Born to the Dark by Ramsey Campbell

Born to the Dark from PS Publishing, cover by Les Edwards

The second book in Campbell’s Three Births of Daoloth trilogy is set thirty years on from the first. Dominic Sheldrake, a child in The Searching Dead, is now a lecturer on film, and married, with a child of his own. Young Toby, though, suffers from “nocturnal absences” — a sort of nighttime paralysis —and when a paediatrician recommends a new treatment offered by the Safe to Sleep clinic, Dominic and his wife are at first delighted, as it seems to work. But Dominic becomes suspicious of the sort of dreams Toby has under the influence of this new treatment, which sound as though they could have come straight out of the journal of Christian Noble, the man who, in The Searching Dead, found a new way to raise the dead.

Set in the 1980s, Born to the Dark recalls aspects of Ramsey Campbell’s 80s novels, which were often concerned with the vulnerability of children, and in particular the anxiety about a parent’s care of, and potential misuse of power over, their child. This, of course, comes about because of Dominic’s stage of life, but part of me looked for, and found, other (perhaps deliberate) echoes of Campbell’s 1980s novels. For instance, there’s the idea of dreams/sleep being studied by an institute or research project and resulting in supernatural forces leaking into our world (as in 1983’s Incarnate). I think it was in that novel, too, that Campbell used the police as an expression of the protagonist’s helplessness and humiliation by a powerful authority, and in Born to the Dark we have the sinister double act of officers Farr and Black, whose darkly cosmic double-entendres are the closest this novel gets to the sort of absurdist horror-comedy of Campbell’s most recent Lovecraftian work, the 2013 novella, The Last Revelations of Gla’aki. Campbell even allows himself an in-joke reference to Rose Tierney (the protagonist of his 1980 novel, To Wake the Dead/The Parasite), who’s mentioned here as being a former lecturer at Dominic’s university’s film studies division.

Providence issue 1, cover by Jacen Burrows

More than The Searching Dead — which mostly concerned itself with dead things lingering too long in the land of the living — Born to the Dark opens itself up to cosmic horror, thanks to the visions Safe to Sleep induces as part of its treatment. And there are hints of a coming transformation or apocalypse, after which human life as we know it will be over forever, though not necessarily extinguished. In this, Born to the Dark reminded me of Alan Moore’s Providence, another 21st century take on Lovecraftian horror which ended in our world being fully exposed to cosmic realities that make a nonsense of life at the human level.

(Born to the Dark also recalls Providence in the way its occultists, like Moore’s, are more willing than Lovecraft’s to explain their beliefs to outsiders. 1980s Britain, with its openness to New Age ideas and alternative medicine, is just the sort of place where the likes of Christian Noble and his family can be open about their cosmic beliefs, and be allowed to practise their esoteric arts as a treatment — even within the bounds of the NHS!)

A slight disappointment, for me, was that the narrator, Dominic, has grown up into a somewhat blinkered adult, who has difficulty realising just how mad his accusations against Safe to Sleep sound to anyone but himself, and can’t understand it when people don’t immediately accept his wild claims as the truth. But it does lead to a heartbreaking admission partway through the novel:

“However misunderstood and solitary I’d sometimes felt as a child, I would never have expected growing up to bring that back.”

It’s impossible to properly review the second book of a trilogy — and an as-yet uncompleted trilogy, at that. Born the Dark takes events on from The Searching Dead and, far more than that first volume (which could, I think, be enjoyed on its own), leaves me feeling we’re heading for a properly Lovecraftian conclusion. Will the ending be quite as bleak as that of Moore’s Providence? The final volume, The Way of the Worm, will presumably reveal all — or, at least, all we mere humans can grasp.

There’s a good interview with Campbell about Born to the Dark at Gary Fry’s website.

Even Stranger Things: A Night for Robert Aickman

Yesterday evening the British Library held an hour-and-a-half talk and discussion about Robert Aickman, in part to celebrate their acquisition of an archive of his papers (which you can read about at the Library’s English and Drama blog), and I thought I’d go along as I’ve recently started a second read-through of Aickman’s stories, thanks to Tartarus Press’s two volume Collected Strange Stories. At the time I bought it, back in 2001, Aickman was hard to find outside first editions and just-as-rare paperbacks, but now he’s completely back in print, in large part thanks to some of the people talking at this event. (The evening was compèred by Richard T Kelly, who curated Faber & Faber’s reissue of Aickman in the UK.)

The first speaker was Ramsey Campbell, who read a short chapter from one of Aickman’s autobiographies describing Aickman’s favourite film, The Blue Light by Leni Riefenstahl. At the end of it, Campbell pointed out that, if you’ve seen the film, you’ll realise Aickman’s summary of it is curiously inaccurate, as though he’d preferred to remember his own, Aickmanesque version of the plot. When, post-World War II, Riefenstahl came to the UK seeking funding for a later film and was vilified by the press, Aickman wrote to her to let her know that some people in Britain still appreciated her talents. She sent him some photos and an invitation to visit the next time he was in Berlin.

Aickman, Campbell pointed out, was a man capable of holding extreme opinions, quite often about subjects nobody else thought it worth having an opinion about. He was also, apparently, one of the best dinner guests you could wish for, not just because he could hold forth on many subjects, but because he had a way of bringing everyone into the discussion. A rare gift.

After Campbell was another speaker who knew Aickman personally, his literary agent Leslie Gardner. Aickman would read some of his stories to her, and apparently one time he stopped mid-read and said, “She’s here…” Aickman, who believed in the supernatural, had detected a presence in the room. The very character in the story he was reading aloud?

Next, Reece Shearsmith read from “The Hospice” — which seems to be the most-chosen story people turn to when trying to explain Aickman’s particular flavour of the uncanny — and I have to say that, hearing Aickman read by a good reader like this can certainly bring out his understated humour, particularly in the dialogue — a very English humour of frustration and social awkwardness, that remains present even in the face of the looming supernatural.

Editor and critic Victoria Nelson followed this with a talk justifying Aickman’s growing position as a 20th century master of the weird tale, of how he, more than, say, M R James, was content to end a tale with a lingering sense of numinous mystery, rather than tying the whole thing up with explanations.

Finally, Jeremy Dyson read from Aickman’s story “Wood”. In the discussion that followed, Dyson provided one of the best insights into why Aickman wasn’t better known. If he’d been, say, South American, and translated into English, he would have been immediately classed as a Magical Realist and would have been lauded, but as he wrote in English, the English literati were dismissive. Victoria Nelson added that Aickman’s cult status could also be down to how he doesn’t quite fit either the literary (because of his use of the supernatural) or horror (because he didn’t provide the expected payoff) camps. Though this, of course, is also probably why he’s still read: nobody else offers what he offers.

My one, blurred photo from the event. Offered as proof I was there, not because you have any chance of identifying the evening’s guests.

Aickman’s reputation certainly seems to be growing — in large part thanks to his stories being so readily available, now — and I’m sure it’s only going to get stronger. For myself, part of the problem I had reading him at first was that I came to him having heard him praised as a master of the horror story, and a first read-through of his stories mostly served to make me realise he wasn’t at all what I was expecting. On this second read-through, of which I’m not yet at the halfway point, I’m hopefully reading him without those preconceptions. Aickman’s are tales of dream logic irrupting into an often humdrum, slightly dowdy-feeling, but very recognisable realism. Some of his stories do work wonderfully as weird horror, and they are usually my favourites. (“My Poor Friend”, for instance, about an MP haunted by a sort of vengeful feminine force — which has, for me, the added bonus of a brief mention of East Grinstead, the town where I live. I’d also recommend “Bind Your Hair” and “The School Friend”.) Some of the others are closer to absurdist fantasy or surrealism and take a bit more adjustment. That Aickman was an original talent, though, is surely inarguable.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

The opening paragraph of Shirley Jackson’s haunted house novel is so good, everyone who writes about the book is statutorily obliged to quote it:

“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.”

It’s that “not sane” that, for me, delivers the killer blow. Hill House isn’t insane. Insane is a technical term, a doctor’s diagnosis — a dismissal, and a pretence at understanding. “Not sane”, though, sounds like it has found a whole new way of being. It sounds like something we don’t know, and never can.

This is one of the great strengths of Shirley Jackson’s novel. After the pioneering days of the 1890s greats which found new ways to talk about the darkness that lurks in the human psyche — Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, Dorian Gray, The Turn of the Screw, Dracula — the ghost story was effectively neutered by Freud and other psychoanalysts, who taxonomised and rubber-stamped all those areas of inner darkness. They were “understood”. What Shirley Jackson does in The Haunting of Hill House is write a ghost story that, far from being disempowered by the ideas of Freud and co., gains new power because of them, then goes on to transcend them. “No,” it seems to say, “you don’t understand.”

The Haunting of Hill House coverHill House begins with Dr John Montague, inspired by “the intrepid nineteenth-century ghost hunters”, deciding to carry out a proper scientific investigation of a genuinely haunted house. Having selected Hill House as his subject, he invites as many people with even the slightest hint of psychic ability as he can find to join him in a three-month stay. Two turn up — timid Eleanor Vance and sophisticated Theodora (so individualistic she only needs a first name) — and, together with Luke Sanderson, a representative from the owning family (who don’t live at the house), the quartet take up residence towards the end of June 1956.

Eleanor is only recently free of 11 years caring for her mother, a period of “small guilts and small reproaches, constant weariness and unending despair.” Reduced, now, to sleeping in a cot in the baby’s room at her married sister’s — who, along with her husband, talk about Eleanor in front of her as though she wasn’t there, and make decisions for her as though she were a child — when she receives Dr Montague’s invitation, she accepts because, at that point, she “would have gone anywhere”. She’s 32 years old and “Nothing of the least importance has ever belonged to me”. On the drive to Hill House, she fantasises about how this is the first day of the sort of life everybody else has been enjoying all this time and which she, at last, is now going to have too. “Journeys end in lovers meeting,” she keeps telling herself. And then she sees the house where she is to stay:

“The house was vile. She shivered and thought, the words coming freely into her mind, Hill House is vile, it is diseased; get away from here at once.”

But she doesn’t get away. She has no other chance at life but this.

The genius of Jackson’s novel comes from how the hauntings, when they begin, fit so perfectly with Eleanor’s fragile psyche. As an adolescent, shortly after the disappearance of her father, Eleanor seems to have produced a brief bout of poltergeist activity, hence her invitation to Dr Montague’s ghost-hunting party. So, when the increasingly insistent phenomena of Hill House begin to present themselves, it’s possible to see them as coming from Eleanor’s own pent-up frustrations, unconscious needs and self-persecutions. The night-time knocking at doors could be a reminder of Eleanor’s mother’s death (she later admits she heard her mother knocking on her bedroom wall, but refused to go to her); the chalk message that appears on a wall — “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME” — could be Eleanor’s need to make herself the long-denied centre of attention in this new circle of friends; the next message (in blood, on Theodora’s door) and the attack on Theodora’s clothes could be Eleanor’s unconscious aggression towards Theodora for suggesting Eleanor wrote that first message herself, as well as being a ploy to make Theo move into her own room, to own this new friend all the more.

Equally, these phenomena could be read as the intensely malignant, abominably wise Hill House manipulating Eleanor in the subtlest of ways. By naming Eleanor in that first message, it isolates her from the others, and starts to make her realise that the only true friend she has is the house itself. By attacking Theodora’s room and forcing Theo to wear Eleanor’s clothes, the house could be playing with Eleanor’s fragile sense of identity, making her seem less and less needed as she sees how Theo continues to shine, even in Nell’s drab clothes. Eleanor begins increasingly to haunt the others, listening unseen to their conversations, hungry to hear herself mentioned (which she never is). She’s halfway to being a ghost already.

That initial message — “HELP ELEANOR COME HOME” — is itself wonderfully ambiguous. Is this a cry from Eleanor’s dead mother’s spirit, warning her away from Hill House, or is it a cry from the house itself, inviting Eleanor to become a fuller part of it? What does “COMING HOME” mean? Leaving Hill House, or being part of it forever?

Jackson’s characters — and Jackson herself — are part of a generation that would have grown up with the ideas of Freud, have become cynically used to questioning their own motives and reading their unconscious slips as the symptoms of a Freudian psyche, chock full of childhood anxieties, veiled narcissisms, hostilities and frustrations. The nonsensical, self-conscious fantasising of the main trio’s banter sounds simultaneously like an attempt to not admit how scared they are, while also acting as the perfect word-association-style carrier for letting out unconscious fantasies and frustrations, for fencing with one another and judging one another without having to admit that’s what they’re doing. In the end, it’s nothing but nonsensical babbling compared to the vast unknowability of un-sane Hill House.

At the book’s conclusion, two details from that superlative first paragraph magnify the horror, despite the ambiguity over whether it’s Eleanor’s troubled psyche playing out its most dangerous impulses, or Hill House as a real and active supernatural force.

The first is the idea that what drove Hill House “not sane” are “conditions of absolute reality”. What’s going on here is not contact with a removed and abstract netherworld, but something far more real than our everyday lives, too real to be faced. At one point, Dr Montague says: “I think we are only afraid of ourselves,” to which Luke says, “No… of seeing ourselves clearly and without disguise.” Is this, then, what happens to Eleanor? Hill House’s “masterpiece of architectural misdirection” so perfectly mirrors her own disordered psyche that it brings it out for her to see, in all its nasty, infantile purity? And, faced with this horrific but unavoidable self-judgement, she has only one course open to her.

Then there’s that phrase: “whatever walked there, walked alone.” It’s repeated at the end of the novel, and it seems to add a further twist to Eleanor’s inevitable fate. Because we know, by then, that Eleanor has come to feel that joining with Hill House might be joining with “HOME”, might be a kind of belonging, even if it is of a twisted kind. But that final phrase — “whatever walked there, walked alone” — implies that she never achieves any sort of belonging. Perhaps she dies completely, victim of a Hill House that continues to exist alone in its isolated malignancy; perhaps she finds herself a ghost in Hill House, but just as isolated as before; worse, perhaps even in the afterlife Hill House continues to play its psychological games with her, keeping her unbalanced, isolated, afraid; or perhaps it absorbs Eleanor into itself, overpowering what little precious individuality she once had.

Jackson’s novel — like Aickman’s “Strange Stories”, which belong to the same era — escaped the fate of early 20th century ghost stories by confronting and transcending the new psychoanalytical thinking about the darkness that lurks within. By doing so, Jackson regained, for the supernatural tale, the power to depict that inner darkness with so much more force than any mere technical jargon ever could. Freudian terminology, overused and “understood”, quickly ceases to capture the very powerful, and highly dramatic reality of what lurks within the depths of the human psyche. In The Haunting of Hill House, Jackson restores the ghost story’s power to terrify, overwhelm and overpower; she restores its ambiguity and deceptiveness, the way it can play with us and prove that, far from us “knowing” it, it in fact knows us — and all our weaknesses — which it can then proceed to prey on mercilessly.

Play for Today: Z for Zachariah

It’s been a while since I wrote about “things that frightened me as a kid”, but I thought I’d revive the practice for a Halloween mewsings. The Play for Today adaptation of Robert C O’Brien’s 1974 novel was broadcast on 28th February 1984 (and this was the last year for Play for Today, a strand of one-off dramas that had been broadcast by the BBC since 1970). I didn’t see it at the time, but was shown it, perhaps later in the same year, in an English class at school — meaning it also falls into the narrower category of “things that frightened me in the classroom”, which includes a forced watch of another 1984 teleplay, Threads (still the bleakest thing I’ve ever seen), and a far more pleasant classroom watch of the 1977 BBC adaptation of Dracula. (And I’ll also add to the list a story a supply teacher, Mrs Mud (or perhaps Mudd), told us at the end of one day in my penultimate year at primary school — probably making it up on the spot— called “The Ear”, about a man persecuted by a reanimated Van Gogh-style severed ear.)

This adaptation of Z for Zachariah moves the events of the novel from the USA to a remote valley in Wales, whose isolated weather system protects it when the rest of the world is destroyed and/or poisoned in a nuclear war. 15-year-old Ann Burden’s parents go off to check for survivors in the locality but never come back. Ann (Pippa Hinchley) soldiers on, keeping the farm as best she can, then one day sees a weird tent set up on the road that leads into the valley.

She retreats up the mountainside and watches as a man in a radiation suit (Anthony Andrews), lugging a survival kit on wheels behind him, enters the valley, tests the water, and, finding it radiation-free, disrobes and jumps into a stream. Ann, watching, realises his mistake — the man only tested one stream, which she knows to be clean, but didn’t test the other, the one he’s jumped into, in which she found dead fish. (One stream has its source in the valley, the other brings in water from outside.) The man soon falls sick with radiation poisoning, and Ann overcomes her fear to come down from the mountains and tend to him.

He describes the symptoms of his coming sickness to her:

“It goes through stages. First you have two or three days’ vomiting. Second stage, radiation causes intercellular ionisation. Molecules within the cells are destroyed. Cells can no longer grow or divide. Plus, you’ll be much sicker. With a high fever. Blood cells are damaged. They can no longer reproduce, resulting in anaemia. No resistance to germs or infection… Susceptible to… mild impurities in food and water, resulting in vomiting, and, more seriously, dysentery.”

He is John Loomis, an organic chemist who, before the bombs dropped, had been helping develop a form of magnetised plastic. The magnetism wards off radiation, hence his radiation-proof suit and tent, which allow him to survive in the post-holocaust world. In his fever, it soon becomes evident that his story of how he got the suit may be more complicated. There were two researchers — John, and a man called Edward, who was his senior on the project — but only one suit.

As he recovers from the sickness, John tries to instil in Ann a sense of the delicacy of their situation. This valley, he says, is now a colony, the one chance for the human race to survive. He gets her to think about the sort of crops they’re going to need — wheat for flour, beets for sugar. And, somewhat mockingly, he says of her regular visits to the valley chapel: “Next time you go to your church, pray for a bull calf.”

Things take a darker turn after Ann celebrates her sixteenth birthday. She wakes up one night to find John sitting on her bed, touching her. She escapes his assault, and the next day offers a truce, saying she’ll continue to help farm the valley, but she’ll be living elsewhere. John, though, starts to impose control, keeping the key to the tractor, padlocking the local shop they’ve been using for supplies and, finally, using Ann’s own dog to track her to her hiding place. The play ends with Ann taking John’s radiation suit and survival kit and leaving the valley to find other people, rather than continue to live with this dangerous man.

It’s a bleak story, feeling like one of the darker one-off episodes of Terry Nation’s Survivors from the previous decade. It’s hard not to watch this adaptation of Z for Zachariah and feel pretty little hope for mankind. John Loomis seems too little like an unbalanced individual, too much a representative of men in general, or scientists in general, or adults in general, casting them all as a bunch of control-hungry rapists and murderers.

Reviews of the teleplay over at IMDB rate it low in comparison to the book, certainly for its lack of moral shading (the book is written as Ann’s diary, and she can be read as an unreliable narrator, a possibility the TV adaptation doesn’t address), as well as the general coldness of the two main characters’ relationship. But I suspect it got the green light at the Beeb not because of its potential for moral complexity but for its basic message — one that was desperately hammered home throughout the 1980s, in a barrage of pop songs (“Two Tribes”, “99 Red Balloons”, many others), films and TV dramas (Threads being the main one, but the nuclear threat was omnipresent, and the standard threat in thrillers like Edge of Darkness and Defence of the Realm), documentaries (two major ones about nuclear war were shown the same week as Threads), and so on — that nuclear war is BAD, that it could be the END OF EVERYTHING, and, if it happens, it’s all MANKIND’S FAULT.

We can become fond of and familiar with most characters from supernatural horror. No one, I think, would be too shocked at seeing a kid dressed up as a vampire for Halloween. But I can’t imagine anyone ever being comfortable at seeing a kid dressed up in a radiation suit, with a clicking Geiger counter in their hand…

Play for Today: Z for Zachariah can be watched at Daily Motion. (It’s just under two hours long.)