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 Wise Friend by Ramsey Campbell

Patrick Semple, the narrator of Ramsey Campbell’s new novel, is a divorced English Literature teacher/lecturer whose aunt, Thelma Turnbill, was a painter working in a mixed surrealist/mystical vein, somewhat in the mode of Leonora Carrington. Patrick’s fifteen-year-old son becomes interested in Thelma and her work when Patrick shares her journal with him, in which she left some cryptic notes about rural locations she’d got a weird sort of inspiration for her paintings from. Patrick and Roy visit one — the wood behind the house where Thelma used to live — but Roy later starts visiting them all in turn, and not with his father, but his new girlfriend Bella, whom he met at an exhibition featuring Thelma’s work. Patrick starts to worry about his son’s involvement with the occult elements that began to preoccupy his aunt towards the end of her life, and as he investigates what may be driving Roy and (even more) Bella in their quest, he starts to realise he has to find a way to stop them.

coverThe title of this novel, The Wise Friend, made me think of Campbell’s 2012 novel of faerie horror, The Kind Folk, at first because of the propitiatory air of the title — the “Kind Folk” being anything but kind, just as the “Wise Friend”, you can tell, is going to turn out to be something other than a friend. The two books share other elements, though, too: both feature trips to a series of weird rural locations, both feature a cryptically-worded journal, and both are about the relationship between a father and son.

Exploring that relationship between a parent and a child is a perennial Campbell theme — in particular, looking at how being a parent means walking a line that can stray from protection into control. Patrick’s aunt, Thelma, with whom he often stayed, was a lot more lenient than his mother. She allowed him, for instance, to read Hunter Thompson’s Leaving Las Vegas, which shocks his mother when she finds out, because it’s about drugs. Once he’s a parent himself, Patrick is keen to make sure his son Roy knows about the dangers of drugs, but nevertheless encourages (at first) his son’s interest in Thelma’s art, something Patrick’s mother didn’t do.

But if this is a novel about that difficult line between parental protection and stifling control, then the most stifled child of all is the titular “Wise Friend”, a being created to be entirely of use to others, and to have no agency of its own, but who is determined to win that freedom, and with a vengeance.

And perhaps it’s a novel about loss, too. Patrick, after all, has lost his wife through divorce, and his aunt through her death, and perhaps the thought of losing his son, even if it’s just because Roy has quite naturally become more keen on spending time with Bella, his first girlfriend, is one loss too many. Is Patrick’s interference in Roy and Bella’s relationship inappropriate control or necessary protection? It’s one of the great strengths of Campbell’s supernatural fiction that the supernatural and the psychological are so tightly interwoven that his protagonists are usually helpless to convince anyone they’re not just having a breakdown, or (perhaps, in Patrick’s case) some sort of midlife crisis.

The Wise Friend is classic Campbell, an understated but sometimes hallucinatorily spooky exploration of the folkish occult, the dark edges of creativity, and the subtle power of the themes that weave through family generations. It’s amazing how Campbell continues to find fresh lodes of horror to mine, along with a continued inspiration in themes that have been present in his work from (or near) the beginning.

How does he do it? Perhaps Campbell’s own words can explain it best:

“Yet the mind of the mage is not restful, nor shall it sleep…”

You can read more about Campbell’s latest novel at the publisher’s site, Flame Tree Press. It’s out on April 23rd.

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.