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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

THINK YOURSELF LUCKY by Ramsey Campbell -- a review


Review by Gary Fry


Many more years ago than I care to remember, I was interviewed about my thoughts concerning the horror genre and its relevance to the world in which we live today. I can’t remember the exact words I used in my response, but it went something like this:

We live in an increasingly complex world, and I think it’s at least one of horror’s jobs to reflect that. Let’s consider, say, Jekyll and Hyde. Stevenson was writing at a time when social restrictions were becoming crucial to the functioning of the modern state, and people, newly subject to internal monitoring of behaviour, had begun to feel repressed. It’s little surprise, therefore, that this novella found its energy and appeal in such a period of history.

I believe that more recently this duality of identity has been replaced by a multiplicity of selfhood, embedded in a social world in which our personalities can easily transcend their previously limited locations. The Internet, for instance, allows for greater and wider engagement with a vast number of people right across the world. The potential for personal expansion, but also fragmentation, has never been more prevalent, and I guess it’s horror’s role to explore the darker reaches of these new possibilities.

Step forward Ramsey Campbell, and more particularly, his latest novel Think Yourself Lucky. Campbell has, especially in the last ten years or so, been exploring the “way we live now” in a series of novels, novellas and short stories which elucidate the vicissitudes and complications of a society shot through with (among many other issues) political correctness, bastardised language, regular verbal misunderstandings, illiterate thuggery, social-role strain, dogmatic certainty, and – perhaps most importantly here – sublimated personalities.

It’s Campbell’s sternly held conviction that the Internet offers identity options to those who’d otherwise remain on the margins of contemporary life, both voiceless and needful. Now, this may indeed be a positive thing for many hitherto silenced groups, but for those excluded from conventional society for an uncomplicatedly honourable reason – they’re little more than disrespectful, intolerant shits – it leaves them grinning in the dark.

And so here we have Think Yourself Lucky which, on the surface at least, appears to occupy exactly this territory. There’s a killer loose in Liverpool, one who narrates his crimes in the form of a gloating blog available to any and all. However, the twist is that all the victims appear to be linked to another person, the aptly named David Botham (both am – geddit?), who grows increasingly concerned and then desperate as more and more people with whom he engages during his complex everyday life (holding down a job; trying to ensure that his girlfriend does well at hers) come a cropper at the hands of some savage entity.

The nature of this “thing” – who gradually assumes the name Lucky Newless – is brilliantly depicted by Campbell. The first-person prose in the many sections taking the form of blog entries are incredibly unsettling, completely leftfield in terms of their word-choices and descriptive passages (for example, the way a man falling from a roof is described as a bag of litter dropping and its contents breaking the way his skull obviously has; there’s also a vicious section near the end in which a driver is hit along a fast road – the last snatch of dialogue from our killer is almost painfully poetic), and also hilariously funny.

Witness, for instance, the killer’s tendency to name everybody according to some negative characteristic: Mr Bladderblob, Eegore, Blushpuss, et al. This writing grows increasingly threatening and suggestive as the book progresses, until this narrator is rendered almost unbearably disturbing – for example, his / its capacity to commit crimes without being detected by security cameras, passing through immovable barriers like walls and doors, etc. Campbell keeps us guessing about the nature of this thing, throwing in at least one cunning red-herring along the way, and eventually leaves us with no choice but to charge on to the final chapters to discover its actual origin.

Indeed, I can’t think of a Campbell novel with a greater narrative drive. It’s a fast-moving thriller, but far from lacking in depth and nuance. Everything a good novel should have is tautly incorporated: the cast of characters with their oh-so-true idiosyncrasies; un-preachy social commentary concerning the impoverishment of culture (one character seriously claims that grammar is an elite conspiracy to hold back the masses from personal expression; another chap joyfully reveals the plot of his latest novel, failing to realise it’s lifted from a rather more famous source [which was itself lifted from a previous one!] ); the latter-day inadequacy of language as a way of accurately reflecting inner life, becoming instead little more than a consumerist plaything intended to sell more products.

This is real virtuoso stuff, and although Campbell, as always, draws upon a range of strategies and tricks he’s acquired from other dark masters – there’s a lovely M R Jamesian moment when a security guard thinks two people enter a store, but only one has: all runes cast gracefully – he offers quite enough his own, perhaps setting out a stall of techniques which future horror practitioners may well want to “borrow”, just as Campbell has borrowed from his predecessors.

One example is a linguistic trick relating to dialogue, which Campbell first developed (I think) in The Grin of the Dark. This involves having a character speak using conventional punctuation (speech-marks), but then snatching back the comment and stating that it never happened that way at all. Only then does Campbell tell us what was actually said. This tricksy method has the effect of destabilising readers’ grasp of events, of what’s inside or outside the central character’s mind at any one time. Indeed, that’s Campbell’s milieu, his stalker’s territory: the overlapping arenas of both inner and outer life; the aching gaps not only between thought and language, but also between speaker and listener; and the inherent ambiguity of perception.

Which brings me back to the point with which I opened this review: where Stevenson, in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, focused on a horizontal split in the psyche, an irascible id seeking selfish expression in a respectable, superego-governed social realm, Campbell’s conception of duality lays in other areas – quite specifically, in the person’s social interactions in an increasingly un-negotiable world. The “monster” here is not an asocial force, a limbic creature seeking gratification (as in Stevenson’s Freudian conception of the beast within); it’s actually a censored aspect of consciousness pressed into retreat on the basis of newly established cultural codes.

Let’s be precise here: Campbell is not writing about a world which has always been difficult to navigate (and yes, it has; hell, getting up and going to work are heroic enough); he’s writing about our modern world, which is even more difficult to deal with, with all its Frugo-decreed mores and lawyer-imposed rules. And this is why I believe that Campbell’s novel is such an important and worthy contribution to the horror genre, ably demonstrating (and then some) its capacity to address new forms of life and offer readers a firmer grasp on them.

The book’s flyleaf reads: “Think Yourself Lucky finds new demons online. But perhaps they are ourselves…” That’s true, for sure, but Campbell does himself a disservice here. Without the careful and ruthless depiction of a society corroded by recently developed dehumanising norms, his monster wouldn’t have the power it has; indeed, it wouldn’t exist in any original sense. It would be just another rendition of Stevenson’s animal Mr Hyde, and in the early Twentieth First Century, who needs that? As it stands, however, Campbell’s creature may well become the first archetypal entity of its kind, one talked about in the future, when reflecting on e-culture, the way we now discuss honourably Victorian Henry and his considerably darker brother Edward.

If I had one problem with any aspect of the book, it was the ostensible source of the thing called Lucky Newless. I can’t say much more without giving away an important plot detail, but I did feel that Stephens King and Volk had, in other high profile work, done something similar. Now, that’s not a fault as such, but in terms of Campbell’s often beguiling inventiveness, it just felt a little short of the achievements of the rest of the novel. As I suggest, this is a relatively minor matter, but I feel, having praised this book so highly and with absolutely sincerity, it would be disingenuous of me not to mention it.

In short, I loved Think Yourself Lucky, believing it to be Campbell’s most artful statement to date on the perils of the Internet and one I found as compelling to read as anything I’ve ever read by the man: terse, punchy, true, essential, and genuinely nasty. And that mood-shifting last chapter drives the points bone-deep. You’ll wish it was satire, but dear God, it’s not.

Finally, on a more peripheral matter, I have to say that the book’s artwork is magnificent. Unlike almost every other cover he’s ever had in such a long, distinguished career, I now realise that – with a little help from Peter Von Sholly – Campbell’s responsible for that, too. Check it out below, and then buy the book. Just don’t stop at any blogs on your way over there; you never know what secret wish you might discover, let alone realise you ever had.


  1. Excellent review Gary, as you rightly say, the cover is amazing. Can't wait to start reading my copy now.

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