An Interview with RAMSEY CAMPBELL
To celebrate the one month-versary of The Witch Haunt Blog and because I care about you and want you to have nice things, today I interview the legendary English horror fiction author of The Face That Must Die, Incarnate, Midnight Sun, The Grin of the Dark, and hundreds of other stories, winner of the Horror Writers Association Lifetime Achievement Award, RAMSEY CAMPBELL!
WH: Welcome to the Witch Haunt, Mr. Campbell! I’m still in shock that you agreed to this. Nonetheless, here we go! Won’t you please give us a brief introduction of your fabulous self?
RC: I write horror, and have for more than half a century. I intend to carry on doing so for as long as I can hold a pen (which is how my first drafts are written, though not these answers) and perhaps the sound of scribbling will emerge even from my grave. I’ve seen the field rise into prominence in the seventies and slump under the weight of too much mediocrity in the nineties, and now it’s back again, initially hidden in the mainstream (as it often is) and increasingly owning up to its nature. Of course the small presses supported it throughout the slump. I hope my stuff continues to improve – certainly I don’t think I’ve stopped learning and developing. I still haven’t found the limits of the field, not in terms of excess but of how much it can contain and express.
WH: I love how you’ve witnessed the cyclical nature of the genre over the years and happy that you agree it’s back again. You’ve long been known as the most honored horror writer in England. What comes with that distinction?
RC: Trying to live up to it, basically. Without in any way showing ingratitude to those who gave me the awards, I do tend to look at the work that received them and find it wanting. One observation – when I was given an honorary fellowship by Liverpool John Moores University for “outstanding services to literature” I said in my acceptance speech that I would like to accept on behalf of my field as well, and tried to alert the audience to its considerable literary tradition.
WH: A champion for the genre indeed, as well as a humble full-time player. Thank you, sir. What other career would you have if not writing/publishing?
RC: In fact I’ve had a few over the years. When August Derleth bought the first tales of mine he published, he advised me to find a steady but not too demanding job that would leave me time to write, but not to try to depend on writing to make a living. I was then sixteen. I worked four years in the civil service, which I then left for the public libraries – seven years of those. I actually went fulltime in 1973, eleven years after my first professional publication (and nine after the first published book). Even then we wouldn’t have survived financially if my wife Jenny hadn’t been teaching. I only really started to prove profitable five years later. In 2000 we seemed so financially shaky that I took a job in the nearest Borders bookshop, but soon we grew secure again, and I was only there for a few months. That said, the experience produced my novel The Overnight, set in a bookshop.
Alongside all this I was the film reviewer for BBC Radio Merseyside in Liverpool, starting in 1969 and continuing for thirty-eight years, at which point they saved themselves the weekly price of a pizza and let me go. I also wrote DVD and Blu-Ray reviews for Video Watchdog for quite a while, and I’ve written on various other themes elsewhere, presently in my column in Dead Reckonings.
None of that quite answers your question, does it? If I weren’t a writer I would have the ambition to be a stand-up comedian, but I strongly suspect it would be considerably harder.
WH: It does answer my question. Some of us have pieced together a quilted career from multiple occupations. Each colorful square feels like its own distinct lifetime.
You’ve written many novels and short stories. Do you have a preference between the two forms? What’s the excitement in each?
RC: Over the years I’ve come to prefer the novel, especially for the amount of energy it can gather as it develops. Whenever I’m here at my desk working on a first draft I want to surprise myself with something I didn’t know in advance I was going to write, and I find the novel very often does that for me. That said, I’ve no plans to abandon the short story – I’ve too many ideas for them I still want to write.
WH: And we look forward to each and every new tale you tell. Robert Hadji cited you as the best example of the “British weird fiction tradition.” What is that subgenre and how is it different from American horror fiction?
RC: Bob’s a good chap and a fine critic, but I might gently disagree with him on this. The British tradition seems to me to lead through a variety of writers - Le Fanu, Blackwood, Machen, M. R. James and others. The contemporary American continuity starts with Poe, of course, and continues with Bierce. I’d argue that Poe refines and compresses the Gothic, focusing on the psychological and uncanny, just as Le Fanu does, so that in a sense the two traditions are similar. Crucially, Lovecraft unites the influences of both, and later Fritz Leiber does. I think I did when I came along – Lovecraft and Leiber are united with M. R. James and Machen and Blackwood in different examples of my stuff. I’d argue that by now the two traditions constantly feed into each other.
WH: A wonderful way of looking at it. What is your writing process like?
RC: The seed of a tale can be the smallest thing – a familiar object or experience that suddenly reveals a different potential, an overheard remark, a random train of thought whose destination my subconscious may well have settled on before I’m aware of it. At some point of the process I manage to think of the characters’ names and what they do in life, what they look like, the only elements I try to plan in advance rather than letting them grow out of the writing. Drafting – well, the most I generally do of that before actually starting the first draft of the tale is the occasional sentence or image that suggests itself in advance and seems worth incorporating in some form, rewritten or unchanged. Once I’ve begun the writing the work is in my mind all the time, even if I’m unaware of it, and I frequently find that I’ll have ideas for it anywhere at all. Increasingly I regard the actual complete first draft of the story as a way of setting out the material I have to work with, and allowing it to grow organically. And usually I’ll rewrite that draft very substantially. It’s generally the case that the final version will be about twenty per cent shorter, and the majority of sentences will have been rewritten, paragraphs condensed or freshly constructed, extra material introduced. On occasion even the names of characters are changed.
A trick I play on myself is the notion that if I can progress onto the next page of the exercise book (which is how I always write first drafts, with a Parker Frontier fountain pen, leaving the left-hand pages blank for any early revisions and afterthoughts) I’ve done the day’s work. I pretty well never stop at that, you understand – it’s just a token reassurance to myself. I do generally write between four hundred and five hundred words a day of the first draft, starting at six in the morning (when I’m wakened by new ideas for the session) and usually ending before noon. That’s every day, Christmas and my birthday included. When we go away on holiday or to conventions, the work in progress goes with me and continues to be written.
WH: I’m lucky if I can wake up before noon. :) Many top horror writers cite your 2008 novel, THE GRIN OF THE DARK, as one of the very best modern horror novels. What inspired that book?
RC: It was a second shot I took at a theme I thought I hadn’t handled properly – the lost film, a motif I’d previously made central to Ancient Images. Originally the film in Grin would have been a silent serial, The Sixth Face of the Spider, but the notion of a series of comedies struck me as potentially more fruitful. I’d call the book a comedy of paranoia, a quality I think I’ve brought to our field, though of course I’m not alone in doing so. I value it wherever I find it, whether in Kafka or Thomas Hinde (The Day the Call Came).
WH: Comedy of paranoia has been one of your greatest achievements and contributions to the field. Which of your written works are you most proud?
RC: The problem is that it’s often the most recent work that stands highest in my estimation of my stuff, not that this is generally very high. That may be one reason why I feel pretty good about my Brichester Mythos trilogy, of which the final volume (The Way of the Worm) is due in October. I feel Needing Ghosts – the nearest I’ve ever come to dreaming straight onto the page – may stand up, but I haven’t read it for quite a few years. I’m hoping Fearful Implications – the immense two-volume retrospective of my short tales imminent from Centipede Press – won’t prove too repetitive or clumsy. There are some pieces in there I like.
WH: Needing Ghostsis a wonderful example of the unreliable narrator tormented by his own paranoia. A great tale. Horror has long had a bad reputation for not being “real” literature (which we know isn’t true). What are some horror stories that are both entertaining and thought-provoking that you’ve enjoyed?
RC: The collected Poe. The Dover books collections of Sheridan Le Fanu and Algernon Blackwood. The collected ghost stories of M. R. James (but beware of any edition where the text has been re-paragraphed). The Penguin Classics editions of Lovecraft. Conjure Wife and Fritz Leiber’s supernatural horror tales in general. John Franklin Bardin’s first three novels. The Haunting of Hill House and much else by Shirley Jackson. Any amount of Robert Aickman. The Green Man by Kingsley Amis. The Ceremonies and Dark Gods by T. E. D. Klein. Cuckoo Song (which I include partly because it was a finalist for the James Herbert Award, but mainly because it’s superb) by Frances Hardinge. The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley. Black Flowers and others by Steve Mosby. The tales of Reggie Oliver and Adam Nevill. I could expand this list to several times the length.
WH: And my To-Be-Read list just grew a little taller. Mr. Campbell, how have you changed as a person from your early life until now?
RC: I was often a terrified child, living in dread of my father, who my schizophrenic mother convinced me was monstrous and whom I scarcely saw despite his living in the same small house. I suspect I might these days be diagnosed as borderline autistic, given some of my traits that I remember – introversion so intense that my awareness of reality often gave way to a kind of trance, and some physical tics. Becoming involved in science fiction fandom in my mid-teens helped me emerge to some extent, but I was often shy to the edge of inarticulacy. Writing fiction helped me communicate, and I gradually learned how to speak to some extent like my prose, which lent me confidence. After a few fleeting or disastrous relationships I met Jenny at an Easter sf convention in 1968, and we met again at the Oxford event the following year, and have been together ever since. (A special thanks to my old late friend Brian Aldiss to sending us to a splendid Indian restaurant that Easter.) Over the decades I’ve developed an outgoing personality, or at any rate so convincing a performance of one that I’m persuaded by it myself. Still, I think that timid withdrawn child may still be huddled in here somewhere, ever fearful of exposure.
WH: I firmly believe that every writer is a timid child afraid of speaking. Why else would we have turned to the written word when we could have easily spoken? Okay, small break here… How do you like your coffee? Do you have a favorite libation? What’s your favorite dessert? This is the food portion of the interview. :)
RC: I don’t mind cappuccino after a meal, but my real caffeine fix is tea, which I drink while writing – the one drug I depend on. Libation – good wine. I’m not much of a dessert person, but I do like baklava and tiramisu among others. I’m more a main meal man – Indian, Szechuan, Italian – oh, many cuisines.
WH: I’m trying to get more into tea. I think it’s more the Instagram aesthetic of tea and teacups than actually liking the drink. :) Okay, back to shop talk. What is the key to an effectively frightening horror novel?
RC: Engagement of the imagination – the writer’s and the reader’s. Convincingness, especially in the way the characters react and otherwise behave. Authenticity – truth to the experience, a quality that can be hard to define but is instinctively recognisable.
WH: We know it when we see it, don’t we? So, what’s next for you? We can’t wait to see what you have coming up!
RC: Besides the final volume of the trilogy, PS have a new collection, By the Light of My Skull. Centipede have Fearful Implications in the works. I’m presently nearing the finale of the first draft of a new novel, The Wise Friend. And Flame Tree Press will be bringing several books of mine into the mass market, starting with Thirteen Days by Sunset Beach.
Wow, I can’t wait to get my hands on these! Thank you so much, Mr. Campbell, for spending time with me today. It’s truly been an honor, and I hope to muster up the nerve to say hello to you at HWA’s StokerCon next time I see you instead of shyly ducking into the elevator like I did last time.
To follow Ramsey Campbell, visit the links below:
* Website: www.ramseycampbell.com
* Latest release: The Inhabitant of the Lake and Other Unwelcome Tenants and Visions from Brichester, both from Drugstore Indian Press; Thirteen Days by Sunset Beach and Think Yourself Lucky, both from Flame Tree Press
* Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ramsey.campbell.75
* Twitter: https://twitter.com/ramseycampbell1
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, the Living Legend Award of the International Horror Guild and the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2015 he was made an Honorary Fellow of Liverpool John Moores University for outstanding services to literature. 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, Ghosts Know, The Kind Folk, Think Yourself Lucky and Thirteen Days by Sunset Beach. He recently brought out his Brichester Mythos trilogy, consisting of The Searching Dead, Born to the Dark and The Way of the Worm. Needing Ghosts, The Last Revelation of Gla’aki, The Pretence and The Booking are novellas. His collections include Waking Nightmares, Alone with the Horrors, Ghosts and Grisly Things, Told by the Dead, Just Behind You, Holes for Faces, Fearful Implications and By the Light of My Skull, and his non-fiction is collected as Ramsey Campbell, Probably. Limericks of the Alarming and Phantasmal is a history of horror fiction in the form of fifty limericks. His novels The Nameless and Pact of the Fathers have been filmed in Spain, where a film of The Influence is in production. He is the President of the Society of Fantastic Films.
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🔮 GABY TRIANA ☠️