Visions from Brichester aims to collect all of Ramsey Campbell’s Lovecraftian fiction that came after (or was not included in) his first, extremely Lovecraftian, collection, The Inhabitant of the Lake. Doing so, it spans 40 years of writing, from “The Stone on the Island” (1963) to his 2013 novella, The Last Revelation of Gla’aki. What’s more, it spans several interesting changes in Campbell’s writing.
The first, and most obvious, change is the basic one of finding a voice — the themes that inspire him, and the techniques that work for him. To me, the very early stories in this book (“The Stone on the Island”, and “Before the Storm” (1965)) may be imaginative takes on horror ideas, and have the occasional arresting image, but they just don’t work as stories. Certainly not as those from 1966 and 1967 (“Cold Print” and “The Franklyn Paragraphs”) do. It’s illuminating to compare the latter two stories with their early drafts, included here as appendices. “The Successor”, from 1964 (which was rewritten as “Cold Print”) attempts to blend Lovecraftian horror with details from Campbell’s own life and environment, but the literary and biographical influences feel like separate, unmixing streams. “Cold Print”, on the other hand, is a definite artistic success. It draws a clear parallel between its prurient protagonist Sam Strutt’s interest in hard-to-find power-fantasy smut with those ‘searchers after horror’ who, as Lovecraft puts it, ‘haunt strange, far places’. At the end, it even manages to turn the tables on the reader, reminding them of their own dubious pleasure in witnessing Strutt’s comeuppance (‘somewhere, someone had wanted this to happen’). It’s as much a story about horror as it is a horror story. The same goes for “The Franklyn Paragraphs”. The early version is a straightforward horror story; the rewrite is playful, and, once more, about horror, questioning the legitimacy of writing about the supernatural if you don’t believe in it. Yet, it’s also a tale with a genuine horror element — and a genuine human element — as it’s about being trapped: by relationships, by beliefs, or simply by being a conscious, living mind stuck in a corpse in a grave.
By the mid-seventies, Campbell is very much in my favourite mode, combining the kitchen-sink realism of sixties British cinema with an often psychedelically-tinged Lovecraftian horror. Examples of this are “The Tugging” (1974), “The Faces at Pine Dunes” (1975) and “The Voice of the Beach” (1977). The latter two are both set in a real place, Freshfield, where, Campbell says in his afterword, ‘I had several seventies chemical experiences’. Here, the supernatural or cosmic horror is utterly entwined with character-based horror, most notably in “The Faces at Pine Dunes”, whose trapped young male protagonist, living a peripatetic life in his parents’ caravan, starts to find his own place in the world, only to have his few personal gains immediately overwhelmed by awful truths about his parents, himself, and (this being a Lovecraftian tale) the universe.
Going straight from these seventies tales to “The Horror under Warrendown” (from 1994), completely wrongfooted me — I was so intent on the serious mode of those earlier stories that I was halfway through “Warrendown” before I got the joke, let alone that it was a joke. An utterly straight-faced (and highly Lovecraftian) handling of an idea that’s very funny, “The Horror under Warrendown” ends in a brilliant but loving parody of Lovecraft’s febrile crescendoes of prose freaked with scientific terminology (‘Partly vitrescent, partly glaucous… pullulating… internodally stunted…’), which is twice as funny once you realise what it’s describing.
It’s not all comedy from here on. We have another grim piece of socially-minded horror in “The Other Names” (1998), and a tale of writerly horror, “The Correspondence of Cameron Thaddeus Nash” (2010, from Black Wings), whose narrator’s tone can perhaps be detected to a certain extent in Campbell’s own early piece of criticism, “Rusty Links”, also collected here. But Campbell’s later writing as a whole is perhaps best represented by his darkly slapstick Lovecraftian novella, The Last Revelation of Gla’aki (originally published standalone, in 2013). His take on “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, it’s the tale of university archivist Leonard Fairman travelling to the seaside town of Gulshaw to retrieve what is, for him, ‘the rarest Victorian book’, a complete set of the multi-volume Revelations of Gla’aki. He’s at first frustrated to find the inhabitants are intent on running him something of a dance, as, rather than being handed the full set in one go, he has to collect it a book at a time from different people. His strained relationship with his girlfriend (‘He’d learned to find fondness in her voice, since she hadn’t much time for nicknames or other expressions of intimacy’) is contrasted with the very warm welcome of the people of Gulshaw, who insist on calling him by his first name, and seem intent on making him feel one of them. It’s that same theme again from “The Faces at Pine Dunes” and “The Franklyn Paragraphs”: how human relationships can become traps, and how the supernatural can present a weirdly welcoming alternative, where you can become part of something larger than yourself, though perhaps too literally.
The Last Revelation of Gla’aki is, like The Grin of the Dark and The Overnight, at once both stark horror and slapstick comedy; its constant playing with perception is halfway between gleefully nonsensical punning and paranoid horror. Is Leonard’s tale one of cosmic horror or deep fulfilment? It seems to be both — but that’s also a brink Lovecraft seemed to be teetering on in his later tales, such as “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, “The Shadow Out of Time” and “At the Mountains of Madness”.
Visions from Brichester ends with some of Campbell’s Lovecraft-related non-fiction. The early pieces are of mostly historical or biographical interest (in particular his denunciation of HPL, then his denunciation of that denunciation), but the final piece, “On Four Lovecraft Tales”, from 2013, is a brilliant piece of criticism, an insightful look at how Lovecraft achieved his effects through orchestration on a prose level. It’s almost a shock, after the intense, paranoid-hallucinogenic prose of the stories, to find Campbell writing in such a measured, calm and collected manner. I’d love to read more of such in-depth studies by Campbell like this.