Latest news: my new book -- the novella MENACE -- is available now!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Pretence by Ramsey Campbell -- REVIEW

The Pretence by Ramsey Campbell

A review by Gary Fry

Back in the 1960s, the American sociologist Erving Goffman published a number of books that demonstrated just how constructed everyday life is, how common encounters with other people and the social world around us involves strategic monitoring of behaviour, tacit knowledge of cultural rules, and appropriate presentations of selfhood.

Of course Goffman was only “quantifying” / theorising what sensitive people throughout history have always believed – that human existence is an invention enacted on the hoof, almost like in a stage-play. Here’s some geezer called Shakespeare, back before we modern folk got a handle on all this stuff:
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts […]

Etc, etc.

And so it’s no secret that everyday life is all a bit of an illusion, brought into being by common purpose and mutually convenient consensus. It’s a bit scary when you think about it. You, me and everything around us are lent meaning only because we conspire together during social engagement to make it so. Scary, yes, but not particularly surprising.

Ah, but wait a moment. What if more than that was at risk? What if the very nature of being had the same inherent instability? Well, now we’re getting into more troubling territory. Because you see, in this scenario, not only does society potentially not exist in any organic fashion, but everything does. The mountains around us, music, our families, language – just chemicals and atoms. What do you think? A scarier prospect?

This seems to be the focus of Ramsey Campbell’s latest novella. I say “seems” because with Campbell, nothing is quite transparent, which of course makes for decidedly more satisfying unsettling fiction. There are hints that the experiences, er, experienced by lead character (Derek) Paul Slater are symptoms of the State in which he lives. He’s interrogated by immigration officers, the police, his boss; he believes and timidly insists that he’s more than just an accumulation of demographic facts – isn’t he? Yes, that has to be true: after all, he feels most alive when in the company of his family, his charming wife and two children, or while listening to the original version of Beethoven’s symphony number 6, “The Pastoral”. But as an endless sequence of troubling perceptions involving erasure, blankness, decomposition burden his life, Slater begins to tacitly question the nature and structure of his world.

This is a Campbell novella, and so expect the usual delicate language, the “conspiracy-theory” anagrams, the inexorable accumulation of detail, the ineffably disturbed ancestral background (possibly even the origin of Slater’s experiences). Like his work in The Kind Folk, Campbell cranks up the hallucinatory prose, offering subtle distortions of daily events with relentless defamiliarising descriptions. For example, putting butter on toast actually renders the piece of bread utterly blank. Switching on windscreen wipers brings a world back to life that was previously in danger of becoming nothing at all. The loss of sight from a mountaintop of a distant motorway leaves its onlookers detached from the security of the social, from consensual reality. These and many other common experiences are persistently transformed into threats of negation, of the imminent dissolution of the fabric of existence.

I’ve often thought music the most resilient of the arts. By which I mean, painting can be ineradicably bastardised by the visual media, mangled beyond recognition (the Mona Lisa improves her smile to sell toffees). Similarly, language in the form of great works of fiction has the same vulnerability to postmodern assimilation (when Oliver asks for more, he could be asking for anything – hell, make it toffees again). But music – ah, like a butterfly fluttering across some battlefield, it’s not so easy to capture. Its inherent elusiveness – no imagery or words to grapple with – defies easy corruption. While any fool can wield a paintbrush or a pen, music has its unique demands and remains the domain of human expertise.

Now, I have no idea if Campbell meant it this way – The Pretence is a work of art, and not a textbook, folks – but for me, the choice of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky et al as representatives of human expressions of chemical reality is quite telling. Composing is the mode of creativity both closest to our hearts and furthest from our minds, the hardest to dispel, to “explain away”, to quantify. And so Slater’s struggle to sensibly arrange composers’ CDs in the shop in which he works is like the scientist’s battle with the quantum nature of being, the way it evades categorical definition. He’s told to play music in the store that will please its customers and not necessarily educate them. At home, he watches another work of art made from these works of art – Disney’s Fantasia – and this feeds into his ongoing perception of the world, as all art should, whether original or sensitively adapted (ballet, film, etc). By contrast, the decontextualised derivations of ringtones and commercial jingles (just the tune, just the “good bits”) are persistent irritations – if you will, mounted butterflies.

Basically, I think, (Derek) Paul Slater is, in part, occupying Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, the mass mediation of social referents. But as I implied earlier, with Campbell, there’s something else at play. Not only a fundamental instability in society, but also in the organic cosmos. Reading him makes you feel not only dislocated from everyday life, but also from the chemical tissue that constitutes you and everything around you, whether manmade or natural. He makes you feel like everything might dissolve in a heartbeat.

I suspect I’ll need to read this book another few times to deal with all its delicate complexities (I ask myself what is the significance of the two cars, an Astra and a Viva – both sound stellar, somehow…). What I offer here is a range of thoughts jotted down while reading, in the hope of stimulating you, dear review-reader, to grab a copy and see what you make of the whole, enigmatic affair. You’ll find familiar Campbell themes here: troubles with highly organised daily life (technology is always a big one, the Dark Grinning); visits to schools to see the children perform (see Midnight Sun for similar); a majestic finale on a mountaintop (The Long Lost?). But you’ll also find a completely new weirdness, a command of craft, a refusal to be transparent, and a challenge to those lamebrains who simply enjoy a “good tale, well told.”

Hey, try this instead, losers: it’s a great mystery, artfully narrated.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Party time...

These guys and gals know how to party...

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

No such thing as an original zombie novel? Think again...

So my new novel SEVERED is now on the market in both paperback and ebook format. All I can say about the book is presented in the short video below. If you like what you see, click the following links to buy a copy of a book a recent review described thus:

"SEVERED is an early contender for the novel of the year. When I first started the novel, I was struck by the brutality of the story and was captivated by the world that Fry had created. The novel starts with some very harsh scenes that I was surprised to encounter outside of a work of extreme horror. Yet even with the extreme violence and brutality of the story, Fry never loses sight of the novel’s goal and tells the story in a way that kept me completely enthralled. I rarely lose myself in a story yet I quickly found myself a hundred pages in and wanting more. In the middle of the violence, Fry keeps the story tight and never loses sight of his ultimate goal. This is something that I rarely find in a work that is so upfront in its brutality and fast-paced action ... Fry’s mastery is apparent throughout and SEVERED is a story that transcends the boundaries of the horror genre ... a moral tale of what makes us human as well as being an entertaining story of a man’s struggle to overcome the terror that he faces, which is personal as well as widespread. While Fry’s other works have shown glimpses of the potential of his writing, SEVERED is a novel written by a master at his best. I can only hope that this book is an indication of even better things to come from this talented writer and has ensured that I will be a fan for life." http://www.examiner.com/review/severed-by-gary-fry

Buy now...

Monday, February 24, 2014

Interesting news item...

I was reading a local newspaper recently and spotted this article, which interested me a great deal. Take a look for yourselves...

Monday, January 20, 2014


My new novella is out tomorrow, folks, and the finest reviewer in the business Peter Tennant has delighted me with the following kind words in the latest edition of BLACK STATIC:

"MENACE (DarkFuse eBook, 73pp, $2.99), released on the 21st of January 2014, but available for pre-order at $1.99, is easily the most traditional of the three novellas. Pregnant after a fling with an actor, model Jane Marlow goes to an isolated house on an assignment to pose for a book cover, her presence having been specifically requested by the author. While there she has a vision of six children sitting on the grass around her, and when the book cover materialises these same children are in the photo. Jane contacts author Luke Catcher, who tells her that his book will be autobiographical and the six children on the cover are him and his brothers, while Jane is standing in for their mother. There are signs that Jane’s pregnancy is not normal and hints of something very wrong – she has developed a strange facial tic, a streak of grey in her hair that won’t come out and lost her appetite for meat, while the father of her child has gone down with a paralysing illness for which the doctors can provide no explanation. As she learns more of the Catcher family history Jane begins to suspect the terrible truth behind what is happening to her.

            To not put too fine a point on it, this is old school horror, very reminiscent of books like Rosemary’s Baby and To the Devil a Daughter in the way it develops, particularly at the end. Fry’s story is more complex though, with plenty of twists and turns, evidence of something unnatural gradually mounting until we, like poor Jane, have no alternative but to accept a supernatural incursion of some kind. The joy of the book is in the eloquent prose and characterisation, the measured way in which Fry piles detail on top of detail so that the text evolves into a master class in how to construct this type of story. It’s not as convoluted and meaning fraught as much of his other work, and I can’t find much to say about it, at least not without giving away vital plot elements, but for pure reading pleasure it can’t be beat.

            It’s now ten years or more since Fry’s first published story. He has come a long way in that time, and what’s characterised his work throughout and made it stand apart from most of his contemporaries, are the themes that he tackles, the way in which he uses horror fiction to address and concretise intellectual concepts. He can on occasion be a difficult writer, one who demands much of the reader, but the rewards are more than worth the effort."


Monday, December 23, 2013

At the end of the year...

2013 was good to me in that I achieved a number of things I've been working towards for over a decade. Firstly, I got solid book deal with a publisher with a nice slice of the horror market: DarkFuse over in the States. My first novel with DF (Conjure House) has, for me, shifted an unprecedented number of copies and continues to sell strongly six months after publication. Additionally, the novellas Emergence and Lurker still draw positive attention. Long may this continue, what with a new DF novel due next Easter (Severed), a bunch of new novellas (Menace in January, Savage in June, and Mutator later), and an ebook reprint of my limited edition PS Publishing novel The House of Canted Steps (due February).

The second great 2013 thing was getting a deluxe-edition collection out from PS Publishing, the home of horror masters Ramsey Campbell and many other fine folk. Shades of Nothingness looks gorgeous and I'm happy with the range of fiction in there, which represents my latter-day stuff, pared down and suggestive, tricksy and, well, just plain weird.

The third great thing was finally getting a story selected for a Year's Best anthology. Best British Horror is a new annual antho of horror fiction, and the inaugural issue includes fiction from the likes of Michael Marshall Smith, Tanith Lee, Ramsey Campbell, Stephen Volk, Adam Nevill, Mark Morris, and many others. The book is edited by Johnny Mains and will be out before summer 2014. Nice.

The fourth thing? Well, that would be becoming Pete Tennant's featured author in the January 2014 issue of Andy Cox's sterling magazine Black Static. Looking forward to seeing that. I've respected Pete and Andy's work for years now and was flattered to have been interviewed.

What else happened in 2013? Oh yeah, I got short-listed for an award -- the British Fantasy Society one for best novella, with The Respectable Face of Tyranny. I didn't win, but was happy to see my old pal John Probert pick up the gong. He's a much better speaker than me, anyway. ;)

I also placed a couple of stories in anthologies edited by S T Joshi, another heavyweight in the field. In Search of Horror (including 'The Reeds') will be out early next year, and Black Wings IV (including 'Sealed by the Moon') towards the end of it.

It's kind of fitting, really, that all this happened in 2013, because my first professional sale came back in 2003 ('Both And' in Gathering the Bones). And now here I am, a decade later, making what feels like another leap forwards. I still have a way to go before achieving all my literary ambitions, but I'm happy to keep plodding on, enjoying the journey. Each advance feels earned and inherently rewarding.

Indeed, in other news, I'm also a year closer to quitting full-time work, an ambition of mine for at least five years. In 2012, I devised a meticulous three-year early-retirement plan, and at the time of writing, I have just 74 weeks of this left to work. Bring it on, I say. The day I can write full-time will be the day I finally become contented in life. So here's to 2014 -- let it bring more good fortune and fun along the way.

Thanks for reading, folks. And if you ever bought -- or ever will buy -- one of my books, I salute your generosity and wish you all the very best for a similarly pleasing new year.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Prepare to be MENACEd...


Gary Fry's disturbing new novella,
available January 21st 2014 from DarkFuse
One week earlier...

“Hi there, Jane. How are things?”

          “Oh…fine. Yes, everything’s fine.”

          “You sure? You sounded a bit hesitant there.”

          “No, it’s not that. I’m just…preparing to go out. Off to the West End with some girlfriends. You caught me in the bathroom.”

          “…Okay, well, I won’t keep you on the phone long. I just wanted to get in touch and tell you that I’ve secured you some more modelling work.”

          “Hey, that’s great, Jack. Thanks very much.”

          “That’s what I’m here for, dear. Some agent I’d be without pulling in projects for you, eh?”

          “Yes, I know all that. But it’s also much appreciated.”

          “Ha, you might not say that when I tell you what’s involved.”

          “Oh yeah? Tell me more.”

          “Okay, this guy called me yesterday – the publisher of some well-known writer, I forget his name. Anyway, this fella tells me that he’s planning to publish a memoir about this writer’s – and I swear, these are the very words he used – about his unusual youth.”

          “That sounds…ominous.”

          “I’m sure it’s all very innocent. Well, I mean, I hope it is. After all, Jane…”

          “Yes, Jack?”

          “Now, you promise me you won’t scream.”

          “Scream? Me? I watch horror movies alone in my London flat. N-…nothing scares me.”

          “Okay. Well, here goes. The thing is, apparently this writer chap – the one whose name I’ve forgotten – asked for you by name.

          “By name? But…how has he heard about me? I mean, I know I’ve done a lot of catalogue shoots. And there was that national advertisement for supermarket clothing. But I’m hardly Kate Moss, am I?”

          “Maybe it’s your, ahem, your friendship with…what’s-his-name? You know, the TV actor dude.”

          “Ah, we’re…we’re no longer together, Jack.”

          “Hey, are you okay, Jane? You sound a bit upset about that.”

          “I’m fine. And I don’t want to talk about it. So stop playing Uncle.”

          “Sorry. I do sometimes feel responsible for you – you know, since your parents died.”
          “Thanks. It’s appreciated, really it is. But please, let’s move on. Tell me more about the deal.”

          “That’s pretty much all I know. But it doesn’t sound particularly difficult. They just want a beautiful young woman to go on the front cover of this so-called memoir. Good money, too. And all expenses paid. But…oh yeah, here’s the catch.”

          “I knew it sounded too good to be true. Let’s hear it.”

          “Don’t worry. It’s nothing too out-there. It’s just the location of the shoot.”

          “Oh yeah? And tell me where that might be. Coldest Russia? Hottest Africa? The most deserted part of Australia?”

          “Not quite that bad, but near enough.”

          “Go on, then. Spill it.”

          “It’s in North Yorkshire, Jane. Some spooky old house on the coast.”

          “Hmm. Interesting. That’s a helluva drive. But if they’re paying for petrol, I’m game. But…I wonder why they couldn’t get a model based up north. It hardly makes sense employing somebody from the south, who needs to travel so far at their expense.”

          “Maybe you have the right look, darling.”

          “And what does that mean?”

          “Oh, you know, the tall slenderness without being anorexic…the angular cheekbones… Basically, the stuff that first attracted me to you.”

          “Hey, down, tiger.”

          “Ha. I meant, professionally. If my wife ever suspected anything else, she’s neuter me.”

          “Hee, hee. But it does seem…strange, though.”

          “That’s what I thought, but who are we to quibble on detail. They’re paying, we’re selling.”

          “Sure thing. But tell me, what is this book about?”

          “I have absolutely no idea, my dear. I guess there’s only one way to find out.”

          “Well, I think you’re right about that, old man. Okay, I’ll take the job.”

          “Good news. I’ll set wheels in motion.”

          “You’d better. I need all the income I can get now.”

          “…What do you mean?”

          “Oh…nothing. It’s not important. Look, please get touch with the client and ask him to let me know what he wants me to do.”

          “No sooner said than done. Give me a day or two.”

          “I’ll be waiting.”

          “Cool. Oh, and Jane?”


          “…Don’t have nightmares in the meantime, will you?”

          “Very funny. I mean, as if, Jack. As if.”