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.

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.