Ramsey Campbell talks horror, Victorian fairy tales, and things that go bump in the night.
Ramsey Campbell is a British writer considered by many to be one of the true great masters of horror fiction. His work spans the last half-century, and he has won more awards than any other living author of fantasy and horror. We caught up with him at this year’s Fantasycon for a quick, informal chat.
Starburst: What are your thoughts on horror fiction? Do you think one must experience horror in order to write it?
Ramsey Campbell: I think you have to experience horror in the imagination. That’s what you dream up onto the page. On a personal level, my childhood is a case of nightmares. Someone once said I was born to write horror; I’m not too sure about that. A fair number of horror writers have a strange background. It’s not specific to the field, and I’m not certain if it’s even special to it. That said, I grew up reading adult horror. It was a very small step from reading George MacDonald to fairy tales. Victorian fairy tales were a complete nightmare that have been cut out of the later versions. They use the same kind of suggestions. What is left out is then up to my imagination, for me, that’s how much of the best horror fiction works, even today.
Thoughts on your childhood?
I had a very strange childhood. I lived in a small house with my parents. They became estranged very shortly after I was born, and I didn’t know my father at all for about twenty years, even though he was in the same house. I never saw him, and he became this kind of monstrous figure. My mother suffered from schizophrenia, and at a very early age I had to figure out the difference between what she saw and reality. I had to work that out when I was three years old, you know. A useful perception, obviously. That’s defined a lot of what I write, this difference between what is perceived and what is real. That was a long answer. (laughs)
What type of influence did H.P. Lovecraft have on you, in particular your early work?
Oh huge. Huge! I read a number of anthologies from the library when I was young and teenage. You couldn’t get a book on Lovecraft, and it wasn’t until 1960, I believe, that the first ever paperback collection of Lovecraft stories came out called, Cry Horror. They contained Call of Cthulhu and Rats in the Wall. Some of his masterpieces. Also some of his lesser stuff like Moon Bog. But I read that through in a single day, and I was completely steeped in it. I knew that was what I wanted to write, basically. But I didn’t write short stories or a novel for at least three years. At eleven I completed a terrible work called, Ghostly Terrors, which was everything I read just stuffed together, but it gave me focus. I knew this was the kind of thing I wanted to do, and I wanted to imitate. But I hadn’t travelled, never gone further than Southport, and Lovecraft’s work was set in Massachusetts. I wrote five stories very much imitating Lovecraft. Lovecraft didn’t use dialogue, so nor did I. I unlearned a lot of stuff. I sent the works originally to Arkham House to see if they were any good. They wrote back two pages describing what was wrong with the pieces. Not the least of which, of course, was the lack of dialogue. It’s interesting how many writers start off imitating other writers.
You mention Lovecraft and fairy tales; what other influences did you have in your career?
Fritz Leiber: the first great master of the urban horror story. It’s a bit of cliché that the horror story used to be set in the gothic castle or the remote village or whatever. The thing about Fritz Leiber though was the everyday became the source of the supernatural. He has a love interest in Chicago: the source of the supernatural entity. A lot of his work does this, and he certainly showed me where I wanted to go after Lovecraft.
Would you say there were a number of themes running through your work?
I think they keep popping up, that’s the thing. Sure. The vulnerability of children. In a way I was writing about my own experiences. I suppose the uncertainty of what we see as real, the sheer fragility of everyday existence.
You spoke earlier about religion; as an atheist--
Ah no. As I got older I’m more Agnostic. I do believe you shouldn’t use your childhood as an excuse of what you are; you have to get beyond that. These days I’m edging my bets a bit. (Laughs) A little religious perspective is no bad thing; I have no set belief. I’m not part of Richards Dawkins, put it that way. That wasn’t your question, was it?
No, but it was a good answer. Do you have a belief in the supernatural or anything from your work that could exist in the real world?
In some sense it needs to be rationalised. Ghosts could be some sort of playback, some sort of recording. To be honest I am not a believer in any supernatural goodness, or supernatural evil, and the few times I write about this I don’t think I’ve done very much with it. I don’t think there is any supernatural force out there to make you do stuff.
What do you regard as your best work or possibly the most important?
Needing Ghosts - a novella - that took place within 24 hours. I wrote five pages and thought this was a whole lot stranger than normal, yet extremely funny in a ghastly sort of way. That would be the one I would certainly recommend. Novel: The Grin of the Dark, which is at least five years back. My first internet horror story: monsters go out and use the internet. I’m not opposed to the ‘net in any way. It’s not really a censored medium. It’s a medium of communication. But Grin of the Dark is very much a comedy of a dark kind. I’ve had people say they have had to leave the light on after reading it.
Do you think the same things scare today as they did twenty or thirty years ago?
Essentially they are the same. Not just twenty years ago but as far back at two hundred years ago. Fear of death, fear of the dark, fear of loss, fear of madness - these are constants. These are generic. These are the things that deeply disturb people.
What are your views on the more classical monsters: the werewolf, the vampire, Frankenstein’s creation, and the hot topic of today, zombies?
I’ve watched the films and the classic novels, certainly. There are people who have good ideas with them. I did like the new version of The Wolfman which was a genuine take on a Universal picture. Not just the graphic violence but the atmosphere to it. I’m not sure if I would be interested in writing it though. That said, I did do a novelisation of Bride of Frankenstein back in the 70’s.
What might we expect to see in the future?
Oh, a lot! Almost immediately there’s a novel called Ghost Knows. Which funnily enough addresses the same things we’ve been talking about today. A rodeo presenter who comes under the eye of a maybe fake psychic. Then lots of DVDs and things.
Ramsey Campbell, thank you very much.