Scared Stiff by Ramsey Campbell

Cover by J K Potter

After Dark Companions, Campbell’s next all-original story collection was Scared Stiff, which came out in 1986 from the peculiarly-punctuated Scream/Press. All but one of the tales it contained in its original form (Scared Stiff was republished in 2002 with a few more stories), were from the mid seventies, and so could have been included in 1976’s The Height of the Scream. The Scared Stiff stories share a similar feel with those in Height of the Scream, in that the protagonists are mostly young adults seeking to find themselves, often creative people, often experimenting with drugs, often struggling with their first adult relationships. And it’s that “struggling with their first adult relationships” that’s a key part of the stories collected here, as Scared Stiff, subtitled Tales of Sex and Death, are all stories where Campbell veered into more sexually explicit territory.

The 1st Mayflower Book of Black Magic Stories, art by Les Edwards

It started when Michel Parry, editor of the Mayflower Book of Black Magic anthology series (which produced six volumes from 1974 to 1977), said to Campbell that he was surprised he wasn’t getting any stories about sex magic. And this was the seventies. Campbell decided to have a go, and produced “Dolls”, an unusual tale in his oeuvre for being set in the past (the late 17th or early 18th century). Its protagonist, Anne, belonged to a coven of witches when she was a teenager, but lapsed after marrying. When a new parson, Jenner, forbids her furniture-maker husband John from producing the carved figures he so enjoys making, John lends his creative power to the coven (which Anne has returned to after finding herself unable to enjoy the marriage bed), carving figures and using them to curse the coven’s enemies. John has an obvious power, both creative and magical, and after he joins the coven the Devil even starts making personal appearances at their night-time sabbaths, choosing a woman from their number to be his partner. Never Anne, though. Frustrated, she has a plan to make the Devil choose her, and to rid them all of Parson Jenner’s repressive disapproval for good. It’s a heady mix of frustration, power, creativity and desire, and proved to be a bit more explicit than Parry was expecting. He checked it with Mayflower’s lawyers, though, and it was published in The Fourth Mayflower Book of Black Magic Stories in 1976.

J K Potter illustration, for “The Seductress”

Two more of the stories included here were written for the Mayflower Black Magic series. “Lilith’s” is about a young man who gives up on his frustrating (because real) girlfriend and buys himself a sex doll (from, of course, a shop that also sells occult paraphernalia), only to find himself unable to have a relationship with that, either. This might sound comic, but, as with all the tales collected here, the tone is more kitchen sink drama than Carry On. (I can’t help imagining what the dark slapstick humour of later Campbell might make of the same situation, though.) The other story, this time published in The Sixth Mayflower Book of Black Magic Stories (in 1977), is “The Seductress”, whose female protagonist, Betty, rejects her boyfriend, Alastair, when she finds he’s been using black magic to keep their relationship going. As a result, Alastair kills himself, and Betty does her best to forget him, but Alastair learned his magic from his witchy mother, who’s not going to let death get between her precious son and what he wants.

In general, I found the stories in this collection which had male protagonists to be mostly about frustration, an inability to connect emotionally with wives or girlfriends, and an ultimate attempt to get past those frustrations through control (which veers into the supernatural and horrific). On the other hand, those with female protagonists were more about vulnerability — not the passivity of victimhood, though these are of course horror stories and never end well, but more the vulnerability of someone opening up to find themselves through the most intimate of human relationships.

cover by Oliver Hunter

There’s a lot about the blurring of lines between sexual and artistic energy, too. In “The Other Woman” (published in The Devil’s Kisses, an anthology edited by Michel Parry under the pseudonym Linda Lovecraft, in 1976), Phil, a book-cover artist, overcomes a patch of creative sterility when he finds himself painting a new type of woman as the stereotypical victim on his schlocky thriller covers. Not just a new type of woman but, seemingly, an actual woman, with one blue eye, one brown. She’s a hit with the publishers, but less so with Phil’s girlfriend, who ends up writing into a magazine for advice, as she’s sure the increasingly impotent-with-her Phil is having an affair. Phil, like the sex-doll-owning Palin from “Lilith’s”, finds himself better able to have a relationship with an unreal woman than a real one. In “Stages” (written in 1975, but not published till this book, as the anthology it was intended for never came out), the protagonist is a sculptor, who finds himself able to partake in both sides of other people’s sexual encounters when tripping on a new batch of a drug his friend cooked up. In these stories, sexual frustration is often tied to creative frustration, leading to a dangerous mix of the need to create and an inability to relate. As with the stories in The Height of the Scream, there’s a sense of the protagonists veering into territories of new, strange, destabilising and dangerous experience that allows the supernatural to enter into their lives and take over. Sex is just one more element in the mix of creativity, personal experimentation, and forbidden experience you find throughout that earlier collection.

Scared Stiff ends with a tale written especially for this collection, so from 1986 rather than the mid seventies. Like “Dolls”, the story that opens the book, “Merry May” is firmly in folk horror territory. Its protagonist is another frustrated creative, a middle-aged lecturer on music and would-be composer who’s feeling increasingly lonely after a break-up with one of his pupils. In desperation, he responds to an advert offering “Renewal of Life”, and finds himself spending the weekend at a country village, and partaking — of course, a little too closely — in their May Day rituals.

Campbell’s writing, since he broke from the Lovecraft pastiches of his first book, has always had a relentless psychological honesty about it, laying bare his characters’ human weaknesses, desperations, and desires. It’s those human vulnerabilities, in fact, that provide the openings for the supernatural, or the horrific, when it comes along, so the sexual element, so evident in Scared Stiff, doesn’t feel at all bolted on, or prurient. It fits naturally (supernaturally?) into Campbell’s style and approach. And certainly, once we’d been through the 1980s, there’s nothing as extreme here as, say, Clive Barker was writing. (And Barker, fittingly, writes the introduction to Scared Stiff.)

One thing that does remain to be noted is the illustrations for the Scream/Press edition, by J K Potter. Potter’s pre-Photoshop photo manipulations and collages blend an edge-of-reality sharpness of image with a nightmare surreality, and are a perfect match with Campbell’s fiction.