When Tourists Visit Goatswood...

by Arthur B

Enjoying a particularly good Ramsey Campbell tribute anthology.
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Made In Goatswood, published by Chaosium in 1995 and edited by Scott David Aniolowski, is much like Aniolowski’s later collection Singers of Strange Songs. Like that volume, it’s a tribute anthology of short stories by various authors honouring a significant figure in recent Lovecraftian writing; whereas Singers was a tribute to the highly hit-or-miss-prone Brian Lumley, Made In Goatswood is dedicated to the outright excellent Ramsey Campbell, and was compiled to celebrate his Guest of Honour Appearance at NecronomiCon 1995.

In some respects, Campbell made it a bit easier than Lumley for later hands to produce an anthology that hangs together thematically. Like Lumley, he'd invented his own swathe of Lovecraft-inspired horrors, but in addition to that he'd also invented his own geography of horror - a fictional region of the Severn Valley around the imaginary city of Brichester, a place similar enough to his Liverpool stamping grounds that he could write about it vividly but distant enough from reality to allow him to invent local histories of Roman occupation and ancient cults to suit the needs of his stories. Thus, all the stories here are set within the Severn Valley setting, which instantly offers a range of ties to Campbell's body of Lovecraftian work as summed up in Cold Print

The anthology kicks off with A.A. Attanasio’s A Priestess of Nodens, in which a Wiccan coven is visited and transformed by the titular priestess, is more of a New Age fantasy than horror - though since that’s the sort of material Attanasio specialises in this is both unsurprising and probably plays to Attansio’s strengths as an author. There’s some nicely subtle callbacks to Lovecraft’s The Strange High House In the Mist, the story in which Nodens appears most prominently in Lovecraft’s canon; for instance, a passing reference to a coastal tower being a Roman-era shrine to him might be intended to suggest a plausible reason why the Strange High House had the Nodens connection in the Lovecraft original.

Ghost Lake by Donald Burleson is basically a sub-Lovecraftian pastiche of a sub-Lovecraftian pastiche (Campbell’s original The Inhabitant of the Lake), but it's more competently executed than many examples of the form and the main supernatural manifestation is quite creative. Several other stories seem to be direct sequels or rehashes of Campbell material; Kevin A. Ross’s The Music of the Spheres is basically a riff on Campbell’s astronomical horror The Tugging with more actual astronomers. Random Access by Michael G. Szymanski riffs The Insects From Shaggai but relies a little too much on a friendly occultist showing up with an explanation and a secret weapon, with the result that the resolution is a little too neat and tidy for my liking (inappropriately so for a Campbell anthology, I thought).

Somewhat more interesting - though also a bit more annoying is The Second Effort by John Tynes, an exercise in postmodernism in the form of a follow-up to Cold Print which indirectly highlights the postmodern aspects of that story. As clever as this is, it’s a bit too clever, with the protagonist being a character who is very satisfied in his own cleverness and the narration leaning a bit too closely to Tynes getting overly smug about his own cleverness too; as a result the story’s right on the borderline between being annoyingly glib and actually good.

Along with stories which rehash Campbell’s horrors, we also have stories which try their hand at following his actual techniques. In Fred Behrendt’s Beauty the protagonist comes back to Brichester after ten years away for a school reunion, and must face up to the consequences of a childhood friend’s death that has cast a long shadow over him, his wife, and his friend’s girlfriend. It’s a solid story which could almost have been written by Campbell himself, particularly in the way Behrendt sets up this slow drip of disquieting information which keeps prompting us to reassess the protagonist every time we learn a new fact about their past. More character dissection is provided in Growing Pains by Richard Watts, in which a loutish homophobe fails to cope with his sublimated homosexual desires and ends up getting impregnated by a woman; this reads like attempt at social commentary a la The Face That Must Die, but much clumsier.

Cross My Heart, Hope To Die by J. Todd Kingrea is a deliciously creepy story which works on the premise “what if a group of ordinary schoolboys - with all the viciousness they are capable of - became cultists of an Old One?” It feels authentically Campbellian in part because of its believable characterisation, in part because of its willingness to pull absolutely no punches when it’s time to get nasty. Similarly, The Queen by Diane Sammarco is an “aliens disguised as humans" story, but manages to overcome the cliched nature of this premise through sheer viciousness when it comes to how it unpacks this twist and the human response, and The Awakening by Gary Sumpter is a fairly straightforward “someone moves into a new home and there's something nasty on the grounds" story, but it's competently executed and has a deliciously nasty ending. (The Queen is also notable for the protagonist being a woman who works at a Victorian orphanage, which is a bit outside of the usual range of protagonists in Lovecraftian fiction.)

Only one story in the collection, to my eye, really succeeds to capture Campbell’s sense of humour. The Undercliffe Sentences by Peter Cannon is a tongue-in-cheek sequel to The Franklyn Paragraphs, which has author Carl Dreadstone (this name being a pseudonym used by Campbell in the past) attending a Brichester fantasy convention (whilst Jay Ramsey, another Campbell pseudonym who’d been their first choice as guest, heads to Hollywood to sign a movie deal - and, presumably, whilst Ramsey Campbell himself was attending NecronomiCon 1995 as guest of honour) and getting caught up in the literary aftershock of the original story. Over the course of the tale Cannon walks the same tightrope that Campbell regularly does between incorporating enough wry humour to prompt a smile without allowing the comedy to suffocate the climactic horror.

One of my favourite stories in the collection is Free the Old Ones by CJ Henderson: “Old Ones about to return” stories are common, but Henderson makes this one interesting for two reasons. The first is that he stuffs the protagonist’s investigation with references to classic Campbell stories, so it's a very Campbell-focused apocalypse. The second is that it might not be the apocalypse - just the protagonist and the allies he picks up turning to increasingly extreme and lawless and violent means of suppressing freedom of religion. (Of course, Lovecraft noted that an embrace of violence among humanity would presage the return of the Old Ones…)

Another favourite of mine is Penelope Love’s Unseen, in which an archaeological dig in the Severn Valley area is overshadowed by a mysterious disappearance - with a delicious hint at the end of what may have happened to the victims. In its subtlety, its callbacks to ancient Roman practices, and its suggestions of even older truths beneath the Roman layer, it has an has an almost Machen-esque quality to it without deliberately pastiching Machen’s style.

Robert M. Price deploys a very similar “archaeological dig of a site sacred to Byatis” idea in The Beard of Byatis. In cosmology and philosophy it’s an essentially Derlethian story - complete with an Elder Sign as a deus ex machina. For the most part I found it harmlessly entertaining, except I’m not keen on the slightly regressive theme of a pious traditionalist priest overcoming an evil disguised as a rationalist college professor. Another story for the “harmless fluff except for this one theme” category is Keith Herber’s Fortunes, a brief yarn of the “fortune teller’s predictions are creepily accurate" variety; it’s a decent enough example of that old chestnut, but it leans a little too heavily on the “foreigner = creepy" trope for my liking.

My least favourite story in the collection is I Dream of Wires by Scott David Aniolowski himself; it’s basically a playful attempt by Scott to see how many Gary Numan references he can stuff into one story - no matter how much this is to the detriment of its flow. Apparently he sought Numan’s permission to do this, which is nice, but I feel like a) if you are writing a story for a tribute anthology you should primarily concentrate on the person the anthology is paying tribute to, not a completely different person you also want to pay tribute to, and b) the story would not have made the cut had someone other than Aniolowski been editing the anthology. (Having characters randomly quote Numan song lyrics at the protagonist is a schtick which gets old really fast.)

Another story which largely seems to consist of the author doing his own thing without really having much of an eye on the theme of the anthology, though more successfully this time, is The Turret by Richard A. Lupoff, in which an American tech wizard sent to fix a computer system that performs an undefined function at an institute with an undefined purpose becomes fascinated with a tower glimpsed in the local landscape. Fun cosmic visions ensue, but the “mystery computer error" plot which kicks things off is left entirely unresolved, which is rather unsatisfying.

The collection culminates in The Horror Under Warrendown by Ramsey Campbell himself. This story of a gruesome sort of communion demonstrates that Campbell, even when he’s knocking out something quick for fun, is still ahead of the rest of the pack; most of the pastiche artists are left in the dust and only the stories by Kingrea, Sammarco, Henderson and Love have any hope of competing in the same division. That doesn’t mean the collection is poor - in fact, I’d say it’s hit-to-miss ratio is pretty good - just that Campbell is really very, very good at this.

As usual with multi-author anthologies, I like to cap things off with a quick check of the Boy’s Club-o-meter:

Number of authors with stories in the anthology: 18
Number of said authors who are male: 16
Boy's Club-o-meter rating: 88.9%

Hmm, that’s pretty high - which makes Aniolowski’s frothing about the diversity of the authors represented in the book in the introduction seem pretty silly in retrospect. Still, that aside this is one of the better Mythos anthologies out there, mostly because the writers here are writing with Campbell’s work in mind, and if you’re trying to follow in his footsteps you’re probably going to be exhibiting better habits than, say, someone trying to do the whole August Derleth thing.

To illustrate the dangers of riffing on Campbell's monsters rather than taking lessons from Campbell's style, let's take a mini look at another anthology in a similar but crucially different vein. In recent years Dark Regions Press has put out a more recent tribute volume, The Children of Gla’aki. Edited by Brian M. Sammons and Glynn Owen Barrass, this is a more tightly restricted Campbell tribute volume, since all the stories relate to Gla’aki - an entity invented by Campbell early in his career in The Inhabitant of the Lake and later revisited in The Last Revelation of Glaaki. The anthology kicks off with the original Inhabitant of the Lake, and it’s very evident even if you didn’t check the copyright page that we are dealing here with a very early work by Campbell. He’s clearly working his way towards a distinctive style and away from stiff Lovecraftian prose, but he hadn’t got there yet; but hadn't yet developed the subtlety he'd later be known for. Gla’aki’s odd cult and offer of immortality with a catch more interesting than Gla’aki himself.

Country Mouse, City Mouse by Nick Mamatas tries to take a political angle by tying Gla’aki into social inequality and the 2011 London riots - but, alas, falls over by vastly overestimating the extent and the ferocity of them, exposing Mamatas as lacking direct knowledge of his subject matter and over-reliant on the hyperbolic Yankerdoodle media for his international news. His depiction of Tottenham resembles a crude cartoon assembled from half an hour Googling.

Tribute Band by John Goodrich riffs on Campbell’s penchant for really absurd band names in his early stories by telling the story of a tribute band dedicated to them. Sound idea, but bizarrely I couldn't get into it - nothing I can put my finger on, frustratingly, but it didn't quite have the ring of quality to me. Likewise, In Search of Lake Monsters by Robert M. Price doesn't quite have the ring of plausibility to me - it requires an awful lot of bystanders to behave very strangely and unquestioningly to work.

Flipping about the rest of the book I find that I just can't get on with it. The insistence of having each story focus on Gla’aki seems to have been fatal - it means the stories here, rather than paying tribute to Campbell’s style and overall approach and broader ideas, are a bunch of second-tier rehashes of what was always, in the end, a bit of a second-tier Campbell story. I didn't finish this one.
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