Incarnate by Ramsey Campbell

Warner Books edition (1992), art by Oliver Hunter

First published in 1983, and in a revised edition in 1990, Incarnate was Campbell’s fifth novel (sixth counting his pseudonymous The Claw, ninth counting the three Universal Horror movie adaptations as Carl Dreadstone). It’s also significantly his longest at this point.

It starts with several people who’ve claimed to have precognitive dreams participating in an experiment at the Applied Foundation for Psychological Research in Oxford. Dr Guilda Kent hopes that bringing these people together might enhance their abilities. But something goes wrong, and when the narrative leaps forward eleven years, we find the experiment’s subjects doing their best not to remember what happened — or to acknowledge their once-so-central dreams at all. Something from those dreams is nevertheless starting to make itself felt in each of their lives.

The main character is Molly Wolfe, a university student at the time of the experiment, now working as a production assistant at Metropolitan Television, at first with the lecherous Ben Eccles, but as soon as she can moving to work with someone she admires, an American documentarist, Martin Wallace. Wallace receives a film clip apparently showing the police murder of a black Londoner, but when he and Molly start to pursue the matter, Molly finds herself treading a difficult line between what is real and what isn’t.

Joyce, a middle-aged nurse at the time of the experiment, now runs a day-centre for old folk, though one that’s on the brink of closure thanks to the local authority’s redevelopment plans. Her story is told through the eyes of her stamp-dealer husband Geoffrey, who finds himself, when the day-centre is demolished, having to care for one of his wife’s elderly charges while Joyce looks for a new building. The old woman — almost too undefined in feature to seem properly human — takes up residence in the couple’s guest room, where her somnolent breathing begins to pervade the whole house.

Macmillan hardback (1983), art by Jon Weiman

The youngest participant in the experiment was trainee-librarian Helen, who now has a ten-year-old daughter, and has moved to London (from Liverpool) to start a new life after leaving her husband. She insists she doesn’t dream, and demands her daughter Susan shouldn’t either. Susan befriends a local girl, Eve, who seems to have a troubled home life, perhaps doesn’t go to school, and who’s a little too keen to insinuate herself into Susan and Helen’s tiny flat.

Screen projectionist Danny Swain, the only male experimentee, is still living at home, caught between a smothering mother and a disapproving father. None too bright, and bursting at the seams with a host of repressions, he bumps into Dr Kent after straying into Soho following a disastrous attempt at a job interview. Dr Kent, it appears, has moved on to a new project, helping men with their sexual repressions, and Danny is her perfect subject. He, though, starts to see this as an opportunity to revenge himself on the women who, he believes, ruined his life.

And Freda Beeching, a shop assistant in Blackpool, is drawn to London when her friend Doreen’s husband dies. Doreen, a spiritualist, hopes Freda’s dreaming abilities might lead to her receiving comforting messages from the other side. Freda is reluctant, but one night, getting lost on the way home, meets the enigmatic Sage, who convinces her to help her friend.

For me — no doubt in part from it being one of the first of his I read — this is the archetypal Campbell novel, for two key reasons. First, there’s Campbell’s trademark approach of having very real-seeming people caught between their day-to-day practical and psychological struggles, and an encroaching supernatural which overlaps and intertwines with those mundane problems, so that for a time it’s hard to be sure where one leaves off and the other takes over. (Campbell is particularly good at writing about anxiety, which might sound obvious in a horror context, but few writers I’ve read manage to capture that almost neurological distrust of reality in their characters’ viewpoints, which exists before any supernatural events occur.)

Panther PB (1985), art by Steve Crisp

Second, there’s what I might call Campbell’s “soft” horror — by which I certainly don’t mean his horror isn’t hard-hitting, but that, when the supernatural begins to manifest (or incarnate, I should say) it’s both fleshy and formless, tactile but slightly less than substantial, all-too-obviously only trying (and not very hard) to seem like reality: for instance, a face “that looked as if it were in the process of being shaped from putty”, “too pink” and “naked and fat and doughy white”, or footsteps that “sound less like footsteps than lumps of fat plopping on the carpet”. This sort of horror isn’t in every Campbell novel, but it’s one of his characteristic manifestations of the supernatural, and I think this is the first novel of his where it appears. (I’d like to think that, if Incarnate were ever filmed, it would be by a collaboration between Mike Leigh and David Cronenberg.)

As well as its semi-physical nature, the intent of the supernatural is another archetypical Campbell element. As Dr Kent says of the dreaming from which this supernatural threat emerges, “It isn’t a state of mind, it’s a state of being.” The horror, here, is about the human encounter with something utterly inhuman, though one we think we ought to be familiar with. It’s worth comparing it to Lovecraft’s form of cosmic horror (particularly as Campbell was so influenced by Lovecraft). In Lovecraft, the vast entities which are the focus of that horror — Cthulhu, Azathoth, Yog-Sothoth — aren’t antagonistic to humanity, we just don’t register on their scale. We’re like insects to them, and they’ll crush us, our civilisations, and our entire history, without a blink of their three-lobed, multifaceted eyes (if eyes they have). With Campbell, it’s different. His supernatural forces are often interested in humans, but only as a means to enter our world. After that, they won’t destroy us, they’ll absorb us. And as part of that absorption, all that makes us human will be lost.

(Now I think about it, Lovecraft does have the absorption-fear, too, and plenty of it, as in possession-narratives like “The Thing on the Doorstep” and “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”; absorption by one’s ancestral insanity in “The Rats in the Walls”; absorption into an inhuman biological destiny in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”; and absorption by the supernatural, as hinted at in a line like “I am it and it is I” in “The Haunter of the Dark”.)

Granada HB (1984)

The trouble Campbell’s characters face is that, on the surface, there’s an inviting element to that absorption: we lonely, struggling human beings can become part of something larger than us — and so lose our loneliness and our struggles — the catch is, we lose our humanity too. It’s like being rolled into one vast ball of plasticine.

But this sort of struggle — wanting to be part of something, and the threat of being absorbed by it — is already present in Campbell’s fiction in the non-supernatural realm. It’s part of human relationships. Take Helen’s ten-year-old daughter Susan, for instance. She loves to read, and is obviously imaginative, but she knows she’s not supposed to dream, because her mother is very insistent on that fact. Her burgeoning individuality (her imagination) is already being stifled, as her mother is effectively instilling her own neuroses into her daughter (“There are pills for children who can’t control their imagination, you know.”). And you only have to look at Danny Swain to see where Susan might end up. He’s caught between a mother who just wants things to stay as they always were (and uses a constant, unconscious emotional blackmail to ensure they do), and a father who simply crushes any remaining ambition he might have with a barrage of scathing judgements. His mother wants him to remain a boy; his father tells him he’s never going to be any sort of man. Danny’s only way to belong to his family is to disown a core part of himself, and give up on his individuation as an adult. The supernatural, when it enters into it, only makes things worse for both Susan and Danny.

(And it doesn’t have to be family relationships. The scene where Freda’s friend Dorothy keeps her trapped in a nightmare situation through kindness and sympathy, coddling her back into helplessness for her own good, is subtle but very hard hitting.)

Tor PB (1984), art by Jill Bauman

Oddly, in the face of all this talk of absorption into something larger than oneself, the threat in Incarnate comes about through one of the most personal and intimate elements of our human makeup: our dreams. (Another Lovecraftian obsession, too.) We use the word “dreams” to mean what gets to the essence of our individuality: our hopes, wishes, and deepest longings. But we know the actual things, those nightly, often random-seeming, unforgiving, surrealistic romps through the unconscious, are a far different thing. We might want to “live our dreams” — fulfil our wishes — but I doubt anyone would want to live in their actual dreams. They’re too weird. Campbell’s Dr Kent calls it “the dream thing”, a separate, alien order of being, trying to take over our waking reality, with us as the means to do so.

And the “dream thing” has gained its power over us through our refusal to face up to the true nature of dreams. As Dr Kent says:

“We’ve told people that not everyone dreams, we’ve given them the chance to believe that of themselves. We’ve let them ignore their night selves, even though we know that whatever is repressed grows stronger.”

The enigmatic Sage puts it more poetically:

“One may live in a single room of one’s house, but something else will live in the other rooms. Something else will grow there.”

How to fight such an insidious, if soft, invasion? Dr Kent, again:

“What do you think holds reality together if not our shared perception of it.”

Just as our refuge from controlling, repressive, or abusive relationships is our inner worlds, so our refuge from the darker excesses of those inner worlds — the destabilising anxieties, obsessions, fears, and nightmares — is other people. It’s all about balance.

Campbell’s is not a black-and-white world where good and evil are clearly separated. His is a dark, often anxious world, with very porous borders between the real and the unreal, anxiety and perception, the psychological and the supernatural, but it isn’t a wholly bleak one. People can be saved from his horrors — by people. Even if people are also, often, the source of those horrors.


The Riddle-Master of Hed by Patricia McKillip

UK Paperback

First published in 1976, The Riddle-Master of Hed came out the year before Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara, the book Lester Del Rey fixed on for his gambit to turn Tolkienesque fantasy into a commercial genre. I don’t think Del Rey would have been able to do the same thing with McKillip’s trilogy. Though she says it was partly inspired by Tolkien’s riddle games in The Hobbit, it doesn’t have The Lord of the Rings’ realistic adventure style of narrative, but has one foot firmly planted in more literary, poetic, or symbolic fantasy tales. Most of all, to my mind, it belongs on the same shelf as Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, written as it is in the slightly distanced tone of a fable or fairy tale, while world-building in the modern style a unique setting with its own history and forms of magic. Both have that Garner-esque feel of being a work of apparently simple, but deeply artful, literary craft. And both A Wizard of Earthsea and The Riddle-Master of Hed tell the story of their main characters’ quest for individuation, making them feel at least partly allegorical, something commercial fantasy tends to avoid.

The book opens six months after Morgon of Hed has become land-ruler of his home island, following the death of his parents. Land-rule is one of the fantasy concepts McKillip quietly introduces without explaining it, though you pick up details throughout the narrative. It’s a sort of mind-connection with, and awareness of, all that’s going on in one’s homeland, a gift given to the king or queen of each land by the High One, a similarly undefined being who dwells in the far north, in Erlenstar Mountain:

“The High One, from the beginning, had left men free to find their own destinies. His sole law was land-law, the law that passed like a breath of life from land-heir to land-heir; if the High One died, or withdrew his immense and intricate power, he could turn his realm into a wasteland.”

Morgon has been keeping a secret for the last six months. At the time of his parents’ death he’d been studying at the College of the Riddle-Masters — a place that feels, to me, very much like Le Guin’s College of Wizards in Roke — and when he learned of their death, instead of heading home he went to fulfil a quest he’d set himself, of winning a riddling match with the undead wraith of Peven, a task that many others had attempted and failed. Morgon wins, and gains the Crown of the Kings of Aum, which he promptly hides under his bed. Hed is a small island of farmers, and its rulers have no need of crowns or great destinies.

Del Rey PB, art by Darrell K Sweet

But Morgon does have a destiny. On his brow are three stars, and none of the Riddle-Masters in the college could tell him what they mean. But when he learns his father, before he died, had been bringing him an antique harp with three stars set in it, Morgon starts to realise his destiny as “the Star-Bearer” is not something he can ignore, as it has very real consequences not just for himself, but for the people and lands of his world, tying into mythic events of the past, when a mysterious race of “Earth-Masters” (of whom the High One is the only survivor) were destroyed in unknown wars.

Like McKillip’s Forgotten Beasts of Eld, the tone is distant and refined, with none of the characters having a sense of humour, or much by way of emotion. One of the forms of magic in this world is “the Great Shout”, “a thing of impulse rather than premeditation”, which is released at moments of shock or surprise or anger, and which causes objects around to shatter. This feels like the way emotion, when it’s ignored or repressed, tends to come out in such sudden, sometimes violent, and often inappropriate, bursts (as with teenage psychokineticists such as Stephen King’s Carrie). McKillip’s whole cast of characters seems to be suffering from emotional repression.

Morgon’s narrative, meanwhile, is characterised by a spasmodic cycle of moving forward, being confronted by some new fact about the nature of his identity that he doesn’t want to face, whereupon there’s a sudden break, be it fainting, fever, or forgetfulness. It feels like a cycle of traumatic triggering, with Morgon being so unable to face any revelation about his destiny or identity that, when brought into contact with it, he retreats into a state of dissociation, a psychological fugue in which you disconnect from your feelings so as to be cut off from them and their implications. The whole narrative, then, feels overly calm and composed on the surface, with a deep and powerful instability just beneath.

Hardback, art by Michael Mariano

What is it about his destiny Morgon is unwilling to face? In part, it’s the thought of what those whom he loves — his brother and sister in Hed — will think when they learn of the world-level, mythically-rooted narrative he’s tied up in, and the way it is changing him into something very much not the farmer-island princeling they grew up with. (In the novel he learns new powers, such as the ability to shape-change into a deer-like vesta, and he has a fever-dream in which his brother and sister reject him because it’s such a weird ability to have. This is notable because, though the “Rejection of the Call” is a standard story trope, I can’t think of any other fantasy protagonists who shy away from their destinies for such a domestic, and very human-feeling, reason.)

He also rejects his destiny/identity because it seems to be tied in with an ancient conflict that has never been resolved, which is breaking out once more in bursts of supernatural violence. And this is another surprising thing about Morgon’s character, for a fantasy hero: his pacifism. He refuses to carry a weapon. “You can’t solve riddles by killing people,” he says, and:

“If you take a man’s life, he has nothing. You can strip him of his land, his rank, his thoughts, his name, but if you take his life, he has nothing. Not even hope.”

But, in a rather in-your-face bit of reader-goading, for most of the book, Morgon is accompanied by Deth, the High One’s harpist. Although it’s pointed out that Deth’s name comes from his harping master, Tirunedeth, you, as the reader, can’t help feeling you might be expected to take this literally at some level. Is Deth, Death? It’s one of several names in McKillip’s narrative that seem to be daring you to read them as blatant signals. Morgon, for instance, is Prince of Hed. So, is that Head? As in, the intellect (he’s a riddle-solver, after all), and perhaps as in “not-heart”, too (his disconnection from his deeper nature). Deth’s name, it turns out, was directly responsible for someone’s actual death, as we learn from the riddle of Ingris of Osterland, who took the name of his guest, “Deth”, to be “Death”, and died of fright. (This is only possible in a world where no-one has a sense of humour.) But none of the potentially-significant names is resolved in this novel. It is, after all, the first in a trilogy, and ends on a cliff-hanger, after Morgon has learned something of the ancient forces still active in his world, but nothing of any real substance about what it all means.

Riddles in McKillip’s world are all about legends and stories of the past, and like her previous fantasy novel, The Fantastic Beasts of Eld, story is what thickens her world and gives it its story-substance. This is a world woven out of story-stuff, legends and myths of the past, and the legends and myths behind them. Riddles, here, have a three-part form: a question (usually, “Who was X?”), an answer (a story about X), and a stricture (a moral to be drawn from the story).

Which inevitably raises the question, is the Riddle-Master trilogy itself a riddle, consisting as it does of three parts? (Which also tie in with the three stars on Morgon’s head.) If so, this first instalment, The Riddle-Master of Hed, is the question, and its question is “Who is Morgon of Hed?” At the moment, we only know he’s “the Star-Bearer”, and not much more. For the answers, I’ll have to head on through the trilogy, to the next book, Heir of Sea and Fire.