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.

Dark Companions by Ramsey Campbell

Fontana PB

When his previous two collections, Demons by Daylight (1973) and The Height of the Scream (1976), came out, those books were the definitive statements of who Campbell was, as a writer, at that time. But with Dark Companions (published in 1982), things are slightly different. Campbell is now publishing novels, having four out under his own name (including The Doll Who Ate His Mother, and The Nameless, which I’ve reviewed here on Mewsings), and three novelisations of Universal horror films under the pen-name Carl Dreadstone. All but one of the stories in Dark Companions were written after Campbell became a full-time writer. Three won awards (two World Fantasy, one British Fantasy), and one (“The Companion”) was praised by Stephen King (“one of the three finest horror stories I have ever read”) in his 1981 book about horror, Danse Macabre. It feels Campbell has come a long way from the author of Demons by Daylight who was grateful for T E D Klein’s review that proved that one person out there, at least, got what he was trying to do.

Looking at his development as a writer, it’s obvious that by this point Campbell has found his voice and is comfortable enough with it to, for instance, branch out in directions he perhaps wouldn’t have tried in those earlier two collections. For example, he groups six of the tales collected in Dark Companions as “a kind of tribute to the old EC horror comics” — very short stories, often told in the second person, these are macabre twist tales, often using traditional horror elements such as vampires, witches and the creations of mad scientists, with part of the point of each tale being for the reader to work out exactly who the “you” being addressed in the narrative is. They’re not exactly jokes, but they certainly employ a sort of dark humour and a lightness of intent you don’t find in those earlier two collections.

Cover to Demons by Daylight (Arkham House)

Eddie Jones art to Arkham House edition of Demons by Daylight

The stories in Demons by Daylight and The Height of the Scream often felt like almost raw slices of the author’s own experience (in his introduction to Dark Companions, Campbell says his second collection was “sometimes so personal as to be wilfully incomprehensible”), redolent of the times they were written in — the years following the 1960s social revolutions — and the stage of life Campbell presumably was in at the time, with most of the protagonists being in the early stages of adulthood, often students, forming their first adult relationships, starting new jobs, discovering themselves (and often, this being Campbell, losing their sense of self in the process). With most of the stories in Dark Companions, the experience feels less raw. And while it means that something of that feeling of immediacy is lost, the stories gain, often, by feeling they are rooted a bit deeper in a more considered, or digested, experience.

One example of this is that a lot more of the stories in this collection are about childhood fears, or children’s encounters with horrors, as though Campbell could now take the time to trace the roots of fear to a deeper level. (Though my favourite story from Demons by Daylight, “The Guy”, from 1968, also fits this description, which goes to show how perilous it is to make sweeping generalisations about an artist’s development.) “The Companion”, for instance, is about a grown man, closer to retirement than childhood, who thinks himself well past the fears that kept him awake when he was young. Something of a tourist of childhood nostalgia, he spends his holidays visiting old fairgrounds. A trip on a ghost train he keeps trying to persuade himself is disappointing rather than redolent of his own, very personal, childhood fears, of course ends with him discovering that there’s no way of running from fears if they’re intent on coming after you. “In the Bag”, about a hypocrite headmaster, is another tale along similar lines. “The Chimney” — which Campbell calls, in the introduction to a “best of” collection, Dark Feasts, “disguised autobiography — disguised from me at the time of writing, that is” — is another tale about childhood fears and its protagonist’s attempts to overcome them. Like “The Guy”, it’s focused on a particular holiday (something that’s true of another tale of childhood horror, here, “The Trick”), and, like “In the Bag”, it’s a horror that’s only fully realised when the young boy narrator is grown up, though in a poignant, rather than simply horrific, way.

Mark Watts cover

As well as these tales of childhood horrors catching up with adults, there are stories that take place entirely during childhood/young adolescence. “Mackintosh Willy” is perhaps my favourite example of the latter, being centred around a shelter in a park where a particularly scary tramp was to be found, until he died there. But although the narrator of the tale is the one who finds the body and reports it to the police, someone else, in the meantime, has snuck in and put a pair of Coca-Cola bottle caps on his eyes — an act of mocking the dead that will have consequences. “The Man in the Underpass” (a story I always want to rename “The Man Without Underpants”) is narrated in a sort of what-we-did-in-our-holidays way by 11-year-old Lynn. When she and her friends see a pagan-looking figure scrawled on the wall in an underpass, they find it worthy of a snigger or two, but one girl, the religious-minded Tonia, is more deeply affected. The thing that doesn’t quite work for me, in this tale, is how Tonia identifies this figure with an Aztec deity, one she calls Popocatepetl, having found the name in a library book. It’s never explained what an Aztec figure should be doing in an underpass in England, or why Tonia should insist it have this particular name, even when she’s told it’s of a volcano rather than a god. Perhaps Tonia has just got it wrong, or perhaps there’s an aspect of Aztec mythology I can’t find out about, but it seems to me the figure is more like the home-grown Cerne Abbas Giant, who would at least have more of an excuse for being there.

Every so often (as with “Cold Print” and “The Franklyn Paragraphs”, which I spoke about in a review of Campbell’s Visions from Brichester), it feels that Campbell writes a story that is as much about horror as it is a tale of horror, and in Dark Companions there’s “The Depths” which, though not my favourite tale in the book, feels like it’s perhaps the most important, in terms of Campbell trying to say something about his particular field of endeavour. The protagonist, Miles, is a crime writer who has decided to spend some time in a house where a particularly horrific murder occurred, so as to better write about it. But when he finds his head being flooded by visions of other crimes, full of details even he finds horrific, he leaves. He soon discovers, though, that the crimes he imagined have subsequently occurred, and that only by writing these visions down can he stop more from occurring. Like The Nameless, this is a story about the most horrific crimes being inspired by some extra-human force outside their perpetrators. Or, perhaps, something deep inside:

“No wonder they were so terrible, or that they were growing worse. If material repressed into the unconscious was bound to erupt in some less manageable form, how much more powerful that must be when the unconscious was collective! Precisely because people were unable to come to terms with the crimes, repudiated them as utterly inhuman or simply unimaginable, the horrors would reappear in a worse form and possess whoever they pleased…”

Miles sees images of horror all around him, and notices the way people are simultaneously fascinated and disgusted, prurient one minute, disowning them the next. He even feels disgust at some of his own stories, published in one of the more lurid magazines under a pseudonym. Finally, though, he comes to understand something of his role as a writer about horror: freighted with so many violent images, he starts to realise he’s something of a scapegoat, loaded with humanity’s darker impulses. And you know what happens to scapegoats…

The Way of the Worm by Ramsey Campbell

The Way of the Worm, cover art by Les Edwards

The concluding book in Ramsey Campbell’s Three Births of Daoloth trilogy brings things up to the present day (the previous two being set in the early 1950s and 1980s). At the start, a now retired Dominic Sheldrake finds himself living alone after the death of his wife. Though her loss haunts him, it leaves him free to investigate the dubious religion, the Church of the Eternal Three, their son Toby and his family (wife Claudine and daughter Macy) are involved with. Many of the children treated at the Safe to Sleep clinic from the previous novel, Born to the Dark, are now grown-up members of this church, and Dominic suspects his old adversary Christian Noble, along with Noble’s daughter Christina and her son Christopher, are behind it. He allows himself to be initiated into the Church with a guided meditation, and if what he experiences during that isn’t enough to confirm his fears, they’re only deepened when he’s given a copy of this new religion’s icon, an Ouroboros-like many-armed creature which Dominic’s granddaughter disconcertingly calls his “worm”. By this point, he’s met with the Nobles again — now going under a new variation of their surname — and is convinced the Church of the Eternal Three needs to be stopped.

The Searching Dead, cover by Les Edwards

I like the way Campbell has structured his trilogy. Rather than simply splitting a long story into three parts, he’s revisited the life of his main character at three significant stages in his life — adolescence, middle age, and old age — in each of which Dominic encounters the Nobles again and gets a deeper glimpse into the horror they’re helping bring into our world. In the first book of the trilogy, The Searching Dead, Dominic was on the verge of his teenage years, and though he was hemmed in by the old-fashioned beliefs of his parents and teachers, and a religion he could no longer fully believe in, his hopes were firmly set on his future. Adulthood would bring an end to the childhood loneliness he sometimes felt, and he faced up to the supernatural with a genuine conviction that it was a wrong he must set right. But if childhood is a time of hope and ideals (even if also of fears and self-doubts) middle age, in the second book, is a time of compromises. In Born to the Dark Dominic has a family of his own, and so, surely, a guarantee against those moments of childhood loneliness. But family (as so often in Campbell’s fiction) is something that must be fought for, and in this book Dominic kept his family together only by compromising his beliefs, and the horror, in its second incursion into our world, felt larger still, perhaps already too large for any human being to stand against.

Born to the Dark, cover by Les Edwards

In The Way of the Worm, with Dominic approaching the end of his life, there’s the inevitable loss of friends and loved ones, and a feeling of having lived too long with the results of earlier compromises. All this brings a last-ditch determination to his efforts to finally defeat the Nobles. But at the same time there’s a real sense of a life derailed by this need to fend off inhuman horrors — “I was starting to feel as though [Christian Noble] and his family bounded my entire life,” Dominic says at one point — and even, at times, of responsibility, either for not having acted decisively enough beforehand, or for inadvertently helping these cosmic forces on their way.

Set against this is the Nobles’ unshakeable belief that what they’re bringing into our world will come anyway. They are simply ushering in what no-one can stop. There’s a horrific self-assurance to the Nobles, whose eerie family of three, and the beliefs they espouse, sum up another theme that’s often appeared in Campbell’s fiction, the lure of giving up one’s individuality in order to join something larger than oneself (often something supernatural), particularly when the alternative is a (much more human) isolation. Such families and cults (the two becoming difficult to separate, at times) have often appeared in Campbell’s fiction, as with the family of occultists who pop up briefly in The Nameless, looking “manufactured by whatever factory produced families for television series… all their instant identical smiles gleaming”. The Nobles have a similar air of not really being three individuals, but three barely-separable faces of a single, perhaps inhuman entity (“a mask worn by a void”, as Campbell says at one point). In Campbell’s fiction, genuine, human families are constantly embattled and vulnerable, but the supernaturally-allied cults and Noble-like families which seem to share a single, bleak, soulless soul get that sense of belonging without the need to fight or compromise, they merely have to surrender what makes them human.

Providence issue 8, art by Jacen Burrows

I said in my review of Born to the Dark that Campbell’s trilogy felt it was heading for an apocalyptic ending similar to the one Alan Moore presented in Providence, and although that has elements of truth, I think Campbell’s is not quite as bleak, simply because it retains its human focus to the end (as Moore’s does not). Something that can come through in horror — as in, for instance, Alien, which is all about the urge to survive even against the worst odds — is a sort of triumph of humanity not because it wins in the end, but because it has at least fought; and not because it has attained its ideals, but because it at least believed in them and tried to live by them. Humanity may have to be fought for and, yes, inevitably lost, but there’s a real victory to be claimed in its never giving up, despite its failings and vulnerabilities, its losses and compromises.

Which seems like a very un-Lovecraftian conclusion to a Lovecraft-inspired trilogy, but it’s certainly one I’m more inclined to agree with — and I’m not sure a three-book series could have been sustained with only a sort of cosmic despair to drive it on, anyway. (Though the cosmic despair is there. I’m not saying the ending is at all triumphant.) The Three Births of Daoloth is a real achievement, I think, and a deepening of themes that have run throughout Campbell’s work. I’m certainly glad he gave the idea of writing a horror trilogy a go.