Demons by Daylight by Ramsey Campbell

Cover to Demons by Daylight (Star)I’ve always been fascinated by the moments when artists and writers first find themselves, when they move out from the shadow of early, formative influences to speak with their own voice. Ramsey Campbell’s shift from taking Lovecraft as the defining mode & tone of horror fiction (as in his first collection, The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants) to something much more personal and of its time in his second collection, Demons by Daylight, is one of the better-documented, most notably by Campbell himself.

Demons by Daylight came out from Arkham House in 1973, though most of the stories were written by 1969. So different was the approach, Campbell felt that, though he might have been doing something entirely new in horror fiction, it could be that no one else was doing it because it wasn’t going to work. But some people got it, including T. E. D. Klein, who wrote an ‘extraordinary piece in Nyctalops, in which basically he identified everything I wanted to be in the book in the first place’ (as Campbell says in a lengthy interview in Necronomicon Press’s booklet, The Count of Thirty), and which proved ‘sufficiently encouraging to make me attempt to try to make my living from writing.’

What makes the shift between the Lovecraftian stories in The Inhabitant of the Lake to those in Demons by Daylight so pronounced is that it wasn’t just one thing that changed: it wasn’t only the style (from wordy mock-Lovecraft to something a lot more literary and impressionistic), or the storytelling approach (structured crescendoes of Gothic horror to jump-cut art-house snippets, more like the realistic cinema of the day in tone), or the themes (from cosmic horror to something rooted in human psychology, and human relationships), it was all three. It could seem that Campbell was deliberately going as far from Lovecraft in every direction possible, but I think what he was doing was making the very necessary shift from basing his writing on what he’d read, to his actual experience of life (the Inhabitant of the Lake stories were all written before he was 18). Also, by having a wider artistic palette to choose from. (Campbell mentions his discovery of Nabokov as being the second great revelation of his reading life, after Lovecraft.)

Cover to Demons by Daylight (Arkham House)Changing so much means a lot of experimentation, and Campbell talks of spending ‘the first couple of years basically getting it all wrong’, having to draft and re-draft stories till they worked. I still find some of the stories in Demons by Daylight don’t, quite, for me. This could be because many still use the Lovecraftian device of having the final sentence provide a sort of release or clarification of the horror — or seeming to do so. But whereas Lovecraft’s tales were structured to feed all their clues into a single, horrific revelation at the end, Campbell’s can be too impressionistic for this to work in the same way. (‘The Stocking’ is one that left me wondering what I’d missed. Is its final sentence a further twist, or just a cut-off point?) The real heft of Campbell’s stories isn’t in that final impact, but the overall impression: a whole psychological reality, not a single horrific fact.

It’s the themes, not the techniques, that make Demons by Daylight. These are not, in the main, tales of cosmic horror. Though ‘The Franklyn Paragraphs’ is still quite Lovecraftian — S T Joshi has called it ‘the summation of Campbell’s Lovecraftian work’ (in an essay in The Count of Thirty) — with its documentary style, its inhuman horrors, and it being based on the correspondence between two authors (recalling Lovecraft’s ‘The Whisperer in Darkness’), but it’s also the most stylistically varied of the Demons stories, with its narrator (Campbell himself) quoting Errol Undercliffe’s letters (one of which is written while drunk, and which ends with a parody of Lovecraft’s cut-off narrative, in this case not for the monster to come in and kill the writer, but for the inebriated Undercliffe to be sick), and quotes from Roland Franklyn’s book of supernatural revelations. It also has a highly Aickmanesque scene where the narrator meets Franklyn’s widow, who talks offhandedly about the supernatural events she’s witnessed, and which she’s fed up of having to live with. They’re more of a bother to her than a dark revelation.

cover to The Count Of ThirtyThe chief theme of Demons by Daylight is repression. Campbell’s characters are trying to grow, change, and find themselves, but are caught in stifling social and emotional nets. (A fitting theme for a book about Campbell writing himself out of his Lovecraft-shaped cocoon.) The horror emerges, all too often, as a bursting out of far-too-repressed emotional forces. So, in ‘Made in Goatswood’, the rather pagan-looking garden gnomes the narrator buys his Christian girlfriend end up dragging her off and assaulting her in a pagoda where she’d previously cut short his own advances. And ‘The Second Staircase’ has the protagonist vicariously — and helplessly — participating in a similar assault, an expression of his own repressed desire. The forces of repression themselves aren’t supernatural — they’re parents, parents-in-law, girlfriends, teachers. What’s repressed, though, emerges in supernatural ways. The source of the horror is inside the characters, not, as with Lovecraft, in the deepest abysses of space & time.

As well as being part of Campbell’s own writerly and personal journey, this bursting free of repression was part of the times. Here, Campbell engages directly with the Liverpool and London of the late 60s, and its changing social mores. There are references to films of the time, pop music, and the counter-culture. T. E. D. Klein’s review said that drugs were the key to Demons by Daylight, but Campbell says he’d ‘never gotten anywhere near drugs at that point’. The opening story, ‘Potential’, is about this very fact, about ‘being this sort of suited figure on the periphery’. (The story’s be-suited protagonist turns up at a rather disappointing ‘Be-in’, but gets invited to something far darker.)

For me, the best tale in the book is ‘The Guy’. It feels the most fully-formed as a story. Whereas the other Demons tales end on jarring eruptions of horror, this is about a man who’s lived with a single moment of horror all his life, and has even made it a positive part of his own purpose. ‘The Guy’ is about a friendship between two boys from different social classes, with the narrator learning to overcome his middle-class parents’ prejudices. It’s the sort of story, you can’t help feeling, that Lovecraft himself — hidebound by his own social prejudices — could never have written, but this aspect of it doesn’t feel at all like a reaction against Lovecraft; it emerges naturally from the story itself. Which is, I suppose, the surest sign of a writer having shrugged off the more artificial props of formative influence to be himself.

cover to Letters to ArkhamCampbell’s correspondence with Arkham House editor August Derleth, which covers the period of Campbell’s finding his own voice, has come out in hardback from PS Publishing this week, so it’ll be interesting to see what light that throws on Campbell’s formation as a writer.

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore, coverMr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore starts with Clay, one-time web designer for a hip and trendy bagel store, being laid off as NewBagel, trying to survive in a harsher economic climate, rebrands itself as the Old Jerusalem Bagel Company, and don’t see a flashy website and chatty Twitter account as part of their new, old-time image. So Clay retreats down the ladder of technological evolution by landing a job at Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, whose upper technological limit is a ‘decrepit beige Mac Plus’ and a series of old, handwritten sales ledgers.

The store has some odd rules and odder customers, some of whom belong to a sort of subscription service which allows them to come in at any hour, often in a state of frenzy or distress, return an odd-named volume (KRESIMIR or CLOVTIER) and take another odd-named volume out in its place — always from the ‘Waybacklist’, whose books are not for sale, and whose contents (when Clay ventures to look inside) are strings of apparently random letters. Everything has to be logged in the sales ledgers, from the customer’s card number, to any random details of their appearance and demeanour.

Bored by his long night shifts, Clay brings in his laptop and idly starts building a 3D map of the shop. Spurred on by his new girlfriend, Kat Potente (who works at Google, and is thoroughly immersed in the techno-optimisim of Silicon Valley), he starts to log customers’ withdrawals — and comes up with a surprising pattern that ultimately leads him to the cult of the Unbroken Spine, an organisation devoted to decoding the final great work of Aldus Manutius, ‘one of the first publishers… right after Gutenberg’.

Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a book with a foot planted in each of two worlds. There’s the world of new-tech, as represented by e-readers, digital books and Google (whose vast computing power is, at one point, entirely harnessed to try to decode Manutius’ work: ‘on a sunny Friday morning, for three seconds, you can’t search for anything…’), and there’s the other world of old-style print books, a world known to Googlers as ‘OK’:

“Old knowledge, OK. Did you know that ninety-five percent of the internet was only created in the last five years? But we know that when it comes to all human knowledge, the ratio is just the opposite—in fact, OK accounts for most things that most people know, and have ever known.”

But it’s not a novel that comes down entirely on the side of new tech or old knowledge. Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is about coexistence, working together, friendship — among people and technologies. For, as Clay points out, today’s ‘OK’ is yesterday’s new tech:

“Printing… was basically the internet of its day; it was exciting. And just like the internet today, printing in the fifteenth century was all problems, all the time: How do you store the ink? How do you mix the metal? How do you mold the type? The answers changed every six months. In every great city of Europe, there were a dozen printing houses all trying to figure it out first. In Venice, the greatest of those printing houses belonged to Aldus Manutius…”

It’s a fun read, driven by an inventive mystery-quest plot and some easy-paced, zingy writing, my favourite example being this description of Kat Potente:

“She’s wearing the same red and yellow BAM! T-shirt from before, which means (a) she slept in it, (b) she owns several identical T-shirts, or (c) she’s a cartoon character — all of which are appealing alternatives.”

I suppose it falls into the same category as Theodore Roszak’s Flicker, a favourite novel of mine that I reviewed on this blog back in 2007. But Flicker takes its narrator on a quest through the history of film, and ultimately leads to him discovering a secret society on the verge of unleashing worldwide destruction. Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is about books — printed books and ebooks — and its secret cult, The Unbroken Spine, is no way near as dangerous as Roszak’s Oculus Dei.

Another thing that added to the book’s charm was its being set in San Francisco, a city I only visited once, briefly, for a few hours (Fisherman’s Wharf and Golden Gate Park), but which has somehow come to be a far more real imaginative presence thanks to novels such as Fritz Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness, Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, William Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, and, perhaps more than any of these, Alfred Hitchcock’s films The Birds (which starts in San Francisco) and Vertigo.