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 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.
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’).
In 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.