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.

Obsession by Ramsey Campbell

Obsession_photoI first read Obsession in the late 1980s, as part of my initial burst of Ramsey Campbell-consumption (not literal — I didn’t eat him), when I worked through a local bookshop’s stock of his titles, including those with the horrible photo covers he was blessed with at the time. (Obsession, in fact, had the worst — a woman’s clenched but impeccably-manicured hands covered in what seemed to be soap suds, or perhaps dried potato juice. The book has yet to gain the cover it deserves, I think.)

Obsession was published in 1985, and re-reading it, I was struck by how it in part recalls another book from the same time, King’s IT (1986). Both are about a group of kids from the late 1950s, and a past that comes back to get them in the 1980s. Rather than alternating between the present and the past as King does, Campbell’s novel opens in 1958, then makes a one-way leap to the present. There’s no element of nostalgia, or that whole ‘wonderful world of being a kid’ thing, as with King’s book. Obsession is tightly plotted psychological, perhaps-supernatural, thriller. (It’s a book that proves Campbell is as much a page-turner as a wordsmith.) But the major difference between the two books is their version of evil that the protagonists face.

In 1958, we learn how each of a group of four kids — Peter, Steve, Jimmy and (as with IT, a single girl) Robin — have one thing in their lives they want to be rid of. With Peter, it’s his nagging, controlling grandmother, recently moved in with the family and making everyone’s life a misery; with Steve, it’s a bullying teacher; with Jimmy, it’s his father’s gambling debts; with Robin, it’s a man who’s bothering her unmarried mother. Then Peter gets an anonymous letter offering to help. Writing back, he gets four forms:

“Most of each sheet was blank, not even bearing the box number. WHAT I MOST NEED IS, a line of typescript said, and left several inches of space before the dotted line above the words Without a signature this form is invalid. There was one more sentence. Your price, it said, is something which you do not value and which you may regain.

The four kids fill out the forms, which are instantly snatched away by the same sort of wind that tears the cursed strip of runic paper from Professor Harrington’s grasp in Night of the Demon. Then Jimmy’s dad wins the pools; the teacher who’s been bothering Steve has a heart attack; the man who’s been bothering Robin’s mother gets run over; Peter’s gran falls down the stairs…

obsessiontor86In 1983, things start to go wrong. Policeman Jimmy’s wife is caught in a serious accident, an accident that occurred in an abandoned property supposedly looked after by Steve’s father’s estate agency (where Steve himself works), and as a result the agency gets a bad name and starts losing business; Robin (now a doctor) is accused of dealing in drugs, mostly by her very difficult-to-live-with mother; and Peter hears his dead grandmother, then actually sees her…

But, despite the dead grandmother, who gets a few fright-moments, there’s no equivalent of Pennywise the Clown. The real source of evil isn’t the supernatural, so much as each of the four characters being caught in vice-like situations where only desperate acts seem able to free them. It’s the old saw of being careful what you wish for, or of getting something “for free” when in fact there’s a price, only not one you’d ever have agreed to. It’s in Campbell’s four very human characters, and their very human reactions to the trying situations they find themselves in, that the evil is found.

obsession_02There’s a case for saying Obsession has no supernatural element at all, despite those glimpses of Peter’s dead and dusty-eyed gran. Peter, after all, sustained a head-injury as a kid and still has powerful headaches. Plus, there’s his guilt at what he did (signing the forms being his idea). Like The Turn of the Screw, Obsession could fit into Tzvetan Todorov’s very narrow definition of “the fantastic”, to be applied only to those narratives where you can’t tell one way or the other if the supernatural is real or a delusion. (The Turn of the Screw is, I think, a very Campbellian tale, all about someone coming unravelled under both psychological and pseudo-supernatural pressures, and, as with so many of Campbell’s books, it’s about how this can lead an at-first “normal” adult to endanger the children in their care — as in, for instance, The Claw, Midnight Sun, and The House on Nazareth Hill.) One of Campbell’s characters even says: “I think the supernatural is just something people invent as an excuse for what they do or want to do themselves.”

At the end — right at the end, and only through a now-crazed, or at least highly-disturbed Peter’s eyes — there’s a glimpse that there may be something larger behind it all, but something surprising, and very much unlike Stephen King’s evil alien spider-thing:

“He’d never put a name to the originator of the forms and of all that had happened since, perhaps because he was afraid to do so, afraid to think he had signed a pact with something so evil as it had seemed to him. Yet what kind of evil was it that had shown him that giving in to temptation led to greater and greater suffering? Perhaps it was precisely the opposite of what he had assumed.”

(At one point in the novel, another character says, “If fear is taking the place of religion, so be it.”)

Obsession_ebookIn his afterword to the latest edition, Campbell calls the book (originally titled For the Rest of Their Lives, but changed by the publisher) “one of my earliest comedies of paranoia”, thus tying it in with other such Campbell novels as The Count of Eleven or The Grin of the Dark, or, come to think of it, just about all of his work. But here, the comedy is utterly straight-faced, and more a non-comedy of helpless despair than the sort of twisted slapstick of The Count of Eleven or, say, the weird Innsmouth-like runaround of his recent novella (like Obsession, set in a seaside town), The Last Revelation of Gla’aki.

In contrast to the other King novel I reviewed recently, Mr Mercedes, Campbell never disappoints when rendering a truly human evil. King’s “Mr Mercedes” is almost as much a monster as Pennywise the Clown: both are, ultimately, evil because that’s what they are, they’re evil. If Campbell’s characters are evil, it’s for the opposite reason — it’s because they’re human: weak, fallible, and caught in an awful situation, stuck in a nightmare logic that squeezes them till they pop. Obsession could be the purest example of this in Campbell’s oeuvre, an entirely situation-driven descent into four personally-tailored nightmares. It’s not one of his major novels, though I say that only because he’s written such good ones. Obsession’s still a nice little read.

Skallagrigg by William Horwood

Skallagrigg (hardback), cover by David Kearney

Skallagrigg (hardback), cover by David Kearney

I first read William Horwood’s Skallagrigg twelve years ago, on a word-of-mouth recommendation — actually, less than that, an overheard snippet of a recommendation to someone else — which is a particularly appropriate way to come to a novel that’s about a quest to find the source of a cycle of stories spread among the disabled residents of Britain’s hospitals, institutions and places of care, always by word of mouth, never written down. I’ve mentioned before on this blog, writing about Theodore Roszak’s Flicker, how much I like this sort of quest-for-the-artist kind of tale (I also included Ramsey Campbell’s The Grin of the Dark in the same category; his Ancient Images would be another, as would Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions). Skallagrigg follows a similar labyrinthine path, and although it does so without straying into the supernatural or conspiracy territories of Campbell’s or Roszak’s, it provides a very satisfying and moving conclusion to the quest on all levels, and is, I’d say, one of the most powerful novels I’ve read — and a damned good read, too.

The “Skallagrigg” stories centre around Arthur, brought as a boy at the beginning of the 20th century to a “towering place of dirty yellow brick and sunless, barred windows”, because his cerebral palsy has branded him, in the all too ready-to-label eye of the era’s establishment, an idiot. Arthur is, in fact, highly intelligent, and through a fellow patient who can understand his difficult speech tells stories of a figure he calls “the Skallagrigg”, who will one day come and take him from the hell that is the ward ruled over by a violent, or at best indifferent, staff of supposed carers, and one particular demon with a hooked window-stick known as Dilke. Arthur’s stories spread among the disabled, never the able-bodied, and become a sort of myth, hinting at a promise of hope, of escape, of freedom, perhaps even of cure, until it’s difficult to tell if this “Skallagrigg” is an actual person or a saviour figure — for how else could he or she or it possibly live up to all that Arthur, and the others that hear the stories, hope for?

Skallagrigg (paperback)The novel’s main story follows Esther Marquand, who is, like Arthur, born with cerebral palsy, though into a far more enlightened age. This does not, however, make her journey through life at all easy. On the way there are difficulties to face, both physical and emotional — Esther’s condition, and the circumstances of her birth (born via Caesarian after her mother was killed in a car accident), have torn apart her family. But just as the “quest” strand of Skallagrigg is about bringing together disparate clues to find a lost truth, so Esther’s story is about reconciliation, about facing difficult emotional truths and overcoming them to heal what does not seem can be healed. Skallagrigg is a long book (572 pages in hardback, 736 in paperback), but necessarily long, to properly convey the considerable struggle Esther faces at every stage of both her life and her quest for the source of the “Skallagrigg” stories. As someone who generally doesn’t like long books, I have to say this is one that thoroughly justifies its length. (Which is why the 1994 TV adaptation of the novel by the BBC, though a good film in its own right, can only ever be a whistle-stop tour of the novel’s highlights, a compression of its very full story, and probably best watched after you’ve read the book, otherwise it might wrongfoot you on a few plot-strands. Still, highly recommended as a sort of dessert to the novel itself. Richard Briers never fails to surprise!)

One of the things I love about this book is that it’s also about the early days of home computers (it was published in 1987). Esther’s quest for the Skallagrigg informs her growing ability as a creator of computer games, leading her to make a game that takes the player through as much of an analogue of her own difficult journey as it can — both through life, and in search of the Skallagrigg:

“She must already have made the key decision for ‘Skallagrigg’ [the game she creates] that the journeyer — the player — would have to become successively more severely handicapped if he or she was to reach the end of the quest. The game was becoming a journey into nightmare, of terrible self-acceptance, and the options the successful player would have to make would be ones towards self-abasement, humiliation, weakness and physical destruction in order to gain a spiritual victory.”

Horwood tells of how he came to write Skallagrigg in a lecture given in the 1990s, “The novel and the safe journey of healing”, (later published in The Novel, Spirituality and Modern Culture):

“I picked up a pocket tape-recorder one day and posed myself a challenge. Was there anything, I asked myself, that I could not speak into it. Some secret perhaps. Some unadmitted truth, something, anything…”

By taking up such a challenging and essentially unanswerable subject as the blind injustice of being born so physically powerless as Esther or Arthur, Horwood plunges his reader into a confrontation with the limits we all face. Ultimately the Skallagrigg stories, like the truest stories and mythologies, are about finding a way to deal with the dark areas, the difficult and impossible areas, of life — not by “solving” them, not by having the difficulties magically taken away or made “normal”, but by finding meaning in the face of them, by accepting and then transcending them.

I recently re-read Skallagrigg and found it just as compelling as my first read. (I had in fact forgotten what the ultimate solution to Esther’s quest was, and when it came round again, found it just as spot-on, just as fulfilling of all its hints and puzzles, right down to origin of the word “Skallagrigg” itself.)

A wonderful book.

Two Faerie Novels

coverIn Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale (published earlier this year), a teenage girl disappears into the woods only to return, two decades later, having aged a mere six months. In that time her parents have become OAPs, her brother has married and had children, and her ex-boyfriend, a once-promising musician (who was at one point accused of her murder) has seriously failed to live up to his promise. Joyce’s novel explores the impact of her return, and the sudden perspective it puts upon the passage of twenty years in each character’s life.

coverRamsey Campbell’s The Kind Folk (published last month) opens with one of those “real people’s problems” tabloid-style talk shows, where the host, Jack Brittain, is poised to reveal the results of a DNA test that will prove if, as Maurice Arnold suspects, his grown-up son Luke isn’t really his son at all. Maurice suspects his brother, Terence, who has always been overly proud of the boy, taking him on trips to remote parts of the country and telling him odd little fairy tales. But despite a family resemblance, it turns out Luke isn’t related to either. Nor, even, to the woman he calls his mother. A stand-up comedian with an uncanny knack for imitation, Luke comes to suspect the truth about his origins by retracing, through his uncle’s tersely-worded journal, the odd places they visited, where they always seemed to meet with “kind folk”. Nice people? By no means.

Joyce’s novel uses a multiple viewpoint approach to work at two questions. One, the rational, is just what happened — is the returned Tara really Tara? And can she really still be a teenager, twenty years on? Or is it all self-delusion and an extreme case of arrested development? The other (and far more interesting) question, is how her disappearance and reappearance have affected the people who knew her (among which the most compelling stories are those of her ex-boyfriend Richie, to whom she was a sort of muse, and who, as a result, was left like the traditional fairy-thralled knight, bereft of his inspiration and life-drive; and of course Tara’s own, having lost twenty years’ worth of family life, and finding herself in a world with which she’s now two decades out of step). My one criticism of the book is that I didn’t think the two questions quite gelled. It’s interesting to compare it to Alan Garner’s Boneland, another Faerie-tinged book published this year which also dealt with the devastating, lifelong impact of loss, though in an even more intense way (perhaps because entirely focused on one character). Garner combines the psychoanalytic and fantastic threads of his novel into one meaningful narrative, whereas Joyce spends a chapter psychoanalysing Tara only to disprove it later, which left me feeling a bit cheated. But in Boneland, psychoanalysis, even if it has a dangerous air, is ultimately seen as an aid to self-understanding and self-healing, while Some Kind of Fairy Tale‘s take is more about the abuse suffered at the hands of the profession by people whose experiences have taken them beyond the norm.

For most of The Kind Folk, Ramsey Campbell takes a more traditional horrific approach to the presence of a race of half-seen non-human beings at loose in the world. As usual with Campbell, his novel is mostly about the isolating, destabilising effect of the supernatural on one man’s family relationships, identity, and sanity. But the end managed to step clear of the simply horrific to a glimpse of something a little more magical. A far more claustrophobic but focused novel, Campbell’s worked that little bit better, of the two, for me.

Both The Kind Folk and Some Kind of Fairy Tale are well-written, interesting modern takes on the traditional matter of fairyland. Cornered as it is by hordes of zombies, vampires and teen wizards, I’m wondering if Faerie isn’t becoming one of the last refuges of the fantasy novelist who wants to do something genuinely different. There’s something about these outward blasts of the irrational & incomprehensible, and how they impact on real-seeming human characters, that smacks of those areas of life that fantasy, perhaps, is the best way to write about. The loss of a loved one may have a rational explanation, but that goes no way to explaining or expressing the impact it has on the people who feel the loss. The fantastic can. Besides, there’s something about the Perilous Realm and its inhabitants that, however much they may be commercialised into butterfly-winged, tutu-wearing Tinkerbells, there’s always a dark underside that resists commodification, a marshy creature lurking in the weeds, a too-wild dance echoing from over the next mist-wrapped hill. All too often, vampires and zombies are more and more restricted by rules and behaviours as their literature grows, but Faerie only seems to increase in its ability, the more it’s written about, to be what you don’t expect it to be. (Which may be its defining feature.) Besides, I don’t believe in vampires or zombies, but can’t help being a little bit afraid that if I say I don’t believe in fairies, they’ll get me.