sense of mounting terror and panic, but there's a limit to how much you can do that.
The Nameless is another case in point, although I like individual scenes in that book. I just wish it could have been a bit more coherent and a bit better worked out. There's certainly a deus ex machina at the end and no mistake! The only thing I like about the very end is that it's quite bleak - I think we'd had too much false optimism by then.
DM: The original plotline for The Doll Who Ate His Mother [Campbell's first published novel] had black magicians deforming babies and then bringing them back to life, and you abandoned it...
RC: It was tasteless, especially given that it was around the time of Thalidomide, which was a coincidence. I don't know which came first.
DM: Have any other plotlines been abandoned or swerved away from their original course by real events.
RC: Not really, although I've always felt a bit unsure about referring to the Moors Murders in The Nameless. But in The Doll the plot eventually appears anyway; originally it would have been a short story, but in the novel I wanted a reason for the young chap Chris Kelly to be what he was. The word that comes to mind in terms of that old prototype for The Doll is 'trivialisation': that would have been my problem with it.
When I look back on the work I was doing before I wrote novels, even some of the stuff that gets itself reprinted, I wish I could take it apart and take another shot, but you can't spend your life doing that. And I'm not convinced you should, even though when I look at it, all I see is flaw upon flaw. Two examples of work of mine that is popular: 'The Companion' [which Stephen King described as 'maybe the best horror tale to be written in English in the last thirty years'] eventually gets there - I quite like it when it gets to the abandoned amusements park, but I think that some of the early writing is very clumsy. I should have re-written it. 'The End of a Summer's Day' was written in a single afternoon - and it shows.
DM: How often do you look back over your own work?
RC: Never for the hell of it. For a reprint collection such as Alone With the Horrors I'll proof-read or hideous things will happen. And also people do ask me to read the stuff aloud to audiences, and there's usually a request for some old thing, so I'll grit my teeth...
I'm fond of The Count of Eleven  as it struck me as being a genuine change of direction, and not one that I reached for - one that found itself. Immediately before that we have Needing Ghosts [a novella, 1990] which I originally resisted because I didn't know what I could write at novella length. I didn't want to write a short story that has been pumped up, but I didn't want to write a novel that had been cut down too much either. Eventually, I remembered a piece of advice from Brian Aldiss, which was that the novella usually takes place in a compressed time scale. I thought about twenty-four hours in the life (if life it is) of the protagonist. And that was an extraordinary case of something which virtually wrote itself. I would go up to my room every morning and find out what happened next. It was always stranger than I thought it would be!
Midnight Sun I'm fond of as an honourable failure. It's so far short of what I wanted it to be that in some ways I can't even begin to consider that. It lacks a cosmic scope; a sense of awe that I was trying to achieve for once in my career - the sort of thing you find in H.P. Lovecraft's The Colour Out of Space. But it's as good as I've been able to do in that area. Give me another twenty years and I'll have another shot! Midnight Sun was going back to Lovecraft's roots rather than my own: that cosmic vision was something that I found in Lovecraft. There was an American review which compared it favourably with Algernon Blackwood and I suppose you can't expect better than that.
DM: You're the horror writer with the greatest number of critical plaudits, right down to the Northern Echo calling you 'the nearest thing to God'. To what extent are you trying to please other people? Do you ever think of a plot and think, that's what someone will like to read?
RC: I've done a lot of commissioned pieces over the years, which is a useful discipline. You've got to write along this theme, and then I've got somebody else in mind - at least before I start the writing , and then the reader becomes much more hypothetical. More and more often, if people ask me to write for a specific market, I'm thinking they probably won't like it because it isn't quite what they're after. I'm always surprised when I get the acceptance.
DM: What's your average working day like?
RC: About seven in the morning I go up to my workroom at the top of the house. And I'm really working as I get up and go downstairs to make a cup of tea. I'm working on the opening paragraph. One trick I have learned (I haven't learned many in 35 years) is to have drafted the opening few lines in your head before you sit down to write them. The other one is to work out at the end of your session the next line for the next session, unless you're at the end of a chapter.
I write from seven to half nine or ten o'clock - solid. Then till noon, depending on whether I have a film to see for the purposes of a review. [He broadcasts a weekly film review for BBC Radio Merseyside.] You've got to write, even if you think it's no good. You can always rewrite, but also, the stuff that I've felt seemed anything but fluent is usually more fluent when I get round to re-reading it. The extra effort does pay off.
While I'm writing a first draft it's every day, even Christmas Day and my birthday. If I don't do a couple of hours on Christmas morning before everyone else is around I get ratty for the rest of the day. I can do a bit of fiction in the morning and non-fiction in the afternoon because they are wholly different. Fiction I always write longhand for the first draft, on the right-hand side of a spiral notebook, with the left-hand side for corrections. The second draft has been on the word processor since The Influence (1988). With a manual typewriter I would get halfway down a page for the third time and still not like the opening sentence, but I wouldn't bother to rip out the page and start yet again.
DM: For a long time you were known as Liverpool writer as opposed to a writer who lives in Liverpool. Your later work is not set in Liverpool half as much as your early work. Have you got to the end of chronicling what Liverpool is to you?
RC: There's still quite a bit to do yet! The Count of Eleven actually used the Merseyside phone directory as a structuring device. The irony is, that no longer exists. As soon as I write about something it disappears; a significant part of The One Safe Place is set in the Manchester Arndale Centre. It's unnerving.
I'm a great believer in always going to view a place before I write about it, because there's always something there you wouldn't imagine. I would have loved to have seen Lagos and Nigeria before writing The Claw, for example. The compliment I was paid by someone who had lived there was to ask how long I'd been there before I'd written it. But it's a dicey process. Liverpool is a cultural melting pot, with an abundance of verbal humour - the old Scouse wit. That spills over into my own writing, especially with Needing Ghosts and The Count of Eleven where it wanted to get out and make a big splashy exhibition of itself! I would have loved to have been a stand-up comedian, and I read The Count of Eleven to audiences when I can. The disaster which befalls the video library is always good for a few laughs. If I came up with a suitable idea I would even write a comedy, but the categorisation problem might come into play.
Ramsey Campbell's latest novel, The Last Voice They Hear, is out in 1998.
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© David Mathew 6 June 1998