The Height of the Scream by Ramsey Campbell

The Height of the Scream UK 1978 HB cover

The Height of the Scream, Millington (1978). Cover design by Lorie Epstein.

Ramsey Campbell’s third collection, The Height of the Scream, is less of a defining moment than his second, Demons By Daylight. Demons, released in 1973 by Arkham House, was his post-Lovecraft book, the statement of his move away from Lovecraft’s style and subject matter to something more true to his own voice and experience. In The Height of the Scream, he’s consolidating that voice. But there’s also the fact that the stories in Scream cover a period from 1965’s ‘The Cellars’ to 1974’s ‘The Shadows’ (the book was published in 1976 by Arkham House — his last from them till 1993’s career retrospective, Alone with the Horrors — and in the UK by Millington in 1978), so at least half of it overlaps that covered by Demons By Daylight. (Confusingly, one story, ‘The Telephones’, even appeared in both The Height of the Scream and a 1979 US edition of Demons By Daylight.)

My three favourite stories from The Height of the Scream are all, though, from 1973. In the title story, the narrator’s friend Martin reveals he’s discovered an unwanted ability to cause aggression in the people around him. After sparking a very public argument between a couple, and then a violent suicide, these aggressive impulses start to turn on Martin himself, with ultimately fatal consequences — but not before he’s told the narrator that he has the same ability growing inside him, too.

The Height of the Scream, Arkham House

Arkham House HB

‘The Words that Count’ was one of the first Campbell stories I read, and though it might be dismissed by some as a gimmick tale, I still remember the thrill I felt on discovering the trick he’d played with it. (And I think it still works as a story even once you’ve seen it.) It’s narrated by a young woman living with her strictly religious father and beginning to feel the first stirrings of a conflict with his beliefs, as she’s now got a job (in a Christian bookshop) and a boyfriend, and she wonders which she’d side with if it came to the crunch: her boyfriend or her father. She has literary ambitions, and ‘The Words that Count’ is her attempt to write a story about something that happened to her (‘write what you know’), when an unusual pamphlet is put through their letterbox. Each page of the pamphlet has a single word printed on it, and she finds the colours and shapes of the words individually beautiful, so much so that she doesn’t take in what the sequence of words is saying. Her father does, though, and denounces the pamphlet as evil. But by that point it has already started to have its effect.

The best story in the book, for me, was ‘Horror House of Blood’, a deliberately lurid title for a subtle tale about a couple who agree to let the final scenes of a low-budget horror movie be filmed inside their house, and how, afterwards, this creates a charged atmosphere of expectation, as though something is awaiting — and encouraging — the real bloodbath to which the filmed scenes were merely a rehearsal.

The Height of the Scream, UK paperback

Star paperback

In all three of these stories, the horror emerges from the psychology of the characters. The narrator and his friend in ‘The Height of the Scream’ indulge in marijuana, and at first the friend’s belief that he’s causing this aggression in others could be dismissed as pot-smoker’s paranoia. The weirdness of ‘The Words that Count’ emerges through its narrator’s aesthetic sense, which blinds her to the message in the pamphlet, a message that nevertheless implants itself in her head (and replicates itself through her own writing), with the added implication that it may be latching onto a latent desire to kill her over-controlling father. In ‘Horror House of Blood’, it’s ambiguous what the source of the horror is — is it the nastiness of the cheap horror film, the barely contained brutality of its director, or something already present in the house, waiting to be awoken? Whichever it is, it only gains hold thanks to the two lead characters’ increasing obsession with the film’s implied act of bloodshed.

The feeling is that, through delving into dark areas within their own psychologies, the characters in these stories somehow make contact with a supernatural order of reality, one that’s not awakened or active in most people. It’s the characters’ unusual psychological states that connect them to it, and unleash dark, often self-directed, enmities or powers. In a way, then, these stories are still Lovecraftian, in that they’re about how delving into areas better left alone leads to a revelation of horror. But where Lovecraft used scientific or occult research — forbidden knowledge — to achieve his dark revelations, in Campbell they come through the exploration of strange psychologies, the breaking of self-imposed barriers or norms — forbidden experience — something that’s often achieved through encountering or creating art (music in ‘The Dark Show’, shadow puppetry in ‘In the Shadows’, comics in ‘Smoke Kiss’) or through deliberately experimenting with new perceptions (drugs in ‘The Height of the Scream’, metaphysical speculation in ‘Litter’).

The Inhabitant of the Lake by Ramsey CampbellIn some of the stories in this book, rather than bringing in the Lovecraftian entities of his first collection, The Inhabitant of the Lake, Campbell brings in something from the standard trappings of horror — Satanism, voodoo, exorcism — as though feeling the need to provide some sort of justification or explanation for the horror in the story. But this isn’t true of any of the better tales in Scream, where no explanation or justification is offered, or needed. Here, the supernatural doesn’t explicitly emerge — it’s suspected to be there, and the story ends at the point where the protagonists are about to surrender to it, but often before we, as readers, feel there definitely is a supernatural element, meaning the protagonists may be about to do something horrific with, possibly, no need to, beyond being caught up in a deluded belief or obsessive idea.

Campbell’s horror works best without explanation or justification, but as pure experience — his horrors are, fundamentally, horrors that emerge from subjectivity, but which use that subjectivity to open up a potential loss of identity and sanity, isolating his protagonists, or trapping them in patterns of behaviour that can only lead to worse horrors still.

Pan’s Labyrinth

I’ve been wanting to write about Pan’s Labyrinth, one of my favourite films, for some time, but whenever I sit down to watch it, I find myself wondering what there is to say. Aside from how much I love the way it mixes wonderfully dark fantasy with convincing real-world drama, the sheer artistry of the film is sort of overwhelming — not just the quality of the filmmaking, the acting, and the storytelling, but the way so many of the strands of the story echo and resonate, so every character, every event, every location, acquires a deeper significance from the way it counterpoints other parts of the film. The whole thing works like a perfect piece of clockwork (an apt metaphor for the clockwork-loving Guillermo del Toro) — wonderful to watch, but difficult to write about without simply gushing.

Then I realised I had to write about not what I like most about the film, but what troubles me most about it.

I saw Pan’s Labyrinth at the cinema, and bought it as soon as it came out on DVD. (And, yes, once again on Blu-ray.) When I sat down to watch the DVD for the first time, I was shocked all over again by the opening scene, in which the young Ofelia lies dying at the centre of the Faun’s labyrinth. I’d somehow managed to forget this most troubling fact, that the film’s heroine dies, even though it’s underlined by happening at both the start and the end of the film, so it really ought to be unforgettable. In her BFI Film Classics book on Pan’s Labyrinth, Mar Diestro-Dópido says of this moment:

‘The shocking impact of this scene lies precisely in the sudden absence of magic; we see Ofelia as she really is, vulnerable and defenceless, a thirteen-year-old child incapable of inflicting harm — and a stark reminder of the hundreds of thousands of children who fall victim to adult wrongdoing, particularly during war.’

Every time I watch Pan’s Labyrinth, Ofelia’s death seems so monstrously unfair. Having passed through three fairy-tale trials, facing genuinely disturbing horrors with real courage and an ultimate fidelity to her conscience — trials which, in most fairy tales, would have granted her the right to the happily-ever-after rewards of selfhood and adulthood — everything’s taken away from her. One way of reading the fantastic elements of the film is as the dying Ofelia’s hasty weaving of a story around the bare few mundane facts of her too-short life, to try to make them meaningful, to make them all point, in a final, desperate act of imagination, to, yes, her really being a princess after all, and this not being a horrible and pointless death but some sort of wonderful fulfilment. Yet, the vision of herself being received by her father, mother, and (somehow, because he’s still alive in the real world) her baby brother, in this magical underworld kingdom, occurs in the moments before she dies, not after, so perhaps this is nothing more than the dying dream of a young girl, one more victim of a brutal, fascistic reality, where death and suffering are handed out as freely as Franco’s daily rations of bread.

But even if it is just a dying girl’s fantasy, there’s another way to look at the story told by Pan’s Labyrinth. The film is about staying true to one’s conscience in the face of a fascist brutality that demands instant, unquestioning obedience at all times. And it’s a wonderfully disobedient act to rework such a harsh reality into your own private narrative, weaving the spaces between the facts with a fairy tale of your own devising.

How else can so helpless an individual as Ofelia triumph in such a brutal world, except through an act of imagination? It’s a world that does its best to deny stories. Captain Vidal — like fascism itself — denies everyone their ability to tell, or enjoy, any stories but those the ruling party tell, criticising Ofelia’s mother for letting her daughter read fairytales, and, in the banquet scene, for telling the story of how she and Vidal came to be married. But Captain Vidal is in the grip of his own story. His father supposedly smashed his pocket-watch the moment before his death, so his son would know how a truly brave man dies, and though Vidal is constantly looking at that cracked watch, and tending its clockwork alone in his office, he denies his father ever had a watch — a denial which only goes to show the power the story has over him. Fittingly, at the end, when he tries to control the story his own baby son will be told about him, his quietly resistant housekeeper Mercedes tells him his son will never even know his name. This, in such a harsh, unfantastic world, is how victories are won: through acts of imagination. History may be written by the victor, but fairy tales can be acts of rebellion.

Near the beginning of the film, Ofelia tells her as-yet-unborn brother the story of a flower that confers immortality, but which nobody goes near because its thorns are poisonous. Her own fairy-tale tasks are designed to test whether she, Ofelia, has been in the mortal world too long and lost touch with her immortal self, the Princess Moanna. But ‘immortality’ in Pan’s Labyrinth isn’t of the literal, Woody Allen kind (‘I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying’). It’s closer to the pagan idea of living so heroic a life your name will be remembered, and your story told, even after your death.

Dying alone at the centre of a ruined labyrinth, Ofelia confers on herself a very deserved immortality, by telling herself her own story, with herself as the heroine. Whether the fantasy elements of the film really happened or not (and only Ofelia’s escape from the locked attic using the Faun’s chalk-doorway method seems to imply they did), the story she tells herself is true — a true image of her conscience and inner life, that is — and it’s this, her being true to herself despite the threat of death, that confers on her the Pan’s Labyrinth version of ‘immortality’ in the end.

After all, she gets a film made about her.

(And a very good one, too.)

Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson

jackson_darktalesThere’s an intense ambivalence about the idea of ‘home’ in these tales by Shirley Jackson. On the one hand, home is a longed-for refuge from a harsh outside world; on the other, it’s a trap the protagonists want to escape from.

In ‘The Bus’, for instance, an old spinster is making her way home by bus, though she hates the journey and finds both the ticket-seller and the driver rude. All she wants is to get home, away from all the difficulty and unpleasantness. She falls asleep en route, then suddenly the driver’s telling her it’s her stop. Ushered off, only half awake, she finds herself abandoned at an isolated crossroads in the pouring rain, with no one around to help, and that’s just the start of her troubles. In ‘Paranoia’, a man is on his way home from work when he becomes convinced there’s a conspiracy of people following him, and is driven to increasingly desperate means of shaking them off. In both cases, home is an ever-receding goal, a constantly denied refuge from a threatening, irrational world.

In contrast to the nightmare journey home is the idea of home as a trap. In ‘The Good Wife’, a husband keeps his wife locked in her bedroom till she confesses to an affair that he himself may have invented as an excuse to keep her incarcerated. In ‘The Story We Used To Tell’, perhaps the strangest story in the book, a woman is staying at a female friend’s house when the friend disappears. The woman sees the friend trapped in a picture (an old painting of the friend’s house) on the friend’s bedroom wall and, touching it, is herself sucked into it. The two women find themselves stuck in a portrait version of the house with a pair of the friend’s ancestors, who seem to have been driven mad by being held in the painting for so long.

shirleyjacksonMarriage, an intrinsic part of the idea of ‘home’, often takes a murderous turn in these tales. The purest example of this is ‘What A Thought’, in which a happily married wife has the sudden, irrational urge to bash her husband’s head in with an ashtray. The trouble is, once she’s thought it, there’s only one way to get rid of the idea… In ‘The Honeymoon of Mrs Smith’, all the townsfolk seem desperately keen to say something to the newly-married Mrs Smith, but can’t bring themselves to do so. Finally, the landlady where she’s staying for her honeymoon sums up the courage to suggest Mrs Smith’s husband looks uncomfortably like a man whose photo has been in the papers for marrying, then murdering, young women for the insurance payout. But, oddly, the new Mrs Smith isn’t at all concerned…

Shirley Jackson’s version of a happy marriage is at the heart of what, for me, is the best story in the book, ‘The Beautiful Stranger’. Here, a wife goes to the railway station to meet her husband who’s returning from a sales trip. Just before he left, they’d argued, but when he gets off the train, the wife is surprised by how courteous and polite he is. She begins to suspect he may not be her husband at all, and he keeps giving her conspiratorial smiles, as though to say he knows she knows he isn’t. She’s delighted. Because of this frisson of strangeness and unfamiliarity, of politeness and kindness, it’s a whole lot better than with her ‘old’ husband. But then, taking a walk by herself one evening, she returns to the street where she lives to find she can’t tell which house is hers. It’s as though a blissful home life can only be sustained in a narrow band of mild alienation, but she’s passed irrecoverably through that to something far more isolating, and now everything’s lost. This tale is the perfect example what Jack Sullivan says of Jackson in The Penguin Encyclopedia of Horror and the Supernatural:

‘Reversing M R James’s dictum that a ghost story should leave a narrow “loophole” for a natural explanation, Jackson wrote stories of psychological anguish than leave a loophole for a supernatural explanation.’

Community, like marriage, is a wider extension of the idea of ‘home’, and, as you’d expect from the author of ‘The Lottery’ (not included in this book), there are a number of tales of poisonous communities, here. 71-year-old Miss Adela Strangeworth in ‘The Possibility of Evil’ is very much a community insider, so much a part of her small-town’s life that everyone knows her and she knows everyone, right down to their darkest secrets, which she writes to them about in anonymous, hurtful letters. Ethel Stone in ‘Home’, on the other hand, has just moved into a countryside town and is doing her best to fit in. She’s amused by how the shopkeepers warn her off using a certain road in the rain. Thinking they’re simply concerned about the state of the road, she uses it anyway, and on the way sees an old woman and a young boy (in pyjamas) by the roadside. She insists on giving them a lift, and is a little puzzled that they want to go to ‘the Sanderson Place’, as that’s where she lives. She drives off with them in the back, but when she gets to her new home, they’ve disappeared. She soon learns they’re a pair of local ghosts. At first she’s thrilled. Having her own story to tell about a local legend will be her ticket to feeling part of the community. But on her way into town the next day, she has a second encounter that leaves her unable to speak about them, and it’s only at this point — now she has a shared secret she can’t speak of — that she finds herself being treated as a true local. Dark secrets, for Shirley Jackson, are what binds a community together, just as marriage is as much made of murderous impulses as it is of love.

The Haunting of Hill House coverNot all the stories in Dark Tales worked for me as stories, though those that didn’t, those whose hanging endings were a little too ambiguous for my tastes, do still work as nightmares. And they throw a good deal of light on the one Jackson work I know well. The Haunting of Hill House seems the perfect summation of all these wildly ambivalent feelings about the idea of ‘home’ as both a horrific trap and a longed-for refuge from a difficult world. Jackson’s prose style — unadorned and straightforward, deliciously precise — is the perfect representation of a world in which dark, unspoken impulses are waiting to break suddenly and violently through an apparently placid, well-ordered surface. The thing that perhaps adds that thrilling jolt to these tales is how much that breaking-through is, however horrific, longed for.

The Searching Dead by Ramsey Campbell

cover to The Searching Dead, art by Les Edwards

cover to The Searching Dead, art by Les Edwards

Set in 1952 and 1953, The Searching Dead (the first volume in a projected trilogy, The Three Births of Daoloth) starts with young Dominick Sheldrake attending a new school, The Holy Ghost, where his form tutor, Mr Noble, turns out to be something of a misfit among the otherwise strictly Roman Catholic staff. Mr Noble has recently started attending a local spiritualist church, not to make contact with any of his own dear departed, but to help the bereaved with new techniques for bringing back the dead — techniques which work rather too well. It’s not long before Mr Noble is fired from his position at The Holy Ghost, but Dominick — who, along with friends Jim and Bobby (Roberta), make up the Tremendous Three — realises he’s only going to get up to much worse now he’s free of restraint.

If Dominick’s gang’s name, the Tremendous Three, sounds a bit Famous Five-ish, that’s only because it’s how Dominick wants to think of them. He’s as keen on writing stories about the trio’s imagined adventures as he is about clinging to the ideal of their childhood friendship. But the reality of Campbell’s post-Blitz Liverpool, with its casually strict parents, repressively religious teachers, and the burgeoning realities of adolescence, are more than enough to undermine any sense of simple Blytonesque adventure. And that’s before the horrors kick in.

Part of the Lovecraftian feel of The Searching Dead (which has none of the grotesquely comic feel of Campbell’s most recent Lovecraftian fiction, The Last Revelations of Gla’aki, and in fact often feels quite low-key and restrained for the often hallucinatory Campbell) comes from parallels with “The Dunwich Horror”. Mr Noble was conceived shortly after his father, a soldier in France during the Second World War, came, during that conflict, to a field he felt held a presence that was hungry for the dead. And the feeling that Mr Noble himself is somehow, in part, parented by that presence (just as the Whateley twins were by Yog-Sothoth in Lovecraft’s story) is intensified when we meet the next generation, Mr Noble’s precocious two-year-old Tina.

campbell_probablyKnowing something of Campbell’s own life, it’s impossible not to read biographical elements into The Searching Dead. Dominick has obvious parallels to the young John Ramsey Campbell: raised as a Roman Catholic in 1950s Liverpool, spending his Saturdays watching films at a variety of local cinemas (Dominick tries to sneak into his first X-rated one, about giant ants), and making his first steps in developing as a writer (Dominick finds that he prefers Lucky Jim to The Devil Rides Out, for instance). At the same time, I can’t help reading a shadowy sort of inner biography in the contrasting Noble family. Reverse the sexes, and that family sketches Campbell’s own from when he was growing up. Two-year-old Tina Noble is the entire focus of the mentally-unbalanced/visionary Mr Noble, to the extent that Tina’s mother is ousted from the family; Campbell himself has written about his mother’s increasing mental illness, and how she forbade his father from having any contact with his son, despite living in the same house. Even the presence (and death) of Mr Noble’s father echoes that of Campbell’s maternal grandmother, who lived with Campbell and his mother for a while before her death. It’s as though the biographical portrait of Campbell-as-Dominick is completed by its shadow in Campbell-as-Tina.

The whole novel has a stifling air of religious repression, where conventional religion is used by adults as a force for coercion, control, and setting harsh limits on the inner development of the adolescent protagonists. In contrast, Mr Noble’s beliefs, though horrific, at least seem to be offering genuine truths (he does make the dead come back, after all), however bleak those truths are. But his answer to conventional religion’s repressive frustrations of inner growth is a cosmic breaking of the limits of self that can too easily result in having one’s individuality devoured by something far larger, and darker. In The Searching Dead, death is not the end, but the beginning of a far greater terror, when memory — one of the defining features of selfhood in this novel (and, so the prologue implies, in the trilogy as a whole) — becomes increasingly difficult to hold onto.

I’m really interested to see where Campbell takes this series. Obviously, the title implies Daoloth, the dead-devouring entity that begins to come through in this book, will be making two more appearances, presumably at significant later stages in Dominick’s life. Hints at the start and end of the novel imply things aren’t always going to go as well as they do in this one, whose ending, nevertheless, addresses the loss of childhood innocence thanks both to events in the normal world (the implacable advance of adolescence putting its inevitable strain on relationships in the Tremendous Three, for instance) and in the wider realisation of more terrible truths compared to which Dominick’s conventional religious upbringing, repressive though it is, is a comforting childhood dream.