We’re All Alone Inside Our Skulls: Ramsey Campbell Wants To Drive You Mad

Grady Hendrix, author of Paperbacks From Hell and Horrorstör, writes on the oeuvre and impact of horror giant Ramsey Campbell, who appears in conversation at Miskatonic London on February 15th, 2018.

Ramsey Campbell writes the way crazy people think. His characters can’t trust their perceptions, inanimate objects exhibit consciousness, living creatures behave like automatons, personalities are overridden and replaced. His character descriptions are free-floating and enigmatic, often hinting at associations that are clear in the character’s mind, but never explained to the reader (“…he was like the man who’d owned the butcher’s shop when she was a little girl.”), and usually the narrative voice is deeply embedded in the perceptions of characters who are unbalanced, delusional, dreaming, or in altered states:

“The clock was chanting: see you on Jan, see you on Jan. His mind listed places he must wipe, over and over. Had he forgotten one? The door. The doorknob. The table. The chair in which he’d sat. The cup — he must wipe all the cups, to make sure.”

But this literary derangement isn’t limited to Campbell’s characters and plots. It can be found all the way down in the DNA of his stories, right there in his word-by-word style. His descriptions are crazy-making, full of visual miscues and a confusion of organic verbs with inorganic nouns, as in “…the columns of a Greek ionic porch had sprouted tubular metal scaffolding,” and “The porch door had opened. When it had displayed its gap for a while, a suitcase emerged.”

What is wrong with this man?

Born in Liverpool, Campbell began his career as a Lovecraft impersonator — his first published story, “Dark Mind, Dark Heart,” was set in the Cthulhu mythos, and his first short story collection was The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants featuring variations on Lovecraft, with the locations changed from New England to plain old England on the advice of August Derleth, publisher of Arkham House and the keeper of the Lovecraft flame. But Campbell quickly shed those influences to write his first two novels*, The Doll That Ate His Mother (1976) and The Face That Must Die (1979), both slim stories about psychopaths, neither of which was a success when they were published.

In the late Seventies and early Eighties, Campbell focused his energies on short stories, a medium he’s made his own, winning multiple British Fantasy, World Fantasy, and Horror Writer Association Awards for short stories, short story collections, and for his work as an editor of short story anthologies. But in the early Eighties, at the height of the horror paperback boom, Campbell’s agent convinced him that the money was in big, fat, Stephen King-sized novels. Hell, all the horror guys at the time were publishing 400 and 500 page books and getting rich. Didn’t he want to get rich, too? And so Campbell wrote The Parasite, a big, fat horror novel about a woman who experiments with astral projection and winds up possessed.

Over the next nine years, Campbell published eight horror novels, most of which won awards, and all of which focused on not merely describing derangement, but on inducing it in readers. In Campbell’s fiction, sounds are heightened, perceptions are warped, and hallucinations loom. Reactions are cut off from their causes, making them seem alien and unnatural, he plays tricks with perception, and he links horror with squalor. Reading his books one begins to feel that their room needs its corners cleaned.

Seen in this light, Lovecraft pales as an influence and some of Campbell’s other favorite authors seem more relevant. Philip K. Dick played with reader perceptions in some of the same ways, although in a far more savory manner, and Campbell’s stretching and repurposing of language clearly comes from Nabokov whom he cites as a “major revelation for me” and “a crash course in how much more you could do with language…”

But there’s also a more personal source for Campbell’s style. He was very close to his mother, who encouraged him to write and send out his work (she herself had published several stories) but, as he writes in an afterward to The Face That Must Die:

“For as far back as I can recall my mother showed signs of paranoid schizophrenia: she was convinced that radio programmes and newspapers contained secret messages for her; she would recognise people as someone quite different and insist that one was disguised as the other.”

He writes that this taught him “That one’s perception of reality (or, in this case, my mother’s) need not be the same thing as objective reality,” and he seems to have dedicated his literary career to exploring this territory. His characters, with their fractured perceptions, are described with language that utilizes traits of mental illness (problems of scale, dead objects that appear alive and vice versa, a dissociation between cause and effect), giving Campbell an amazing arsenal of effects that can be quite stunning.

It’s strange to call a writer with this many novels, short stories, and awards under his belt an undiscovered treasure, but the truth is that Campbell hasn’t become a household name. With only two movie adaptations of his work — Los Sin Nombres (1999), and El Segundo Nombre (2002) — both of which were produced for the Spanish market, he hasn’t crossed over like you’d expect someone Guillermo del Toro calls “the best contemporary master of horror in the UK”. Which makes this event an even more unique opportunity to listen to one of the greats, who, after 50 years of writing, shows no signs of selling out, watering down, or giving up his own unique project to drive his readers insane.


* These were Campbell’s first two novels published under his name, but his actual three first novels were paperback adaptations of the Universal horror films, The Bride of Frankenstein, Dracula’s Daughter, and The Wolf Man, written under the psuedonym Carl Dreadstone.

Artwork by Allen Koszowski