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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: