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.

The Nameless by Ramsey Campbell

Fontana edition. Cover by Les Edwards.

Successful literary agent Barbara Waugh is working late in her office when the phone rings and the voice on the other end of the line says, “Mummy.” At first she thinks it’s her assistant’s daughter, but when she says, “This is Barbara Waugh herself speaking,” the voice says, “Yes, Mummy, I know.”

But Barbara’s daughter Angela, born thirteen years ago, is supposedly dead. She was taken from her daycare centre by a man purporting to be her uncle, and the police found a body they were sure was hers (though it was too badly injured for definite identification). Barbara, whose husband died in an accident just before the birth, has spent the intervening nine years living with the loss and guilt of what happened, but now it seems she has even more reason to feel guilty: all that time, her daughter was alive and in the hands of a cult.

The cult are a group who take up residence in a series of derelict houses, moving constantly. They seem to be linked to a group in California that “one of Manson’s women had described as worse than the Family”, a group whose leader believes the worst murderers in history had all “been driven to experience the worst crimes they could on behalf of something outside themselves”. To better serve this “something”, cult members relinquish their names, becoming indistinguishable parts of “the Nameless”.

Ramsey Campbell’s 1981 novel The Nameless is about an archetypal fear. The cult are described at one point as being “into some very bad things, black magic and torture and that sort of stuff”, and this may sound rather vague but, really, that is the point. They are the embodiment of the most primal of parental anxieties about what may happen to a child, and the sort of hands they might fall into. And though it digs into some powerful themes, The Nameless is not so much a considered exploration of ideas as it is a cry of pure anxiety, a nightmare confrontation with the deepest fears centred around parenthood, nurturing, and creativity, and the vulnerabilities these things open you up to.

Family has always been a powerful theme in Campbell’s work, where it can be a sort of psychological crucible from which people emerge damaged and humanly flawed, or, sometimes, as monsters. This was addressed in his earlier novel, The Doll Who Ate His Mother, though that book only focused on one end of the equation, the effect their upbringing had on the novel’s adult characters. The Nameless is more about the other side of the equation; it’s about parenthood, and how having a child opens you up to a whole new set of fears and vulnerabilities.

Barbara Waugh feels she failed her daughter by going back to work and leaving her in someone else’s hands, even if only during the working day. Now she finds that Angela has fallen into the worst hands imaginable, a cult of sadists whose aim is to serve the darkest of forces, and to turn its members into inhuman monsters. There’s a sense, in The Nameless, of families as separate, embattled units, with some, like those of Barbara’s author-client Paul Gregory, or the family of cult-escapee Iris, driven to being suspicious of all outsiders and loyal only to themselves; or of failed families, such as that of Barbara’s friend Ted Crichton, whose divorce has led his wife, Helen, to use their daughter against her former husband in a not-so-subtle emotional conflict. And, of course, cults are a sort of family, too. (Evident in Campbell’s reference to the Manson “Family”.) The Nameless seek to erase the most obvious thing that binds a family together — their shared name — but another family Barbara briefly encounters is a somewhat more harmless occult group in Glasgow, the Undying Light, whose members seem to have achieved unity through a similar loss of individuality:

“…they looked manufactured by whatever factory produced families for television series, a fresh-faced young man and woman between an older couple, all their instant identical smiles gleaming.”

MacMillan hardcover. Art by Norm Walker.

After the deaths of her husband and daughter, Barbara has focused on her career, in which she “mothers” her authors and “midwifes” their books, and creativity is another theme in The Nameless. Writing a book and sending it out into the harsh world of publication is a way of opening up one’s vulnerabilities, and Barbara, as a literary agent, is on the forefront of that moment of first contact between a writer and the world. The Nameless seem to attract people with artistic abilities, and what the cult do could be seen, in a very twisted way, as creative or expressive. But the point about the Nameless, perhaps, is that their own particular (perverted) form of creativity is for their own consumption alone. The young woman journalist Gerry Martin, who infiltrates them, finds drawers full of photographs and films, no doubt of their own, or others’, acts of torture and murder, but when Barbara looks through a house previously inhabited by the cult, she finds only the ashes of these photos and films. The cult don’t share their work; they consume it themselves, then it’s gone. Stifled or thwarted creativity is another of the book’s themes. (Of Barbara, thinking of all the rejected novels she handles, Campbell says, “It unnerved her to imagine how much frustrated creativity there might be in the world.”)

It’s as though The Nameless is presenting, in nightmare form, the anxieties of a very human dilemma: on the one hand, there’s the vulnerability that having children, or producing creative work, opens you up to, through the possibilities of loss, rejection, betrayal, manipulation, and exploitation; on the other, there’s the idea that a highly embattled and secret creativity can, through being divorced from the stream of human contact, find itself serving dark, inhuman powers. Creativity, and family, make you vulnerable, but to be vulnerable is to be human; to turn away from that vulnerability is to turn away from your humanity, and to do that is to serve the darkness.

The Nameless was released as a film in 1999, as Los Sin Nombre, from Spanish director Jaume Balagueró. It drops the (relatively minor) element of Angela’s psychic abilities and adds another twist to the ending, while generally upping the pace and incorporating some truly gruesome effects. I can’t feel it has the same psychological intensity as the novel, nor the same focus on a mother’s (here an editor, Claudia, played by Emma Vilarasau) anxiety to find her lost child (and the many female roles in the novel are pretty much reduced to just Claudia, whose active role is also somewhat reduced, for much of the film), but it does have the occasional good creepy moment.