Ramsey Campbell's Arkham House Collections

by Arthur B

Arthur's been binging on Ramsey Campbell lately. Here's the first fruits of that.
Regular readers may have noticed that ever since I picked up Obsession I've been a bit keen on Ramsey Campbell's writing. In fact, after I read The Overnight and The Grin of the Dark I've been on a massive binge. It's not often that I come across authors whose work I can just wolf down without getting sick of them, and Campbell is the only such author I can think of who works in the horror genre. Rather than flood Ferretbrain with Campbell reviews, I've decided to review his books in big chunks - and what better way to start than with the anthologies that kick-started his career?

Campbell owed his big break to Arkham House, the small horror publisher set up by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei in order to preserve the work of H.P. Lovecraft, and who published his first three anthologies of short stories; thirty years after he first contacted them, they also released a fourth anthology, a retrospective of his entire career; these four books are arguably Campbell's most important work, since the earlier ones made his name and helped him hone his craft, while Alone With the Horrors is the most comprehensive career-wide compilation to date. Demons By Daylight and The Height of the Scream are widely available second-hand, and Alone In the Horrors was reprinted recently by Tor; The Inhabitant of the Lake and Other Unwelcome Tenants is quite rare these days, but all the stories from it were reprinted (in the original order) along with many other Lovecraft-inspired stories in Cold Print, which technically wasn't an Arkham House publication, but since that's the form most people are going to be able to obtain The Inhabitant of the Lake in that's the one I'll be reviewing instead.

Cold Print/The Inhabitant of the Lake

H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos is arguably one of the first examples of the "shared world" in fantasy and science fiction (the only predecessor I can think of are the Bronte sisters' juvenile tales of Angria and Gondal, and as far as I can tell those weren't intended for publication); Lovecraft actively encouraged other people to steal ideas, entities, and concepts from his stories during his lifetime, and many authors have continued to do so up to the present day. A lot of this material represents the sort of thing that I would feel justified in calling "Lovecraft fanfic", in that the intent of the writer isn't so much to create anything new and original, or to experiment with the basic ideas behind the Mythos, or cultivate their own style, so much as it is to pay tribute to Lovecraft by trying to write precisely the same sort of story that he would. As Campbell himself has pointed out, much-to-all of this material falls short of the mark, not least because such writers attempt to directly imitate Lovecraft's prose style and story structures without a clear understanding of why Lovecraft wrote in the manner he did about his chosen subjects. Unfortunately, the most obvious and easily-imitated aspects of Lovecraft's style - the excessive outpouring of archaic adjectives, and the utter lack of characterisation and dialogue - are also the weakest, whereas Lovecraft's actual strengths - his sense of pacing, the fine balance he treads between concealing the horrors and confronting the reader with a startling image, and his fertile imagination - are not so easily learned. It's notable that, with a couple of exceptions, most of the peers with whom HPL corresponded with in his lifetime didn't really try to write Mythos stories with Lovecraftian prose so much as they adapted the Mythos to their own style - you'd never mistake a Robert E. Howard story for a Clark Ashton Smith or a Fritz Leiber - and Lovecraft himself found much of his own prose deeply dissatisfying, often bemoaning his failure to emerge from the shadow of Poe or Lord Dunsany.

Which is not to say that it's impossible to write a good Cthulhu Mythos story, just that it's almost impossible to write a good one if you are trying to ape Lovecraft's prose whilst doing so. However, a few authors - such as T.E.D. Klein, Stephen King, Thomas Ligotti, Mark Samuels, and of course Ramsey Campbell - have managed to produce Mythos stories which are unmistakably theirs, but at the same time deal with undeniably Lovecraftian themes, simply by virtue of developing their own writing style which they are comfortable with rather than stiffly imitating Lovecraft's habits, and by engaging with and developing the essential themes of Mythos fiction on their own terms instead of parroting Lovecraft's take on them. I'm going to be insanely pretentious here and invent the term "peerfic" for this sort of fiction; whereas in fanfic the aim tends to be to present something that is as stylistically close to the original source material as possible (telling a fanfic author that their Snape/McGonagall slash fiction could have been written by Rowling herself would, in many circles, be high praised), peerfic is interesting because it relies less on stylistic similarities provoking nostalgia for the source material and more oncoming up with innovative new twists on the themes established by the original author. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead would never in a million years be mistaken for a lost Shakespeare play, and it wouldn't be improved by being written in iambic pentameter, but at the same time it couldn't exist without Hamlet - not just because it swipes the characters and plot from Hamlet, but because it also engages with the ideas that Shakespeare set forth in the original play.

Ramsey Campbell is a former Lovecraft fanfic author who moved into writing Lovecraft peerfic at an early stage of his career, at which point the focus of his writing shifted to writing entirely original work, with the occasional revisit of his old Lovecraftian haunts to pay tribute to the old nutjob of Providence. By far the best way to explore this side of Campbell's work is picking up Cold Print - preferably the expanded edition that was first published in 1993 - which collects much of his Mythos output from 1962 to 1985, including the entirety of his debut compilation of short stories, The Inhabitant of the Lake and Other Unwelcome Tenants, as well as a short foreword and introduction to Lovecraft by Campbell.

Of the latter, the foreword is by far the more interesting, as Campbell explains how as an enthused teenager he sent some of his early offerings to August Derleth, co-founder of Arkham House. Personally, I don't think much of Derleth's own abilities as a writer - his Mythos efforts strike me as falling into the "fanfic" category, and it's not even good fanfic, and his various introductions to the Mythos (in particular the benign Elder Gods) betray a wholesale failure to get the point. On the other hand, I think the horror genre owes him a great deal for his work as an editor; as well as establishing Arkham House, and thus doing a great deal to keep the likes of Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, and others in print, he also gave Campbell his big break, and therefore arguably helped save the future of the horror genre as well as preserving its past. Derleth encouraged Campbell to rewrite his stories, urging him in particular not to set them in the over-used fictional locales invented by Lovecraft such as Arkham and Dunwich and Miskatonic University, but to instead develop his own setting for the stories; this prompted Campbell to invent the town of Brichester, an amalgam of several places in northern England, which seems to have spurred Campbell to include more observations of real life and more autobiographical details in his fiction. An essential component of all of Campbell's fiction is this grounding in reality, which provides a sense of emotional and societal versimilitude which the likes of, say, Brian Lumley simply lack.

Of course, he had a long way to go at the start of his career. Cold Print opens with The Church In High Street, one of Campbell's first attempts to relocate his stories. Whilst it does mention the names of some locales in the Brichester stories and establishes some elements which are referred to later on, it's pretty blatantly a cut-and-paste job: young, bouncy teenage Ramsey, filled with pride and excitement thanks to his letter from that nice Mr Derleth, has carefully gone over the story and written "Brichester" wherever the name "Arkham" appears, substituted "Brichester University" for "Miskatonic University", and so on. The areas visited don't really resemble English countryside so much as they do the landscape of New England, as imagined by someone who's never been there but has carefully read Lovecraft's descriptions of it. The action contains the kernel of a good idea, but doesn't quite follow through, and would have benefited from the subtlety and light touch of Campbell's later work.

Campbell is, unsurprisingly, pretty embarrassed by it, and this comes through in the introduction of the book, wherein Campbell is pretty dismissive about it, and about the stories comprising The Inhabitant of the Lake. While this is pretty much justified with The Church In High Street and the earlier Lake stories, it's not entirely fair; while Campbell feels that he only really managed to establish his own style after Lake, as you read through the stories from that collection it was clear that he was already drifting away from the Lovecraftian style. There is a direct correlation between how closely a story in Inhabitant of the Lake imitates Lovecraft and how bad it is; feeble efforts like The Room In the Castle are entirely forgettable, whereas Lovecraft-Clark Ashton Smith fusions like The Mine on Yuggoth are at least interesting in taking the Mythos in an unusual direction, whilst the best story in the entire collection (to my mind) is The Will of Stanley Brooke, a dialogue-driven story with actual characterisation which would never be mistaken for Lovecraft in a million years. Ultimately, both The Church In High Street and The Inhabitant of the Lake and Other Unwelcome Tenants are written by the same overenthusiastic teenager, and the earlier tales are precisely the sort of thing you'd expect an overenthusiastic teenager to produce, but the later Lake stories show that Campbell's talents were swiftly blossoming in the two years he worked on the collection.

Nonetheless, there is a surprising quantum leap in Campbell's writing ability midway through Cold Print, as if he were killed and replaced by an alien being on a mission to bring decent horror fiction to Earth. After only a couple of post-Inhabitant transitional stories, the Campbell we know today suddenly erupts from his slimy cocoon and injects the compilation's title story directly into your face. Cold Print is simultaneously an exercise in evoking Lovecraftian horror without reverting to Lovecraftian bad habits and, at the same time, a meditation on the bitter and lonely life of a sadistic pedophile. Tossing in a child abuse angle in a horror story is almost standard practice these days - I lost count of the number of times contributors to Read By Dawn played that particular card - but in the late 1960s it was pretty new, and Campbell handles it with a great deal of sensitivity. The protagonist of Cold Print doesn't actually abuse kids during the course of the story, but you get the impression that he's heading in that direction, and there's no neat pop-psychology answer offered as to how he got that way - merely an observation on how he sees himself and the world around him.

The locations of the story are pure Campbell - decaying Northern cities and dusty forgotten old second-hand bookshops which, unlike the sort of bookshops Lovecraftian protagonists usually circulate, mainly offer cheap SF paperbacks and grubby pornographic novels instead of eldritch tomes of forgotten lore - and there's some actual social commentary, of the sort that Lovecraft would have eschewed utterly. Specifically, Campbell directly compares corporal punishment in schools to child abuse, and states in no uncertain terms that in his view they're one and the same; this was, of course, a lot more relevant and timely in the 1960s, but it's a good example of how Cold Print tries to ground itself in the real world and real concerns, which is a direct break from the Lovecraftian tradition of cosmic horror transcending everyday concerns and rendering them meaningless. It's a feature of almost all of Campbell's fiction since Cold Print that, whilst the supernatural horrors menacing the characters are transcendent and cosmic and beyond human understanding and all that jazz, the characters themselves are all real people with real lives and concerns, and the interesting thing is how the transcendent horror affects the mundane reality of their day-to-day existence.

Another major shift in Campbell's style is the length of the stories - although the stories from The Inhabitant of the Lake take up less than half the book, there's only half as many post-Lake stories there. This might be because Campbell's Lovecraft pastiches simply don't have very much too them - they're more about coming up with a cool idea to add to the Mythos and presenting it in a reasonably efficient manner. Once Campbell's stories get more substance to them midway through the collection they suddenly grow to accommodate the new threads he's weaving into them (although they never outstay their welcome). Of these mature stories, the best (in my view) are The Franklyn Paragraphs (although that's best experienced in its original context in Demons By Daylight), The Faces At Pine Dunes, and the crown jewel of the collection, the brilliant The Voice of the Beach, an incredible exercise in dealing with Lovecraftian themes and ideas without citing any musty old tomes or weird alien locations or strange old gods; in the process of The Voice of the Beach Campbell comes up with a pure and uncluttered vision of Lovecraft's cosmic horror which transcends anything the strange old man of Providence wrote (although Lovecraft almost got there with The Colour Out of Space).

Although the original edition of The Inhabitant of the Lake is a prized collector's item these days, I personally wouldn't recommend you bother tracking it down unless you're particularly keen on rare Arkham House output. It is included in its entirety, and in the original sequencing of stories, in post-1993 editions of Cold Print, which are readily available on the second hand market. And if you're not a raving Campbell fan or a keen follower of the Cthulhu Mythos, I wouldn't really recommend Cold Print: the three best post-Lake stories in it are reprinted in other collections (including Alone With the Horrors, of which more later), and the tales from The Inhabitant of the Lake really aren't up to Campbell's usual standard. That said, if you are a Mythos fan who is equally happy reading schlocky Lovecraft fanfic and finely-crafted HPL peerfic, or if you are a Campbell fan who wants an in-depth look at his earliest output, it's well worth a look; both as a tribute to Lovecraft and an examination of Campbell's development as a writer, it's pretty damn excellent.

Demons By Daylight

Campbell's next book was another short story collection, this time written with the express aim of establishing his own style. 9 years had passed since the publication of The Inhabitant of the Lake, during which Campbell's writing had grown and transformed significantly. Demons By Daylight is essentially Campbell's manifesto for a new approach to horror fiction, at the centre of which is the sort of emotional and social verisimilitude I talked about earlier, right down to the title, which accurately sums up what most of the stories are about - supernatural forces intruding on a realistic situation populated by believable characters, and the effect that this invasion has on the people and the situation as a result.

It is not a complete break with Campbell's past, however - instead, he uses his Brichester setting to his advantage. At this point Brichester and its environs have evolved from being a poor imitation of Lovecraft's Arkham, Dunwhch, and Kingsport to being grim reflections of several different English cities. This realistic and evocative presentation of British society in the mid-1970s helps Campbell to write relevant social commentary, and gives his characters a realistic context to exist in, helping his efforts to reconnect the horror genre with real life; at the same time, the occasional nod to his earlier stories ensures that the reader never forgets that these places aren't as they seem, and therefore serve as a helpful reminder that whenever you're reading a Campbell story the most paranoid interpretation of events is almost always the correct one.

Demons By Daylight is split into three segments. The first, Nightmares, goes for the throat with three surreal stories with explicit supernatural occurrences; effectively, they're stories where the realistic component is meant to add spice to the horror. The third, Relationships, is the longest segment of the book, and consists of nine stories which focus heavily, as you might have guessed, on the relationships between the various characters, and where the horror is often (but not always) an outside force that comes in and disrupts that - they're stories where the horror is meant to add spice to the realism. Sandwiched in between is what might be Campbell's ultimate answer to Lovecraft, Errol Undercliffe: A Tribute, ostensibly a feature on the invented author Undercliffe. The justifiably widely-anthologised The Franklyn Paragraphs is supposedly Campbell's account of the correspondence between himself and Undercliffe, a cult horror writer who enters into much the same sort of mentor-protege relationship with Campbell that Lovecraft cultivated with his pen friends; naturally, Undercliffe finds himself drawn inexorably towards a terrible and carefully understated fate. This is followed up by The Interloper, supposedly a story by Undercliffe, which ends up closely resembling Campbell in an entertainingly angry mood.

Looking back at the various authors who popularised and transformed the horror genre in the late '70s and early '80s, I can't help but suspect that many of them - from Dean Koontz to Peter Straub to Stephen King to James Herbert - owe a great deal to Demons By Daylight, as does the rest of the horror genre in all its forms (Silent Hill 2 could have been a Campbell story - or maybe an Undercliffe). It is essentially a violent overthrow of the assumption that horror stories should be campy, Hammer-inspired schlock or emotionally stunted Lovecraft-worship. By ably demonstrating how solid characterisation can sit side-by-side with cosmic horror, Campbell expanded the bounds of the genre to an extent that few have ever equalled. It is vital reading for anyone even slightly interested in horror, or genre fiction in general; fortunately, second-hand copies are abundant.

The Height of the Scream

I suspect that this compilation was put together by Arkham House in response to the success of Demons By Daylight; it came out only three years after that one, and seems to include some stories written between The Inhabitant of the Lake and Demons By Daylight but which didn't make the cut for the latter. It isn't quite up to the high standard set by Demons By Daylight - I particularly like the sense of structure and unity of theme that Demons By Daylight had - but it comes close; while a couple of the stories fall flat (like The Whining, a "don't be mean to animals" tale, and The Words That Count, which seems uncharacteristically gimmicky for Campbell), there's also a number of Campbell stories which I really wouldn't want to be without, like The Scar and Reply Guaranteed, that cultivate Campbell's keen depictions of paranoia and subtle menace. But weirdly, there's not much I can feel I can say about this one - while Cold Print gives a nice insight into Campbell's development as a writer, and Demons By Daylight is of incredibly high importance to his work, The Height of the Scream is just another Campbell collection - it's very, very good, but there isn't really anything unique about it which makes it stand out from the others.

Alone With the Horrors

Originally put out by Arkham House in 1993 to celebrate their 30-year association with him, and recently reissued in a slightly modified version by Tor Books, Alone With the Horrors is intended to compile Campbell's output from 1961 to 1991. As such, there's a certain amount of overlap with his other collections, although there's a fair few which haven't seem published elsewhere (except for a few in Dark Feasts, which Alone With the Horrors supplants entirely), and it's got all the Campbell stories which you really, really can't afford to miss, like Cold Print, The Scar, The Franklyn Paragraphs, and The Voice of the Beach. The Tor Books edition omits The Room In the Castle (the only story from The Inhabitant of the Lake that made it into the first version of Alone With the Horrors) and replaces it with The Tower From Yuggoth, an extremely early draft of The Mine On Yuggoth before Campbell revised it at August Derleth's insistence. It's really, really bad; the best thing you can say about it is that its inclusion shows that Campbell is honest about his early career; for what it's worth, the stories in Alone With the Horrors are arranged in chronological order, and skip straight from The Tower From Yuggoth to Cold Print, so if one of Campbell's works from the early 1960s hadn't been included people would have a false idea of his development as a writer. Of the Horrors-exclusive stories, there's plenty to enjoy - particularly striking is Again, a brutal and unusually explicit and direct effort for Campbell, the comic adaptation of which is apparently banned in some countries, Hearing Is Believing, an experiment in evoking horror mainly through sound, and Boiled Alive, which is either a flirtation with science fiction or just a well-observed depiction of a man's descent into schizophrenia.

Bottom Line

If you only ever buy one Ramsey Campbell short story anthology, I'd probably have to recommend you get Alone With the Horrors, because it's got all the brightest gems between two covers (and it's also excellent value for money). But I'd also strongly recommend you get Demons By Daylight as well, and maybe also The Height of the Scream. Save Cold Print for when you're seriously addicted to Campbell (or Lovecraft pastiches) and are happy to grab anything you can get.

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