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Sunday, July 21, 2013

THE LAST REVELATION OF GLA’AKI by Ramsey Campbell ... review by Gary Fry


Review by Gary Fry

There’s no delight the equal of dread, Clive Barker once suggested, and he’s not far wrong. But I’d like to offer a rival for this distinction: the prose of Ramsey Campbell’s more recent work.

I read this novella in three sittings but sorely wish it could have been just one (the usual necessities of life got in the way: work, sleep, errands, etc). It strikes me that the novella is the perfect form for horror fiction, allowing authors space in which to develop their ideas while not losing readers’ attention between too many reading periods. I think this point is especially relevant to Campbell’s work, which relies on a steady, oblique accumulation of hints and suggestions that build up in the mind, so that you almost feel as if it’s you putting the pieces together and not the author at all. That makes his fiction quite unique; it’s a hugely collaborative effort and presumably different for each reader.

It’s surprising, then, that Gla’aki is only Campbell’s second novella (following the masterful Needing Ghosts, back when we were all hale and hearty). As much as I’ve enjoyed his latest novels, which rely upon a similar sustained development of effects and imagery, a stacking up of allusive and elusive material, I think it works most potently here. Gla’aki involves a guy – Fairman – visiting a seaside town to acquire a number of occult books for the university library for which he works. And that’s all you need to know about the plot, because the rest of the book chronicles him going about collecting all nine volumes, one by one, from eminent members of the community.

Now, this is quite a trick to pull off. The potential for contrivances and strained motivation is vast. But Campbell manages to make it all convincing by two artful methods: eccentric comedy, and a feeling that the visit is decidedly dreamlike, as if the town is a strange new place occupied by not-quite-real denizens. The events depicted are both highly stylised and psychologically real. Campbell describes his latter-day stuff as “the comedy of paranoia”, and by that, I take him to mean that the fundamentally ambiguous nature of everyday experience is sharpened, heightened, rendered edgy and threatening. So a character commonly perceives what seems most alarming, even though post-instinctive interpretations of such events often generate perfectly sensible explanations. Campbell’s characters constantly practice self-deception, and there’s always a Jamesian complicity between author and reader that undercuts the poor buggers’ desperately edited realities.

Campbell has been playing around with this kind of material of years, particularly in terms of visual phenomena, where things seen in dark doorways or at a hazy distance are dismissed as nothing like the worst thing imaginable for a character. This demonstrates a keen understanding of the vagaries of the subconscious mind, which is over-layered by a rational consciousness that does much interpretive work to ensure survival without terror. Such an approach creates a dreamlike atmosphere, with reality a tenuous mask concealing things that squirm and wriggle, that make little logical sense (unless it’s psychological, of course).

More recently, I’ve detected a more rigorous trend in Campbell, and this relates to misheard speech, the ambiguity of language, the lack of firm meaning inherent in what we all say to each other. Jokes thrive on this process, do they not? On misheard words and ensuing misunderstandings? A punch-line shatters tension arising from these difficulties, allowing the audience to perceive what was truly going on. And what is suggestive horror fiction – at least Campbell’s variety, with all its teasing bait and sinuous coquettishness – but a lengthy joke? It builds and builds tension until the final reveal, in this case a remarkable episode where all of Fairman’s misperceived and rationalised elements are brought together in a scene that confirms every collaborative nudge-nudge-wink-wink between author and reader. So it goes with a clever comedian and his / her unwitting yet highly engaged audience.

Of course such an inherently uncertain rootedness in the world – overly rationalised versions of truly threatening reality – is symptomatic of people rather less than “mentally healthy”, and I believe few authors are better at conveying this experience – this sense of occupying a fundamentally unstable world – than Campbell.

This default position, this authorial base-note, gives Campbell’s work a new dimension in terms of cosmic fiction, whose inviolable premise is basically that our world is profoundly vulnerable in a profoundly indifferent universe. Well, add to that characters who are profoundly vulnerable in a profoundly vulnerable world in a profoundly indifferent universe, and what do you have? An additional layer of alienation that, I believe, the “characterless” work of Lovecraft lacks.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m not about to give Lovecraft a kick-in here; I’m hardly qualified to do so. But I’d argue that with a complex psychological component, honed during years of writing non-cosmic fiction (and even crime), Campbell brings something to the cosmic tale of terror that may be lacking in the old master. It is true that Lovecraft’s work may benefit from its ostensible indifference to conventional character development – that is, that this approach enhances the dehumanised aspects of the worldview. But Campbell doesn’t come at it this way: his characters are stylised and yet realist, as “on the edge” as the events he depicts.

In Gla’aki, we have a loner, a chosen one, a childless guy driven by his passion for solitary pursuits and arcane interests. He’s slightly “under the thumb” and ever mindful of his absent girlfriend’s attitudes to daily life. He won’t even use the bathroom without making a noise to overrule the sounds of his private ablutions. He’s basically a man removed from reality, slightly obsessive (who else would go through the rigmarole of acquiring each book, each book, each book?), dogmatic in his purpose, and sensitive enough to dream about the material he doggedly consumes as a matter of intellectual – and maybe even spiritual – curiosity.

Hence the power of the imagery, the surreal episodes and the many slapstick engagements with the villagers. It’s as much character-based as it is decreed-by-event (as might be the case in Lovecraft’s ultra-serious, investigative narratives, which certainly possess a fundamentally different power). By introducing this level of personal interaction, Campbell achieves something very different from the master to whom he owes so much. In this sense, it seems pointless to compare him to Lovecraft; that’d be like comparing Tchaikovsky to Puccini. All I personally claim is that such a different approach achieves something more-than Lovecraft in one sense, and less-than him in another. (He’s not alone here; the tales of TED Klein spring immediately to mind.)

In truth, I found the narrative tone and effect of Gla’aki closer to Blackwood, especially his similarly hypnotic novella of an “outsider venturing into a weird village”, Ancient Sorceries. And I’d make a very favourable comparison to that tale, too. In fact, I’d claim that the intensity of Campbell’s prose, its consistency of poetic vocabulary and ruthless internal logic, is superior to Blackwood’s rhythmic, articulate, and yet occasionally staid phrasing (I often have the feeling that Blackwood wrote quickly and that Campbell writes slowly; make of that what you will).

A few final points: I particularly liked the fact that, as in the Blackwood tale (except for its “framing” passages involving John Silence), the narrative of Gla’aki had no breaks. This lent the piece a perpetual motion it was hard to break free from; it was like compound interest (the most powerful force in the universe, as Einstein said), a relentless massing of effect.

I think the cover was great and gaudy and fully in the tradition of this kind of fiction. However, as stated above, I believe the true strength of Campbell’s work lies in its suggestiveness, in how each reader must work with the author to produce their own version of the fiction. And – MINOR SPOILER HERE, FOLKS!!! – I wonder how much that brilliantly imagined thing on the front dictates visual interpretation near the end of the piece. It certainly did for me, but not in any lamentable way (you know, like going to see Psycho and someone telling you beforehand about the skeleton in the cellar).

I’m aware that Campbell was reworking strands of a number of earlier pieces of fiction here, with the repeated meal-eating conceit having played out previously in a tale called ‘Raised by the Moon’. I’m also aware that one of the author’s greatest fears is finding himself repeating himself. But in my modest view, he should rest assured on this matter. The Last Revelation of Gla’aki is another master-class in “how to do it,” a carefully orchestrated collection of literary techniques Campbell has been developing over 50 years. I watched a recording of Campbell talking about the novella recently, and he said it’s essentially “another go” at a tale he wrote as a lad, “The Inhabitant of the Lake”. Read both pieces side by side and see how far he’s come. It’s a journey worthy of an elder God.

Posh version here: http://www.pspublishing.co.uk/the-last-revelation-of-glaaki-signed-jhc-by-ramsey-campbell-1771-p.asp

Economy edition here: http://www.pspublishing.co.uk/the-last-revelation-of-glaaki-hc-by-ramsey-campbell-1770-p.asp


  1. No: Keith says-

    Excellent review! I am 50 pages in and fully captivated by the true master of the macabre.