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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Born to the Dark: an interview with Ramsey Campbell

Born to the Dark: an interview with Ramsey Campbell

Gary Fry

Gary: It’s a year since we discussed The Searching Dead, the first novel in your Brichester Mythos trilogy [LINK]. Now I’ve had chance to review the second entry Born to the Dark [LINK], it’s time we chatted again. The first thing I wanted to ask concerns readers both familiar with and new to the series. Do you consider each book indivisible from the others or rather as self-contained reads?

Ramsey: Indivisible for sure. The second volume refers to quite a few events in the first, and I don’t believe it would be sufficiently comprehensible to anyone who started by reading it. I’d also say we need to see how some of the characters have changed in the intervening decades (other characters, not so much). I hope the three books accumulate power from drawing on their early developments. I will admit that in my youth I started reading Tolkien with The Two Towers, having been alerted to his work by the review column in Astounding, but that memory only convinces me that starting in the middle is no way to read a trilogy.

Gary: OK, so the second novel is set in the 1980s, thirty years on from the first. Other than the fact that this was a suitable time for your central character Dominic to have a young child, did anything else inform your decision to focus on that decade?

Ramsey: Not so much the decade as the actual number of years that separate the start of the first novel from the beginning of this one. There’s a similar gap between this volume and the third, which you may find suggestive. That said, once I’d landed on the eighties I found plenty there that proved to be germane to the tale.

Gary: Suggestive, indeed. You know, I found Born to the Dark different in structure from your other work. Its horror elements are kept off-page for a long time, and you tell more of an investigative story. Were you conscious of taking a different approach?

Ramsey: I fear (if that’s the word) that the process was as instinctive as it generally is these days for me. I suppose I hoped that the first volume had built up enough of a sense of dread that this might carry over into the second one, and perhaps even gain from the relatively late appearance of anything overt. Mind you, I think this is retrospective justification on my part. More and more the act of writing a piece of fiction, novels in particular, is a daily expedition of discovery for me, and that’s how I like it to be. So I can’t say the difference of form between the two books was a conscious decision.

Gary: Well, the suspense is as ruthless as anything you’ve penned. Without spoiling the finale, I wanted to ask about your technique here. Lately I’ve noticed you relishing explorations of “bad places” (e.g. the ends of “The Wrong Game” and Thieving Fear). The use of language – offbeat imagery, rhythm, character misperceptions – to create atmosphere is uniquely effective. Is this something that, after 60 years of writing, comes naturally?

Ramsey: Pretty well. I’m fond of those scenes (among which I’d also include the finale of The Darkest Part of the Woods). They’re probably the most intensively written episodes in the various books – I tend to take more time over them and only write a relatively short section each day (well, about five to six hundred words of the first draft, at a guess). So, for instance, I’d only take us through a couple of the rooms in the Safe To Sleep house in each session of writing. Incidentally, that entire episode was originally a single chapter, but since it came out so substantial I decided to split it as it now exists.

Gary: I’m more than fond of them. They’re like the literary equivalent of the finale of Les Diaboliques. Speaking of films, I found Born to the Dark a lot more cinematic than your usual stuff: plenty of interaction between characters, scenes of investigation, a spectacularly visual finale. Given the number of movies you (through your characters) refer to in the book, would you count cinema as important an influence on your work as literature?

Ramsey: I don’t think so, much as I love the cinema. I’d say literature guides my sense of the rhythm and selection of language, which I believe is crucial to our field. I’m not aware of any specific cinematic influence on this book, but there certainly are some of those elsewhere in my stuff. Thus “Concussion” derives some of its structure – in particular the effect of going back into the past halfway through a sentence – from my admiration for Alain Resnais. Incarnate borrows a rickety second head from The Manster and makes it sprout from a character’s shoulder. Although “The Companion” was based on an actual Merseyside location, it pinched some atmosphere from Carnival of Souls. “The Interloper” contains imagery from a film I continue to like, Monte Hellman’s The Beast from Haunted Cave. The image of an entity bursting out of the hillside in “The Moon-Lens” owes something to The Mysterians. And so on…

Gary: I admire your experimental games with language. In this novel, a character with concussion struggles to communicate, words coherently mangled. In the first of the trilogy, you dramatize a character’s speech patterns using prose with suitably unorthodox punctuation. And The Grin of the Dark is a masterclass of such literary effects. Are these techniques that you consciously plan to explore or do they emerge in creative situ?

Ramsey: They’re generally part of the process of discovery – in the case of the trilogy, they’re an attempt to convey the verbal struggles of the characters. I must also admit they’re some fun, and I go in for such things when I can. Others are hidden in various stories of mine, and I quite like the idea that they’ll become belatedly apparent to the reader, though in those cases I always want to be sure that if you don’t spot them they still contribute their face value to the narrative. There’s a background detail in Thieving Fear that looks innocent but means a good deal more to just a couple of people in the world.

Gary: My favourite examples are the lengthy conversations between multiple characters which use no speaker attribution at the ends of The Kind Folk and Thieving Fear. Remarkable. Anyway, it occurs to me that, with the exception of a few practitioners of dark arts and a swordsman called Ryre, Born to the Dark is the first piece of fiction you’ve written in which characters reappear. Have you enjoyed doing this and is it likely to happen again in future work?

Ramsey: I remember that years ago – I believe it was when he was a guest of honour at Fantasycon – Jonathan Carroll gently recommended me to try returning to characters, which he often does himself. I didn’t see how (except, as you say, in the case of Ryre, and I revived him only because andy offutt, having anthologised my first tale of the character, asked me to write another one for volume two) and so it didn’t happen. I have liked referring in later tales to occultists who appeared in earlier ones, but it wasn’t until I came to think about a trilogy that I decided to follow the main characters from youth to age. I’ve certainly enjoyed meeting them again two years in a row, and I hope readers will like spending time with them. That said, I’ve no plans for further multi-volume work, and so none for reviving characters. But who knows – I rarely can predict my writerly future.

Gary: Well, we’re two thirds of the way through the trilogy and events are building to their conclusion. I know you don’t pre-plot novels, preferring to let them take their own shape, but to what degree has the original conception held its shape? Has anything surprised you along the way, necessitating reorganisation?

Ramsey: I’ll admit one problem hadn’t occurred to me. As well as letting a work in progress find its own shape in the first draft, I rewrite very thoroughly these days, reshaping earlier stages of the narrative if necessary. It wasn’t until the first volume of the trilogy was in production (by which time I hadn’t started writing the second) that I realised it would be fixed, no longer capable of reshaping (which, oddly enough, is one of Christian Noble’s occult preoccupations in the novel). All I could hope was that it wouldn’t prove to have locked me into developments I would have preferred to change. Daoloth be praised, this hasn’t happened. I do tend to believe that my subconscious looks after the creative process more thoroughly than I’m aware of at the time.

Gary: Splendid. I guess all that’s left now is for you to give us a taste of the third and final volume, The Way of the Worm. Without giving too much away, can you offer a little teaser?

Ramsey: It’s something like the present day. The major characters from the previous volumes return (apart from one) and are more inextricably involved than ever. Dismayed by the growing influence, both domestic and global, of the Noble family Dominic attempts to expose their activities once and for all. To do so he joins their revived cult, only to discover what its real goal is, perhaps unknown even to its founders.

Gary: Fantastic. I’m looking forward to it already. Thanks for speaking to me about Born to the Dark, Ramsey, and I hope the trilogy continues to fly.

You can preorder the hardcover editions here, signed or unsigned:

Sunday, September 10, 2017

BORN TO THE DARK by Ramsey Campbell -- a review

BORN TO THE DARK by Ramsey Campbell
A review by Gary Fry  

The second in Campbell’s Brichester Mythos trilogy, this novel takes up the ongoing story of Dominic Sheldrake’s engagement with nefarious Christian Noble about 30 years after the first book’s events (for my review of THE SEARCHING DEAD, see here). It’s now the 1980s; Dominic has a family and a job as a lecturer in film studies. He hasn’t been involved with the Noble family since the 1950s, but all that changes when his son develops a sleeping disorder in need of specialist treatment. Dominic’s wife is drawn to an organisation which, on the surface at least, purports to practice revolutionary new methods but, it soon transpires, has a less benevolent intention.

That’s the basic story of BORN TO THE DARK, and Campbell spends 270 pages dredging compelling tension from such minimalist parts. While THE SEARCHING DEAD (the first of the trilogy) drew on a wide range of supernatural episodes, both suggestive and concrete, this novel is altogether quieter, building to a crescendo of unease rather than presenting frights throughout in an episodic fashion.

After informing the reader (both familiar with and new to the series) of previous events in a deftly handled opening chapter, Campbell takes us to the main scene of the drama: Dominic’s family. He’s married a smart, protective woman called Lesley, and they have a fine son, Toby. It’s the dynamics between these three, along with other characters such as Dominic’s father and his old friends, that form the basis of the novel’s anxieties. After securing a place for the boy at the aforementioned institution, Dominic begins to suspect malpractice there, whereas his wife questions such accusations. Matters grow so strained that their marriage is jeopardised, and it’s down to Dominic to prove that his concerns are genuine.

What follows are countless scenes of gradually escalating subterfuge involving covert telephone calls, surveillance, infiltration, and even engagement with medical treatments (this latter results in a wonderful passage of visionary prose, all blackness and silence and packed with mouth-watering portents). With such an accumulative approach, the novel exudes a form of menace heightened by all that’s at stake on a personal level for Dominic. There’s a lot of dialogue in the book, perhaps more than is common in Campbell. Set-pieces are dramatized via interaction, even the extended, evocative conclusion. In previous novels, Campbell would have just a single character exploring “that place”, but in this one there’s a companion, and it works just as well.

The ending is both spectacularly complete and indicative of developments to be explored in the final novel. It leaves the reader feeling both satisfied and hungry for more. Campbell’s skills in building tension here are second to none. He draws upon a wide range of suggestive techniques to create a hypnotic atmosphere. Inside “that place”, shadows of banisters beyond a flashlight beam become a giant centipede scurrying along the wall. A sound beneath a dressing table (rats, perhaps) becomes the whisper of a face trapped in one of its top drawers. Mirrors never quite show what they should. And so on. Coupled with Campbell’s peerless command of rhythm, the whole section wields the power of hypnosis. I loved it, just as I’ve relished previous end-games in the likes of THIEVING FEAR and CREATURES OF THE POOL.

Earlier on in the book, Campbell’s dextrous command of other literary methods intensify and deepen its textures. Both literature and film serve as thematic quilting points; by virtue of Dominic and his wife’s academic professions in the humanities, the novel becomes enmeshed in artistic materials it explicitly addresses. Political developments examined in the first novel are similarly addressed in this one, with the spectre (or, depending on your affiliations, the necessity) of Thatcherism lurking behind many public exchanges. I suspect there are parallels between British economic history and the Nobles’ aspirations over the 50-year course of the trilogy, but until I read the final novel it’s too early to draw conclusions. I also have suspicions about the role of the number three in the books –Three Investigators, a game called Trio, the three syllables (and imminent births) of Daoloth – but again, that’s for later.

As in THE SEARCHING DEAD, a changing cultural landscape presents characters with unfamiliar situations to tackle. A dyed-in-the-wool feminist solicitor perhaps oversteps her professional remit with ideological blinkeredness. The police – well, certainly some of the police – are corrupt. The medical world isn’t to be trusted, either. And is the church really keeping up with such a mutated modern world? This sense of society’s principal engines, its essential institutions, being infiltrated by furtively invisible hands lends the novels’ depiction of the imminent collapse of stuff on which we all rely – folk at the end of emergency service calls, or even the land and sky – additional fragility, a tainted atmosphere that grows more pungent at every turn.

Indeed, it’s this mix of the personal and the universal, of Dominic’s familial woes and his tenuous place in the world at large, that prove to be the novel’s finest achievement. This is a book that eschews the standard horror novel’s reliance on regular “scary” set-pieces, focusing instead on an evocation of fear that inhabits and invades all aspects of everyday lives: marriage, parenthood, employment; memory, spiritual orientation, dreams; the future, death, the cosmos. BORN TO THE DARK finishes with a staggering set-piece, but it’s taken 270 pages to build to that, and for me that makes the whole immensely more satisfying.

Is there anything else I can say to convey my feeling that the novel is an essential read? How about this: I started it at 8am and finished at 3pm the same day. Everything about it held me solid in my seat. It’s another deft and compelling masterwork.

You can preorder the hardcover editions here, signed or unsigned:

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

THE RAGE OF CTHULHU: chapter 1 sample

Chapter 1

“Hey, Christine, I think I can see a way in.”

        George and his wife had walked from Whitby on the Cleveland Way, a public footpath leading along England’s northeast coastline. After passing the town’s famous abbey and a holiday park located on the lip of a splendid bay, they’d spotted two buildings: a towering lighthouse and, about a hundred yards farther on, a property whose roof bore a giant foghorn at least five yards long.

As the lighthouse appeared to be private, and manned by staff, they’d moved on to the second building, which looked anything but operational. It was one-storey high and bore off-colour walls. Weeds grew in wild profusion around its sealed doorway and all the windows were boarded up…except for one. This was what George had just identified.

        “Be careful,” Christine said, the way she’d done lately, as if he was some sort of cripple. “If you fall, we won’t get help out here quickly.”

        If she meant an ambulance, why didn’t she say so? George experienced a flare of temper but decided not to be difficult. This, the first leg of their holiday around the world, was supposed to be pleasant. They’d visited the area as youngsters – just after marrying, forty years ago, before they’d had any money – and had always vowed to return. George wished it was in better circumstances but that was how life went; no use being maudlin about it.

        After all, there was still fun to be had. Huddling low against the chill – it was a blustery February weekday, dampness heavy in the air, as if rain or worse was due – he moved closer to that one unboarded window, eliciting another comment from his wife.

        “Don’t go in there, George,” she said, anxiety from recent events etched into her voice. “It’s private property. The men from the lighthouse might come over.”

And do what? George wanted to know, as if needing to take on the world and all its infuriating rules. In his current situation, what were the consequences of misbehaving?

        “I want to look inside, Christine,” he replied, puffing as he shuffled forwards, limbs aching with the effort. For a moment, he went dizzy, but closing his eyes and eliminating the world for several seconds helped to stabilise him. Finally he was ready to enter.

        By the time his wife approached, holding the new iPhone with which she’d filmed the remarkable landscape these last few days, he’d swung a leg over the sill and levered himself inside the building. Refusing to offer Christine another opportunity to cause a fuss, he cut through the room ahead. This resembled some sort of sleeping quarters, possibly once occupied by whoever had maintained the foghorn when the place had been in service.

The board-free window failed to let in much afternoon daylight. All the same, George soon chanced upon a door with a big brass handle at hip-height. He turned it, releasing the door with a sticky sound of gunge separating around its frame, and then paced forwards.

A more insistent source of light lay up ahead. He figured out that he stood in a corridor leading to other rooms. The building had appeared to be just yards from the cliff’s edge, a considerable drop to a rocky beach and the unforgiving sea. But as he moved on, the ground here felt solid, even though some of his dizziness had returned.

The light at the end of the passageway appeared to come from a room whose door was missing. The front of the property must have suffered structural damage, with stone broken in inaccessible places. This was probably why the authorities hadn’t sealed off those parts.

He entered the room, marvelling at its contents. Was this where the foghorn had been operated and maintained? A bulky engine was attached to the wall, clearly having not been used for years. Alongside it stood a beguiling arrangement of valves, cocks and pressure dials, each rusted or draped with cobwebs.

George loved places like this. They reminded him of his childhood back in Leeds, of visiting railway stations with his parents, exploring great steam carriages. Perhaps this was why he’d broken into such an out-of-the-way property. He’d heard that during traumatic periods people tended to revisit the past, an attempt to contextualise life from a distant perspective. Hadn’t a famous philosopher once said similar, someone he’d studied as an undergraduate before his career in academia?

Maybe that was true, but it wasn’t important now. This was George’s new attitude. It wasn’t that his medical diagnosis had led him to abandon insights into the human condition, rather that he had fresh experiences to enjoy, away from the ivory tower comfort of textbooks. With only limited time left, he wanted to throw himself into as much of life as possible.

He advanced into the next room, through a doorway at the rear of the foghorn’s control centre. Wondering what sound the foghorn on top of the building had once made, he examined the new area, given over to water tanks and batteries, which had surely once compressed air to provide the noise. It was here that an exterior wall covered in a thick skin of plaster had collapsed, letting in light from outside.

George heard a wind thumping against the property’s exterior, the sea smashing against the cliff-side below. What with the building’s unusual acoustics – the walls were thick stone, the floors bereft of carpet or furniture – these sounds had impact on him, rendering him unsteady as he moved. His vision also felt challenged, especially when he reached a lengthy room at the front of the property, beyond which had once sailed the ships that the whole place had sought to safeguard.

It was now that he observed what he ought to have previously: none of the other rooms had windows. But that wasn’t true of this one, whose longest side bore four square glassless peepholes. Each was three feet tall and wide, and none had been boarded up. That might be because it would be difficult for anyone to move safely along the coastal lip and seal them. Whatever the truth was, George could now see way across a choppy North Sea.

But this wasn’t all that caught his interest.

In addition to how noises here – the restless howl of wind, an unfailing susurration of the sea – continued to unsettle him, he detected a curious scent, which was how he imagined magma expelled from an active volcano might smell, a pungently sulphurous aroma. More distortions in his visual field left his perspective strained, as if the room was a photograph that someone was tugging out of shape in every direction. After several seconds, he began to feel nauseated and was forced to look away.

Was he suffering another attack, like the ones that had first alerted him to his illness? That might be the case, but as he stabilised his vision by focusing beyond the wavering room, his attention went no farther than the windows, which had surely been damaged by some seismic event.

Sections of wall around the openings had buckled inwards, great stones tilted towards the interior, the inch-deep plaster torn from the sinew beneath. It looked as if something had rammed into the building from the outside, but what could be so large and powerful, let alone possess the height such an assault required? The building had to be two-hundred feet from the seabed; such a manoeuvre was impossible even for the most monstrous creature.

More sensory distortions sweeping over him, George turned to look for a way out, returning to his wife and her well-meaning support. Just then he spotted more damage affecting the rear wall, which faced those mangled windows. In four spots, corresponding with each of the glassless openings, more plaster had been smashed away, revealing the property’s flesh beneath.

Had something – no, at least four things – been thrust through the windows and struck this wall?

None of it made sense. George felt troubled and bewildered. He moved off, back along another stretch of corridor, seeking the room through which he’d entered, quite against Christine’s sensible advice. She was simply concerned, as the spouse of anyone diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour would be. For this reason, he’d try not to reveal what was happening in his head right now. Indeed, by the time he exited, he hoped it would have all settled down.
The novella is now available to preorder in hardcover and ebook formats:

Thursday, January 26, 2017

BEHIND HER EYES by Sarah Pinborough -- a review

BEHIND HER EYES by Sarah Pinborough

Review by Gary Fry

I came to this novel amid all the publicity concerning that "WTF" ending. I like to think that I'm a canny reader, knowing the tricks many authors try to pull on us. So I got started with Behind Her Eyes, soon becoming immersed in an intimate, often furtive tale of extra-marital shenanigans and offbeat characterisation. The novel excels in its depiction of three main characters, all of whom feel decidedly unreliable, especially the two female direct-to-camera narrators. Why is one befriending the other, and for what purpose? How can the other cope with guilt about what's she up to with her new friend's husband?

It's all very intriguing, to say the least. But what could be that twist? I'd say the twisty-turny plot keeps the pages turning, but the thought of how it ends -- whether one can guess its denouement -- renders it literally unputdownable. Pinborough skilfully -- I can't overestimate just how delicate a craft this is -- stage-manages all her plot components, offering hints and suggestions, dropping in red-herrings and additional characters to throw us off the scent [forgive mixed metaphors]. Indeed, she takes it almost to the wire, keeping the reader guessing even come the final pages, and then -- bang! The twist is revealed. It's a strong one, making sense of so much of what has come before. I was satisfied. A streetwise, cunning thriller with a punchy conclusion. Good work.

Ah, but then you realise something else. Pinborough isn't finished yet. It's at this point, practically on the final page, that the second twist strikes home. And if the first was satisfying, this one is downright disturbing, upending the whole story you've just read. Brilliant, insidious stuff. I was more than impressed by how cunningly I'd been outfoxed. It forced me to reflect hard on the whole experience.

Once a little time had passed, and the "reel" the book caused had settled a little, I was able to appreciate how Pinborough achieved all this. She never fully reveals which genre she's working in -- thriller, crime, supernatural -- and that keeps the reader on edge about potential developments. The plot twist/s, while lacking originality (the central conceit is actually a commonly used one), forms the core of this genre ambiguity, the event which switches the book from one field to another. I guess some folk, dyed-in the-wool devotees of specific forms of genre fiction, won't care for such blending, but I found it irresistible, inducing a genuine sense of dislocation. It's a sterling performance. And for the story's execution, along with its double-punch finale, I give Behind Her Eyes top marks.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Nightmare’s Realm, edited by S T Joshi -- a review

Nightmare’s Realm (Dark Regions) – edited by S T Joshi


Review by Gary Fry


In his introduction, S T Joshi shows how dreams have played a major role in the history of weird fiction, with many major practitioners writing tales influenced by or incorporating this most mysterious of human characteristics. The editor’s mission statement here is to continue in the latter-day this long tradition, and so let’s see how well the modern writers he chose fared.


The Dreamed by Ramsey Campbell

This is one of Campbell’s tales set in a foreign location, with all the sense of dislocation his characters experience heightened. A guy checks into a hotel but is soon confused for another, and as the plot unfolds this convergence of identity becomes more and more apparent, until… Well, I won’t spoil it; all I’ll say is that the tale demonstrates Campbell’s uneasy dark humour and suggestive powers to the full. A great opener.


A Predicament by Darrell Schweitzer

This brief tale involves a trial in some olde worlde locale, its documentary prose leading up to an excellent final line. Almost like a prose poem.


Kafkaesque by Jason V Brock

More dark comedy is at work in this lively piece, which has a guy encountering Kafka in a dream and, via progress through hell, discovering a new piece of fiction written by the great Czech. It’s a very inventive and wry story, which I really enjoyed.


Beneath the Veil by David Barker

Another brief piece, this tale has a satisfying symmetry as two versions of the same key life event – a wedding – are presented, one ostensibly the reality and another a garish dream. But which is which? The author leaves it pleasingly ambiguous and all the more powerful for that.


Dreams Downstream by John Shirley

A longer tale detailing a modern landscape invaded by tech-induced dream hallucinations. I rather enjoyed it, being reminded of J G Ballard all the way through.


Death-Dreaming by Nancy Kilpatrick

This one wasn’t quite for me – that’s always going to happen, in all anthologies – but that’s not to say I perceived any specific faults here. I certainly found the prose evocative.


Cast Lots by Richard Gavin

Gavin’s tale captures convincing shifts of perspective as dreams fuses with everyday life, ending with a great image of some malevolent thing. It’s nicely paced and neatly written.


The Wake by Steve Rasnic Tem

A surreal tale involving the death of the central character’s father, with dreamlike events during the wake adding to the piece’s poignancy. A clever and heartfelt story.


Dead Letter Office by Caitlín R. Kiernan

Again, this is not my kind of thing, but I actually enjoyed the story a lot, with its colourful evocation of a future era and location, along with a killer last few lines. Even Radiohead are referred to, so yeah, big tick from me.


The Art of Memory by Donald Tyson

This was one of my favourite tales here, its protagonist experiencing an unusual haunting involving memory and violated dreamscapes. While the central idea put me in mind of one in Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher, the wry conclusion made me smile in that laconic way we searchers after horror always relish.


What You Do Not Bring Forth by John Langan

Another very short story, ostensibly a crime caper but with a quirky and effective conclusion. Langan continues to play successfully with form and that’s certainly apparent here.


The Barrier Between by W. H. Pugmire

Again, not really my thing. I’ve enjoyed Pugmire’s work elsewhere, but I’m not the best reader to comment on such material here. Sorry!


Sleep Hygiene by Gemma Files

Another of my favourites, Files’s tale is wonderfully evocative, streetwise, pungent and sinister. I really enjoyed the way she evoked (invoked?) the invader of dreams. Her prose, although choppy, has a vibrancy and life which seriously impressed me, and I’ll be reading more from Files.


Purging Mom by Jonathan Thomas

More superb prose. Thomas’s clever tale is full of striking phrases and vividly conjured scenes. Its English locale coupled with an American traveller make for many fun, creepy sequences. Great entertainment.


The Fifth Stone by Simon Strantzas

From spiky, colourful writing to something much more controlled and sombre – but Strantzas’s tale, given its material, is all the better for that. A life-spanning tale of a character holding back something unthinkable with object-focused faith, its final images are potent in their clinical evocation, their matter-of-fact horror. The author excels in depicting the character’s obsession and vulnerability. Fine piece.


In the City of Sharp Edges by Stephen Woodworth

Perhaps the most traditionally structured story here, Woodworth’s clever exploration of a blind-man’s trouble-with-dreams ends with an unpleasant image of something monstrous…but something which the character, as for us readers, cannot see. A neat conceit executed well.


An Actor’s Nightmare by Reggie Oliver

And here we have perhaps the book’s most striking piece. Oliver’s depiction of the cattish world of theatre is highly convincing (as you’d expect from a former actor), but it’s the concluding dream sequence which blows the mind. Despite his restrained English style, Oliver can occasionally be completely bonkers, and his descriptions here of an ill-at-ease character’s subconscious at play is magnificent. ‘In the Hills, the Cities’ comes to mind. And the final lines, although perhaps anticipated, nail down the whole mad tale. Perhaps I even dreamt it.


As you can see from my comments, I found this an impressive anthology, with several standout tales and many which were also extremely good. The book’s theme is a promising one, and Joshi and his accomplices have fulfilled it admirably. A really good, varied collection. It’s even top and tailed by a bit of Messrs Poe and Lovecraft. Sleep easy, all.

Monday, October 24, 2016




Review by Gary Fry


The thing about “best of” collections is that, although they’re commonly chosen by only one editor, readers are not going to love everything selected. These books are often varied, celebrating the wide range of fiction published each year in a specific field. That is why, as I review this book, I’m going to pull out the pieces which spoke particularly to me (although I can’t say I disliked any story here).


Let’s zero in immediately on the book’s big coup, a previously unpublished story by Robert Aickman. ‘The Strangers’ is as good as I could have hoped, one of the author’s queasy explorations of male sexuality. I’ve no idea why Aickman never included it in one of his collections, but wonder whether he felt it was too similar to certain of his other masterpieces. Whatever the truth is, this is a wonderfully suggestive and typically perverse story involving all the usual Aickman tricks: high culture, low morals, vampish femmes, and callow young men. It also contains a new candidate for his most M R Jamesian line (the existing champ being one about rags in a treetop at the end of ‘The Fetch’). This one involves bones in a suit. But I’ll say no more than that. Other than it chills deep down. Wonderful tale.


Almost up there with the Aickman is Robert Shearman’s ‘Blood’, a near-repulsive elucidation of a sordid trip to Paris taken by a teacher and his underage pupil. The suggestiveness is Aickmanesque, with a scene in a manky restaurant involving a hideous dining experience, and then a conclusion as enigmatically weird as anything Shearman has done previously. A really unpleasant tale. By which I mean, superb, of course.


In Ramsey Campbell’s ‘Fetched’, a man undergoes some kind of Kafka-esque transformation in an offbeat location full of blackly comic character-clashes and spatially impossible imagery. In Reggie Oliver’s ‘The Rooms are High’, an amiable narrator gets caught up in a seedy sequence of events as he visits a peculiar hotel in the place where he grew up. Full marks for one of the most loathsome characters I’ve read in years. Both stories are archly surreal and highly effective.


I really enjoyed Nadia Bulkin’s reworking of Lovecraft’s ‘The Colour out of Space’. In ‘Violet is the Color of your Energy’, Bulkin reinterprets the classic tale from the mother’s point of view (or maybe, a mother’s), focusing on the violating cosmic force through the dynamics of her male family. It’s a striking and intertextually impressive piece. In D P Watt’s ‘Honey Moon’, a recently married couple – he initially eager, she prudish – undergo a modification of sexual roles, as a landscape and its history tease out the limbic forces in both, drawing them inexorably into animalistic passion. The tale’s deceptively simple, cleanly written surface only enhances the power of its truly wild conclusion.


I consider Lynda Rucker’s ‘The Seventh Wave’ one of the most effective ghost stories I’ve read in a long time, the frisson achieved through a combination of modern narrative techniques and traditional nautical legend. Tim Lebbon’s ‘Strange Currents’ is similarly haunting, with an adventure-style main section leading to a genuinely creepy closing image. Sometimes straightforward storytelling is the most potent, and that’s rarely more true than here. 


‘Julie’ by L S Johnson is a compellingly written piece of alternative literary history, with feral transformations standing in lieu of shameful human behaviour. I’ve always considered Rousseau rather overrated anyway, so it was nice to see him getting a good hatchet job here. Johnson’s prose is a delight and the story memorable. As for Sadie Bruce’s dark fable about the generationally inescapable adoption of exhibitionist female desires, well, it’s dark and grotesque, as it should be. ‘Little Girls in a Bone Museum’ is required reading for all.


These were the tales I enjoyed most in the book, though I should add how impressed I was by Matthew Bartlett’s juicy, rhythmic prose. Marion Womack’s ‘Orange Dogs’ was filled with evocative passages, and Christopher Slatsky’s tale finished with a killer last line. I’ve reviewed the Brian Evenson story elsewhere, and consider it a fine one.


All in all, then, I greatly enjoyed this broad-ranging collection of the best new weird of 2015. Strantzas has read widely, choosing his tales with an eye for variation and style. I did wonder why two tales involving the sea – the Rucker and Lebbon – were placed side by side, but that’s a relatively minor matter when both were among my favourites here. I was also struck by the large number of female authors represented – heartening stuff.


The genre’s in rude health, it would appear – both in terms of the authors writing such great new gear, and the editors sitting up to take notice. I very much look forward to next year’s entry. 

Sunday, September 11, 2016

THE SEARCHING DEAD by Ramsey Campbell -- a review

THE SEARCHING DEAD by Ramsey Campbell
Review by Gary Fry
Over 25 years ago Campbell wrote a book called MIDNIGHT SUN, which he now, with typical humility, describes as an “honourable failure”. Would that the rest of us could pen such failures! I know I’m not alone in considering that novel a very fine contribution to the field of cosmic horror, but perhaps we should be happy that the author is never satisfied with his stuff and always aims higher.
In interviews around that time, Campbell claims that “maybe in another 20 years” he’ll have “another go” at scaling the peaks ascended by Lovecraft and Blackwood. Well, he’s done so already in several works – THE DARKEST PART OF THE WOODS (2003) and “The Last Revelation of Gla’aki” (2013), both considerable successes – but when I heard that he’d chosen to write a trilogy of novels focusing exclusively on a Mythos theme, I grew more than a little excited.
And so here we have the first entry in what promises to be Campbell’s most ambitious project yet. I understand that these three books will focus on different stages of their narrator’s life, documenting the decades in which Campbell himself has lived and worked. This opening piece is set in the 1950s, in the author’s native Liverpool, and anyone who’s read a little about Campbell’s youth will realise that quite a bit of this (with significant exceptions; for instance, the narrator’s parents appear rather less fractious than Campbell’s own were) is autobiographical.
Campbell’s post-WWII Liverpool is packed with evocative details, from bomb-damaged downtown property to cinemas in the city centre, from adverts saturating high streets to daily life at a Catholic school. Scenes in which the narrator’s juvenile self attends classes, hangs out with friends, and negotiates an ever-perplexing adult world possess an air of fond nostalgia, something which feels quite new in Campbell’s work. Indeed, the tone of this book put me firmly in mind of King’s IT and other works of that stripe.
But it’s not only the minutiae of ’50s English city life under scrutiny here; Campbell also explores social developments of the era, with much reference to international conflicts, gender politics, the resilience of religion under attack by new sciences, Trade Unions, and much more. This novel, fundamentally the intimate tale of a boy entangled in the activities of his decidedly sinister schoolteacher, has a broader dimension which hints at all the cosmic material which will surely be explored in later volumes.
Such rich, detailed world-building lends the book intricacy and completeness. The narrator’s early life is depicted with merciless attention to the circumstances which mark his development from reticent child to teenage artist. It is here that I believe that Campbell’s autobiographical material becomes most prevalent, with memorably vivid passages concerning how it feels to start out as a writer: the nervousness when revealing new work, the transformative impact of latest literary enthusiasms, even the way writing fiction helps one to understand one’s own life and can even lend one courage (like Burt Lancaster, the star of the piece can never die).
I feel that this is perhaps the book’s most significant theme: the role of fiction, particularly from the 1950s and the ubiquity of cinema, in shaping the way people in the modern age think about themselves and their actions. Campbell’s young characters are constantly borrowing phrases from the films, structuring their lived experience with mimicked behaviours.
Indeed, the more fiction the narrator writes, the more he comes to think of himself and his friends as characters in a story – and so they are. His tales of an intrepid gang become entwined with the narrator’s retrospective account of his youth, to such a degree that the older incarnation inevitably wonders how much he’s recalling in accurate detail and how much he might be elaborating according to fictional conventions and how they patch up incomplete memory.
This is a deep (and yet unobtrusive) strand of the novel, but let me not suggest that the book welshes on its horror material. Campbell’s tale of a young boy becoming involved with the dark shenanigans of a guru-like adult has more than a hint of King’s REVIVAL about it, but while King focuses intertextually more on Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN (despite his prefatory reference to “The Great God Pan”), Campbell’s novel feels more firmly rooted in the world of Machen’s seedy suburban adventure.
Something is amiss at an elderly friend’s house. When this lady suffers a breakdown as a consequence of some species of meddling by the insidious schoolmaster, the narrator’s boyhood self must figure out why and what caused it. This leads him into a sequence of events whose underlying pungency and escalating dread peak in images of hallucinogenic weirdness (a scene in a cinema’s bathroom is particularly fine) and a tantalising vision of imminent cosmic terror.
The narrator, looking back from a hitherto undisclosed future time period, repeatedly claims that the world is over now, but this first novel hints at only a third of the reason how. Its concluding scenes, one of them set under a creepy old church, provide both a fitting ending to this low-key exercise in mounting unease and a mouthwatering taste of what’s surely to come.
Well, that’s the traditional horror narrative, right there. But as I hope I’ve made clear, THE SEARCHING DEAD is about so much more than dark frights. Campbell’s parallel depiction of his narrator’s sensitive youth, particularly the social and existential forces which make him what he’ll become (a reflexive adult author), is tender, true and (in a great many places) painful. Indeed, prior to the unsettling finale, the narrator witnesses something equally disturbing in his personal life, and the way this prompts his literary aspirations, even reorients his religious affiliations, feels both right and real.
It’s a powerful ending to a novel which looks set to become one third of Campbell’s masterpiece: a trilogy about who he is as a man and what he’s always striven to achieve as an author. Bring on BORN TO THE DARK, I say. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I relished every page of THE SEARCHING DEAD.