Ramsey Campbell is one of the most prolific horror writers working today. His work is distinctive and unsettling, often combining the familiar landscapes of his home town of Liverpool with a half-glimpsed nightmare world where little girls' faces run like warm putty, and a creeping, misshapen something is scratching and mewling just out of the corner of your eye.
Born in 1946, Ramsey's first novel was not published until 1973, but the seeds had been planted much earlier than that. 'I first got into horror fiction when I was five years old,' he explained. 'I was walking past a newsagents in Southport with my mother when I saw an issue of Weird Tales in the window. I wanted it. I remember the cover vividly: there was a birdlike creature in the foreground, and in the background, on an otherwise deserted black desert, there were these two other beings with huge skulls for heads and not very much else to carry them along, which nevertheless were advancing towards this unfortunate bird-thing which looked extremely unhappy about the whole situation. My mother refused to buy it for me and so I didn't get it, but the memory stayed with me.
'As soon as I could, I started reading horror fiction. I got books out of the library, and when I was ten, I began to collect Weird Tales. It wasn't until I was about sixteen that I obtained the issue I had seen all those years ago. The cover actually showed a vulture sitting on a pile of bones with a couple of skeletons in the background. Nothing more horrific than that, but my five-year-old imagination had embraced the horror and had created something beyond that which I had actually seen. 'I wrote my first book when I was eleven. It was called Ghostly Tales and was dreadful! From there I coasted along for a couple of years doing more terrible stuff and then when I was fourteen I first encountered H P Lovecraft. Cry Horror was a collection of some of Lovecraft's best - and worst - stories, and I read it in a day. I immersed myself and decided that this was the greatest stuff I'd ever read and thereupon wrote some Lovecraftian stories to the extent of imitating his style and setting them in Massachusetts when I'd hardly set foot outside Liverpool. One of the fantasy and horror fans that I'd been corresponding with, a guy called Pat Kearney, suggested that I should send my stories off to August Derleth at Arkham House, Lovecraft's publishers in America. So I did. Derleth wrote back saying that lots of it was terrible, that I needed to relocate the stories in England and that I needed to learn how to write like myself rather than to copy others. At the end of the letter, however, he said that if I was prepared to revisit my stories with all this in mind, they might be interested in publishing something. So I duly read through all his recommendations and eventually took them to heart and started rewriting, and when I was sixteen Derleth published one of them in an anthology. I couldn't believe it! Here I was alongside people whom I'd admired ever since I could remember. People like Robert Bloch, William Hope Hodgson and even H P Lovecraft.'
Ramsey's first collection of short stories, The Inhabitant of the Lake - 'Which now sells for too much money on the collectors' market!' - was published around 1965 and was followed by another collection, Demons by Daylight, in 1973. His first novel, The Doll Who Ate His Mother came along in 1976, and since then he has written numerous novels and literally hundreds of short stories.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Ramsey's writing is that it is practically incomparable to anyone elses'. I wondered what his influences were.
'In one sense, if I am influenced by other people it doesn't bother me; I know some writers tend to avoid reading other writers' work particularly when they're working on a new book; I don't. There is a particular example that occurs to me. There was a wonderful scene in Roman Polanski's Repulsion where Catherine Deneuve's apartment is beginning to distort and she finds her hands sinking into the walls. Now I had something very similar in The Influence where the young girl is trying to get home towards the end. She's walking along this street of cottages, falls against one of the walls and finds her fingers have sunk in. Now while I was writing it I realised it was from the film, but I carried it further and she recoils from the wall and then feels very guilty and wonders if anyone saw her do this to somebody else's property. I thought that that new element brought it alive and made it work, so I kept it in. There was originally another scene in The Influence where faces begin to appear in the clouds. Between my writing the first draft and rewriting it, I read Peter Ackroyd's wonderful Hawksmoor and he had exactly the same image, just for a sentence, so I thought well he's done it, let's take it out, which I did.'
Like many other mainstream horror and fantasy authors, Ramsey does not stick rigidly to one particular style or theme. His last few novels have all been different, with different emphasis on the characters, different settings and different menaces. I wondered whether he was working to some 'game plan'.
'I wish I could tell you! Or maybe in a sense I'm glad I can't, because if I knew the answer, it wouldn't be surprising to me and wouldn't be so much fun to do. My feeling is that every novel is a stage in a process. There is a sense in which Ancient Images was perhaps a stage in clarifying my style, because I think my writing got a lot sparer after that, and Midnight Sun takes it further again. The novella Needing Ghosts is different, but I thought it was, in a grotesque way, very funny while I was writing it. That was perhaps the moment when I broke through into this comic level, which The Count of Eleven seems to pursue.
'Having said all that, The Long Lost contains some funny scenes, as well as some dark scenes and some which are difficult to define. There is a sense of the lurking supernatural which perhaps resolves itself unexpectedly. I tend not to know what the endings are going to be anyway. I often have an ending in mind, but that's a safety net. Generally my original ending becomes an intermediate chapter, or it gets dropped completely. As far as The Count of Eleven went, I didn't really know what the ending was going to be until something like halfway through the final chapter! That's the way I like it. That's what makes it exciting.'
Although Ramsey's writing has been highly acclaimed major mainstream success seems to elude him. I wondered if this was something he was aiming towards. 'Maybe, but it's not intentional. The question you're too polite to ask is "do you write anything other than horror, or will you ever?" The answer for me has always been "no". It seems to me that horror, as I'm trying to write it, actually encompasses everything I want to write. But on the other hand, if a theme comes along and it takes the book in a direction that turns out not to be horror, then that's fine.
'Horror fiction, particularly supernatural horror fiction, came out of the mainstream anyway. In a whole manner of different senses, one of which is that there's hardly a major writer of short fiction who hasn't written a horror story or a ghost story at some stage, and often that may be what they are mostly remembered for. So I don't think it's ever that far removed. What has happened in the past twenty years or so is that books have been packaged by publishers into genres and it is this which has caused the split. Obviously there is some fiction which is pure horror, and there's nothing wrong with a story that sets out to do nothing but frighten the reader any more than there's anything wrong with a comedy which sets out to be nothing but be funny or a romance that sets out to do nothing but make you take out your box of Kleenex. At the same time, I think that horror fiction is often much more than that and that's certainly the kind I've always tried to write.'
As well as writing novels and short stories, Ramsey is also an accomplished editor. He has put together several collections of other writers' work over the years, and co-edited (with Stephen Jones) Robinson's annual Best New Horror anthology for four years. Continuing this theme is another anthology, Uncanny Banquet, which collects together stories which have not been widely anthologised, including a whole novel by Adrian Ross, out of print since 1914.
'What happened with Uncanny Banquet was that the publisher's sales force suggested I should do this anthology to my editor, Peter Lavery. They suggested I should compile a collection of, broadly speaking, old-fashioned supernatural fiction rather than horrific fiction, because they thought there was going to be a market for such a book. This appealed to me for a variety of reasons but it also enabled me to achieve a minor ambition, which was to bring back into print a complete novel, The Hole of the Pit, published for the first and only time in 1914. It takes up half the book, and my ambition, whenever I'm doing a reprint anthology is that at least fifty per cent ought to be unfamiliar to anybody who buys it. So Uncanny Banquet contains that novel as well as a very rare Walter de la Mare story, A Mote, and a whole lot of other good stuff. I hope you like it, because if it does well, there's the possibility of another collection along similar lines.'
David J Howe