For the Rest of Their Lives

by Arthur B

Arthur reviews Obsession by Ramsey Campbell.
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In the afterword to my copy of Obsession Ramsey Campbell talks about how the publishing industry packages horror novels, often inappropriately. While he has no problem with the change of the title from his original idea of For the Rest of Their Lives, he does complain a little about the cover art - what you see to the right is the only cover image I could find which bears any relevance to the actual story - as well as the promotion of the book as a violent gorefest, which it truly isn't.

Obsession is, instead, an example of precisely the sort of literary horror fiction which we are meant to believe disappeared in the early part of the 20th Century, and which needs to be published in the Horror Masterworks line - if only some publisher would be farsighted enough to publish such a thing (but I've already ranted enough on Ferretbrain about that topic). In the opening chapters of the book, four school friends suffer various indignities and miseries in a closed-minded seaside town in East Anglia in the 1950s. One of them, an avid reader of Weird Tales (perhaps a nod to Campbell's literary roots), receives a weird message in the mail, giving a post office box address in London and a cryptic note suggesting that those who write to the box may have their wishes granted. Replying to the advert, the kid receives four contracts and a sheet of instructions - the four friends have to write their wishes on the paper and sign it, and the price is something that they do not value "but may regain".

Amazingly, the price isn't their soul. Once the wishes are granted (occasionally in nasty and unexpected ways) we cut to the present day (the mid-1980s). After twenty-five years the four friends have drifted apart, grown and changed, to the point where they now value the very things they are about to lose - the teenage property-is-theft socialist has become an estate agent in his father's firm, for example. A series of escalatingly terrifying events soon rob the pals of these things which are now precious to them - but the things they may have to do to regain them may be worse.

Campbell's especially good at writing low-key psychological horror where there's little you can confidently point to and say "that's supernatural", but where there's nonetheless a constant air of abstract, occult menace looming over events. This book is no different - only Peter Priest, the kid who received the instructions in the first place, ever sees anything supernatural, and he might just be going insane. On the other hand, there are little features and coincidences that seem to suggest the involvement of powerful forces behind the scenes - strange things seem to happen at 3 AM, people will occasionally catch glimpses of the visions Peter is suffering from, and the mother of one of the protagonists may be going schizophrenic or might be being plagued by unseen entities. Campbell manages to weave numerous interesting subplots into this slim, 280 page book (a story which Stephen King would have used up 700 pages of small type to tell), from estate agent politics to a drug-smuggling ring, but everything is deeply relevant to the central plot and nothing seems extraneous; I honestly can't identify a single scene in this book which isn't absolutely necessary to the overall picture.

Numerous recurring Campbell themes are deployed to excellent effect here. The madness of one of the protagonist's mothers may be Campbell drawing on his own experience of his mother sliding into schizophrenia. The use of coastlines as a boundary between different realms, where strange things may arrive from stranger shores (also seen in Campbell's excellent short story The Voice of the Beach), is used to good effect here. He even manages to dabble in the odd religious theme without looking dumb and juvenile and unsophisticated, a distinction few genre authors can claim.

Ramsey Campbell, then as now, is a horror author and proud of it: in the afterword he laughs at reviewers who complain about him being "pigeonholed" as a horror writer, since that's pretty much exclusively what he writes; the true injustice is the assumption that "literary horror" is necessarily a contradiction in terms. Horror publishers have much to blame for this state of affairs (and the decline of silly, fun non-literary horror is pretty concerning too). Perhaps the greatest injustice is that Campbell's books are so very rare on British bookshelves; he's absolutely mandatory reading. My quest to find decent horror fiction continues.
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