THE WAY OF THE WORM: an interview with Ramsey Campbell conducted by Gary Fry
Gary: It’s two years since THE SEARCHING DEAD was released, and a year since BORN TO THE DARK. Now we have THE WAY OF THE WORM, the final entry in your Daoloth trilogy, which I’ve just had the pleasure to review [LINK]. It strikes me that readers new to the series now have an opportunity to read the series from start to end without breaks. Is that the way you feel it might be best enjoyed?
Ramsey: I do, even though it wasn’t written quite that way – new short stories intervened between each pair of volumes. I found that each later volume gained energy from what went before, and returning to the characters to find how they’d developed was an inspiration in itself. I’d written novels before where characters age decades during the narrative – Obsession and Thieving Fear, for instance – but coming back to them after a few months away from this particular narrative is rather like meeting old friends after a while and seeing they’d changed. I may have said elsewhere that the only reason to write a trilogy is that there’s a good reason for the narrative to take that form, and I think this trilogy has one if not several. All this said, I know you read the books as they appeared, so I’d be interested to hear which approach to reading them you feel is better.
Gary: I’ve yet to reread them all consecutively (though I do plan to), and I didn’t reread the preceding volume before reviewing the next. That’s because events of the previous book remained vivid in my mind. Still, as your horror thrives on accumulative suggestion, I think reading the three in one go would be a great experience and I envy anyone having that opportunity. Let’s turn to another matter. The books, I feel, reflect your concerns about people not questioning belief systems, the temptation to seek scapegoats for ills, and the vulnerability of children. I know you say that you don’t have themes consciously in mind while writing fiction, but on this occasion did you plan to incorporate these issues?
Ramsey: I don’t believe so. If anything my approach grows ever more instinctive. I think the themes come naturally from telling this story about these characters in this situation, and in the first two volumes trying to be true to the period as well (which inevitably involves selection of detail, a political and thematic act in itself, however inadvertent those nuances may be).
Gary: Okay, back to the action. I’ve mentioned in my review the gripping sequence in which our heroes are menaced by an otherworldly entity quite unlike many that appear in your work – that is, it’s described in full detail rather than (as is your common practice) hinted at. As many horrors lose power with exposure, did you worry about writing this extensive set piece (which works superbly, by the way)?
Ramsey: Not so much worry as hope it would work. Throughout my career I’ve occasionally set myself the task of doing without some element on which I tend to depend in my writing. Even as early as The Inhabitant of the Lake I wrote “The Will of Stanley Brooke”, which is told wholly in dialogue and neutral prose, avoiding all atmospheric detail and language (a failed experiment, but my first). The scene in Worm wasn’t so consciously planned – it just had to come out that way. Extended set pieces do take time to write – several days of selecting language as carefully as I can.
Gary: We’ll come to the staggering finale in a moment, but first I wanted to ask about Dominic’s character in this novel. He represents an increasing tendency in your short stories, and certainly in Thirteen Days by Sunset Beach, to tackle the vicissitudes of older age. Throughout your career, you’ve examined horrors implicit at all stages of life – from childhood to early and mid adulthood. In terms of dark fiction’s capacity to explore such issues, how do those of later years differ (if at all)?
Ramsey: I suppose in terms of experience rather than (or in addition to) observation and imagination. After all, back in the seventies I wrote “The Sneering” from the viewpoint of an oldster, and not much later “Looking Out” through the eyes of another. Even earlier than that – 1967, in fact – I wrote “The Scar” around a family unit of the kind I’d never belonged to but had observed (composed of friends of mine). One thing I think this book does is acknowledge that in a sense these inventions, while I think they’re pretty truthful and authentic, may not quite align with the real thing when you get to it yourself.
Sorry! Now I see I’ve misread your question. I hadn’t fully appreciated how much ageing has shaped quite a lot of my recent stuff until I saw how many of the tales in Holes for Faces dealt with it. I’d say I’m still dealing with themes that have often concerned me – not just here but in Thirteen Days by Sunset Beach – but perhaps they’ve become more immediately personal.
Gary: I’ve said before that I find a lot of your recent fiction moving (certainly including the opening chapters of Worm), and I wonder whether it’s consideration of such issues that is the reason. Let’s talk a bit about the underlying ideas of the trilogy. Reading it feels like observing a consensual social reality being inexorably disintegrated. Indeed, Daoloth is cited as the harbinger of such a transformation. Does this stuff come from experience? Abstruse readings? Speculative imagination?
Ramsey: I’d say it comes from looking around me. Mind you, you could say it comes of being an old sod who sees the world in which he grew up being inevitably transformed, just as every one of us will or has done. But I do feel that change has become so rapid in this century (or in my experience of it) that it’s virtually impossible to keep up with it all and with its implications. I believe the most profound effect of the internet may be to transform human consciousness, by adding to it and releasing its darker elements. I suspect some of this underlies the book.
Gary: I wrote an essay on this aspect of your work – the transcendence of embodiment – using THINK YOURSELF LUCKY as its focus. Readers interested in analyses of your stuff might check out Volume 1 of THINKING HORROR. Anyway, let’s focus on that finale – the culmination of the trilogy. It’s one of the finest passages of horror fiction I’ve read. Without giving stuff away, how did you go about tackling it? I’m particularly interested in learning at what stage of writing the three novels you knew how things would end, and how many drafts it took to get this so pitch-perfect?
Ramsey: I knew from early on that the finale would have to be apocalyptic, but beyond that I had little idea until I was almost there – for instance, the business with the squatters in Starview Tower didn’t suggest itself until I was very close to writing the scene. The first draft of the chapter took five days to write, and I suspect the rewrite took about the same. These days my rewrites are intensive – whereas I used to salvage as much of a first draft as I could (and lord knows it shows), now I set about improving it in every way I can. Mind you, with a scene like that I do my best to find the best words in the first version, and so this one may not have needed very much rewriting.
Gary: I think the best cosmic horror fiction offers readers a sense of having been in communion with some otherness, and the literary trick you pull at the end – one that plays upon the first-person narrative of the trilogy – is a triumph. Readers are in for a real treat. But I’ll say no more. Let me just ask how you, looking back, feel about the trilogy. If you were doing another, would you adopt a different approach? Do you think the three books might ever be published as a standalone volume? Any other thoughts?
Ramsey: To be honest, I can’t imagine writing another trilogy, simply because I’ve no idea among my undeveloped notions that would require it (and so I’ve no basis on which to speculate about how I would approach it). A single-volume edition sometime – well, why not, if anybody feels the need. I’m quite happy with the trilogy just now, but who knows how long that euphoria will last. It was the latest of my attempts to revisit my Brichester Mythos in the hope of improving on my first published book. I do think the trilogy manages to touch upon the cosmic while retaining some sense of the human and not compromising either of them.
Gary: Yes, I agree with that assessment. In my review, I suggest that the ending emphasises that human aspect you’ve dramatized so well throughout the trilogy. Okay, I guess that only leaves me to ask which of the undeveloped notions you’ve written up next – to wit, can you tell us briefly what your next novel, The Wise Friend, is about?
Ramsey: Jenny sees it as a companion piece to The Kind Folk. After his aunt’s death the protagonist and his teenage son start visiting the sites that apparently helped to produce her celebrated paintings, in which surrealism often seems to touch on the occult. Soon the father recoils from the uncanniness they encounter on their journey, but too late. They’ve already roused a presence, and the son continues deeper into the ominously magical…
Gary: I look forward to that the way I do all your work. Here’s to much, much more of it. Thank for sharing your thoughts on the trilogy, Ramsey. I hope, now all three novels are available, readers will devour the story of Dominic’s lifelong struggle against the Nobles – it’s certainly an experience, the kind only literature can deliver.