Ramsey Campbell is an English horror fiction writer, editor and critic who has been writing for well over fifty years. Two of his novels have been filmed, both for non-English-speaking markets. Since Ramsey Campbell first came to prominence in the mid-1960s, critics have cited Campbell as one of the leading writers in his field: T. E. D. Klein has written that “Campbell reigns supreme in the field today”, and Robert Hadji has described him as “perhaps the finest living exponent of the British weird fiction tradition”, while S. T. Joshi stated, “future generations will regard him as the leading horror writer of our generation, every bit the equal of Lovecraft or Blackwood.” Ramsey Campbell has continued his prolific output, publishing an average of a novel a year, plus standalone novellas, since 2000; three of the novels have won major awards for best novel. He has also published four short story collections since 2000, one of which won Best Collection. Please enjoy this interview with horror royalty, Ramsey Campbell.
How do you describe your occupation?
I write horror.
Talk us through a typical day for you…
I’m at work by six in the morning – pretty well as soon as I’m awake. Indeed, sometimes an image or idea or development for the story in progress will help me waken, or alternatively will start to fend off the depression I commonly experience at this point – a sense that I’ve nothing to say that’s worth saying, and no grasp of my material. I’ve concluded that this depression is essential to my work, and acts as a kind of spur to creativity. When I feel as if I’m not going to be able to write, my imagination seems to exert itself to prove me wrong, whereas if I go to my desk feeling as if I’ll have a fluent session it almost always proves to be nothing of the kind. I still write every day, Christmas and my birthday included, while a work is in progress, though. To do otherwise is to court writer’s block. One technique I’ve learned is always to compose at least the first sentence before sitting down to write.
I’m here at my desk, which has a view of the dawn across the Mersey, until late morning. Once my energy starts to run down – generally at a natural break in the narrative, and if not I continue until I reach one – I’ll work out a version of the next sentence or sentences to store in a notebook. In the afternoon I’ll turn to different work – proofreading, perhaps, or non-fiction. Once I’ve had some hours of that I’m done for the day, except for noting down material as it occurs to me, and my reward is to watch a film from our collection. Today’s may well be Fritz Lang’s Der Müde Tod.
I’m halfway through the epic A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell, and am delighted to find there are still masterpieces I haven’t previously discovered. To be honest, I bought it because I found a four-volume set in a second-hand bookshop (the kind of place I virtually never emerge from emptyhanded). I’d situate the experience of reading Powell between two other favourite English comic novelists, Evelyn Waugh and Kingsley Amis, and I suspect he’ll resemble them also in being a writer I’ll reread with increased pleasure.
Can you remember the first book you read by yourself?
I certainly can, not least because I was horribly precocious. I gather that I wasn’t yet two years old when I read the 1947 Rupert Bear annual. I’d already learned how, having watched my mother’s finger tracing the words she was reading aloud to me. That is, I proved my new skills by reading to her a passage she hadn’t read to me. I especially recall the 1947 book because in a sense it started my career – certainly acquainted me with the experience of terror in fiction. In “Rupert’s Christmas Tree”, Rupert acquires a magical tree that escapes from its tub of earth after the festivities and returns to its home in the woods. Perhaps this is meant as a charming fantasy for children, but the details – the small high voice from the tree, the creaking that Rupert hears in the night, the trail of earth he follows from the tub in his house, above all the prancing silhouette that inclines towards him the star it has in place of a head – are surely the stuff of adult supernatural fiction. After first reading it I lay awake for nights in a state of absolute dread. But here is the real point: soon afterwards I wanted to read the story again and, presumably, repeat the experience, which surely defines why some of us read horror while others avoid it. I can only guess that my mother noticed the effect the book had on me, because it had vanished, and I didn’t track it down until decades later at a book fair. Believe me, its weirdness hasn’t even slightly faded.
Are you a page folder or a bookmarker?
Bookmark, always. I will confess to having illustrated some books with pen and ink in my pre-teens, and very horrid the additions were too. These days I’m loath to mark a book in any way, though sometimes if I’m to write the introduction or afterword to a new edition I may buy a cheap extra copy to write in.
When did you fall in love with reading?
Quite possibly during that Rupert Bear experience. I was already reading the paragraphs of text beneath the pictures as well as the couplets designed for less able readers. Very soon I graduated to Hans Andersen, presumably an edition for children but some of it pretty bleak all the same – I remember being disturbed by the sufferings of the little match girl and the little mermaid, for example. Shortly after that, I was given The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald, and found the scene involving the animals mutated by contact with the goblins absolutely terrifying, the illustration by Arthur Hughes too. It wasn’t much of a step from there to reading adult ghost stories – there’s a real affinity with M. R. James, who may have been influenced by MacDonald – and by the age of six, I was using my mother’s public library tickets to discover the field.
Can you remember the first story you ever wrote?
You won’t thank me for it, but yes. It was Black Fingers from Space by John R. Campbell, aged 7½ (No. 1. Science Thriller Library.) Since you’ve summoned this dreadful spectre from the past, here’s the entire opening chapter:
Chap. 1. The Dead Scientist.
JOHN sat up. Was that the ’phone? It might well be. This was the fifth case.
John picked up the ’phone. “Click!” it said.
“Oh,” said John. “Are you cut off?”
“No,” said the ’phone. “I’ve got a case. A black hand is seen at night, crushing houses. It’s a whopper, too!”
“Come round and tell me about it,” said John.
“Right,” said the ’phone. “Ta-ta!”
John hardly heard him. He was thinking about the case. Space? That meant rockets. Earth? A sudden thought struck him. Would the man get there? Lost? No. Murder.
He thought of the last case. The man had been shot through the brain. This man might be next.
* * *
Bong! Bong! Bong! Bong! Bong!
“Funny!” said John. “He should be here now!”
He decided to go and look for him. So loading his rifle, he went down the road.
The first bus was a 78a. The next was 22, and the next was his, a 78.
* * *
“We get off here!”
John got off the bus. He knew the road. Fitzwilliam Avenue—that was it.
He walked along the road. 15, 17, 19, 21, 23, 25, 27, 29, 31 . . .
Ah! Here it was. No. 37.
“Now!” said John. “Now for the shock! OPEN UP!”
“Wait!” said a voice. Then to someone inside: “Now I’ll shoot!”
“No!” said a voice. “Don’t! Don’t! I—I’ll join——”
“Well——” said the other. “We-ell. I’ll——”
“OPEN UP, I SAID!” said John.
“Oh, he’s still there!” said the murderer. “Oh, I’ll shoot!”
CRACK! CRASH! TINKLE!
“I’ll get in,” panted John.
“I’ve done it——too late!” The scientist was sprawled on the floor. There was no doubt. He was dead.
That’s an odd one. At sixteen I’d already read quite a few books that helped point my way as a writer – Cry Horror by H.P. Lovecraft (his first British paperback collection, in which I lost myself for an entire day), Night’s Black Agents by Fritz Leiber (which revealed to me the possibilities of the modern urban supernatural horror tale), Collected Ghost Stories of M.R. James, Brighton Rock by Graham Greene… For the purposes of your question, perhaps I might introduce myself to Ulysses by James Joyce and Moby-Dick by Herman Melville, to widen my eyes to the possibilities of the novel. The Waves by Virginia Woolf ought to be there too.
At twenty-five, I was really pretty well-read, and I’m not sure what I would add. Well, it’s never too soon to read A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole or The Ascent of Rum Doodle by W.E. Bowman – I hadn’t then read these great comedies, and the comic aspect of my tales might have developed sooner if I had.
Can you talk us through your writing process, from the first spark of an idea, to having your first completed draft?
Ideas are the easy part, and I’ve notebooks full of them. I can’t imagine having enough years to develop all of them, but perhaps someone may find some of those I leave worth taking further. Sometimes an idea inspires me so immediately that I work it up at once, but more often ideas lie dormant until I come back to them and try bringing them to life. This generally involves letting my thoughts drift over them and scribbling down whatever notions may suggest themselves, many of which will be abandoned (or occasionally used elsewhere). Occasionally a story will be generated by a fusion of more than one idea from the notebooks. I’m usually best at playing with ideas as soon as I get up in the morning, if I’m not already working on a first draft, but I never really stop working – the tale I’m writing or planning to write will be trying to take shape at the back of my mind, and often enough I’ll think of a development when I’m well away from my desk. This early stage generally feels like groping about in an undefined place in search of frustratingly indefinable items (often the characters and what they do in life). Then at last (unless I give up, as I occasionally do) an insight will engage my imagination enough to generate more, and we’re off.
I haven’t plotted in advance for many years. I prefer to gather material until I feel I have enough to justify starting the tale, and then I set off to find out where it leads. This may involve feeling stranded somewhere unknown with no idea of how I’ve got there or where to go, but the narrative develops independent of my conscious process, and I tend to find the solution lies in what I’ve already written of the tale. Once the first draft is done I’ll leave it for a time. Reading through it generally makes me aware of its shortcomings but not how to fix them. The first draft is always handwritten. The rewriting takes place on the computer, and as soon as I set about it, a more ruthless attitude comes into play, and I delete or change or condense everything that seems to need it (whereas once I would have tried to justify keeping as much as I could). I print out the completed rewrite and make still more changes, usually minor, and then off it goes into the world.
For someone starting out in your career, which three books would you make required reading and why?
If we’re talking about my field, these:
Best Horror Stories edited by John Keir Cross. This anthology seems designed to demonstrate the range of the genre. While it includes names you might expect – Poe, Bierce, M. R. James, Ray Bradbury – we also find Faulkner and Kipling and Angus Wilson and Graham Greene, and perhaps most significantly, Bartleby by Herman Melville. In his introduction, Cross says many readers may not think of that as a horror story at all, but I always have, and I think its inclusion is a useful challenge to preconceptions about the field.
The Dark Descent edited by David Hartwell, in which the editor constructs an anthology that traces the various traditions of horror fiction.
The Weird edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer – an immense anthology celebrating weird fiction from all eras and from all over the world, guaranteed to amaze the newcomer and to introduce even the aficionado to unfamiliar delights.
If you could invite 5 authors (dead or alive) to a dinner party – who would they be and why?
Robert Bloch, who would bring wit and sit-down comedy. Besides, I miss him, like so many of my old friends in the field. J. G. Ballard, because I never really spoke to him, although I once had the chance when Malcolm Edwards at Gollancz introduced us – I was so much in awe of his achievement that I gawped until I’d finally let go of his hand and then said nothing worth hearing for an endless few seconds. (I did later try and clear up the incident in my introduction to a book that included both of us.) Iris Murdoch, in the hope that her chat would be as fascinating as her fiction (surviving footage suggests as much). Elizabeth Jane Howard, whom a friend we had in common (Robert Aickman) regarded as a fine conversationalist (which he certainly was). H. P. Lovecraft, for erudite discussion of our field.
What was the last book you purchased, and why did you buy it?
The Sea of Blood by Reggie Oliver, who I believe is the greatest classicist of the supernatural tale now writing. This is a fine introduction to his shorter tales and includes some previously unpublished work, for which I was happy to shell out.
What is your favourite thing about reading?
Savouring the prose, the structure, the tale are all crucial for me, but I think rereading can be the most profound pleasure of all – the discovery of extra meaning and of additional resonances.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
I could say the Powell, but I’ll dodge that on the basis that I haven’t finished the entire work. Instead, I’ll name You Can Run by Steve Mosby, one of our finest crime writers. Like his Black Flowers, this is a book about the interdependence of fiction and reality, and a compelling suspense novel as well. Literate and highly intelligent, it’s rewarding on multiple levels.
The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (along with The Lost World, one of my first loves, and I often reread both). I’d want to be able to send the machine on additional voyages – for instance, to the preview of the uncut film of The Magnificent Ambersons.
What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring writer?
Don’t be lured away from the work in progress by the will-o’-the-wisp of your next idea – that is, finish what you started if you possibly can. Learn to enjoy rewriting, a crucial part of the process, and to consider editorial suggestions, though you needn’t agree to all of them.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
Reading Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov when I’d just turned seventeen was a revelation – the joy in language, the discovery of comedy in the unlikeliest places, the use of words to make you look afresh. Virtually overnight it changed my own approach to writing, and (along with Graham Greene’s novels) persuaded me that I should address concerns I’d found more in the mainstream than (usually) in my own field. It also sent me in search of everything else by Nabokov I could find, not least the equally remarkable Pale Fire.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
Where do I start? Indeed, where do I stop? A few essentials… The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell, a rich and radical piece of work. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, best read (or preferably reread) in the context of his letter about the book to Jonathan Cape, a magnificent exegesis. At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien, a hilarious comic fantasy. The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, a splendid dreamlike enigma. Howards End and A Passage to India, two superbly modern novels in which E. M. Forster demonstrates how much you can leave out. The Flight from the Enchanter by Iris Murdoch and the Gormenghast trilogy by Mervyn Peake – both of these are among the most compulsively readable books I know. The nightmare vision of The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, which we can only hope is not too prescient, however much relevance it already has. The collected strange tales of Robert Aickman, those great English uncanny enigmas. Hitchcock’s Films by Robin Wood, which hugely widened my view of the cinema – a seminal instance of criticism that makes you look again… As you may sense, I could go on, and on.
Which book sat on your shelf are you most excited about reading next and why?
The Folio Society edition of The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, which prints the book in accordance with the author’s wishes, using various colours of typeface to indicate temporal shifts.