Just in time for Halloween, I would like to present a fantastic interview with the Grand Master of Horror, Ramsey Campbell. Few authors, unless their last names are King or Koontz, can match the number of awards he was received in his long writing career, the Bram Stoker Award, World Fantasy Award, British Fantasy Award, and the list goes on. I encountered his work in my late teens, around the time I discovered H. P. Lovecraft–since much of Campbell’s work is so closely intertwined with Horror’s beloved Bard of Arkham. I read his novel The Hungry Moon way back then. When he and I first started discussing doing this interview, I remembered enjoying that book a lot, but he modestly said, “structurally it’s a mess.” He seems to be one of those authors who is constantly striving for the masterpiece, who believes books that have gone before are not up to snuff. Indeed, few authors have been able to write in Lovecraft’s mythos and achieve the depth, subtlety, and complexity of Ramsey Campbell. His latest book The Grin of the Dark, which I finished reading recently, is an absolutely masterful piece of dark, subtle creepiness, the kind of book that takes a while to digest after the last page. This is the kind of book that makes the reader squirm, and there is nary a drop of gore spilled.
TH: Can you give a brief arc of your career as a writer/author?
RC: I wrote a book of Lovecraft imitations in my mid-teens. Even then I was experimenting with style “The Will of Stanley Brooke” is a Lovecraft tale written in utterly non-Lovecraftian prose. In 1965 I wrote my first recogniseably personal tale, “The Cellars”. It pretty well established my approach and some of my preoccupations. My first real book, Demons by Daylight, was completed in 1969. My first novel appeared in 1976 to little effect. My worst novel, The Parasite, was commercially successful in 1980, and I built on its success but not its contrived attempts to be horrific. In the mid-nineties I had to abandon supernatural novels for a while but since 2000 have published several. I write horror and say that I do. I’m proud to.
TH: Did you ever take the opportunity to travel through Lovecraft country?
RC: Not the country, alas. Just some sojourns in Providence.
TH: Can you put a finger on what it was about HPL’s work that spoke to you?
RC: The sense of cosmic dread, I think. Later on, having imitated the bits that seemed easiest to imitate — his mythos and the superficial elements of his style — I realized that to an extent his reputation is the victim of his mythos. It was conceived as an antidote to conventional Victorian occultism — as an attempt to reclaim the imaginative appeal of the unknown — and is only one of many ways his tales suggest worse, or greater, than they show. It is also just one of his means of reaching for a sense of wonder, the aim that produces the visionary horror of his finest work (by no means all of it belonging to the mythos). His stories represent a search for the perfect form for the weird tale, a process in which he tried out all the forms and all the styles of prose he could.
TH: What is The Story of Ramsey Campbell? Is it a novel? A short story? A poem? A limerick? Does everybody suffer a horrible death? Or just a sense of creeping dread….
RC: It’s all around you if you look. Let’s say unease rather than dread. Some die as they should.
TH: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer? How did you know?
RC: I never “wanted to be” a writer — I actually believe that one is either a writer (however bad) or not. At eleven years old I was already writing my first completed book, Ghostly Tales. The stories in it were patched together like Frankenstein’s monster from fragments of fiction I’d read. My writing had yet to catch up with my appreciation of the genre. Let me quote a single representative sentence from Ghostly Tales: “The door banged open, and the afore-mentioned skeleton rushed in.” It must have been out of a mixture of desperation and maternal pride that my mother encouraged me to submit the completed book — the only copy, handwritten and illustrated in crayon — to publishers. Sometimes it ended up with a children’s book editor, one of whom told me it made her feel quite spooky sitting at her desk. (Childish the book may have been, but it wouldn’t be for children even now.) By far the most positive response came from Tom Boardman Jr. in August 1958. While Boardman was one of the few British houses to publish science fiction in hardcover, they didn’t take ghost stories, but he concluded: “We should like to take this opportunity of encouraging you to continue with your writing because you have definite talent and very good imaginative qualities. It means a lot of hard work to become an author but with the promising start you have made there is every possibility that you will make the grade.”
TH: You’ve been selling short stories since the 1960s. Are there any discrete points where you felt your craft suddenly improved or has it been a steady continuum? How much did you have to write before your first sale?
RC: It was five years after Ghostly Tales, and I’d written a good deal without learning very much, but at fourteen I found an entire book by Lovecraft, Cry Horror. It contained several of his greatest tales, including his finest (“The Colour out of Space”) and some lesser ones. By the time I finished I knew this was the kind of fiction I wanted to write. And I did, altogether too slavishly. Though I’d never left England I set a bunch of tales in Massachusetts, rustic dialect and all. Pat Kearney, another horror fan, suggested that I should send them to Arkham House, Lovecraft’s publisher. That’s how August Derleth came to read them, and he sent me a two-page single-spaced letter setting out in detail what was wrong with them. It was the most important editorial letter of my career, and once I’d recovered from the criticism I devoted myself to rewriting the stories and applying the techniques I’d learned to new work.
By then I was also reading far more outside my genre than within. Just as I’d discovered that mainstream films — Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad — could be more disquieting than most generic horror, so I began to value mainstream fiction that disturbed me: Beckett’s later novels, for instance, and some by Thomas Hinde — The Day the Call Came, The Investigator. Alongside these I relished Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch, Malcolm Lowry, William Burroughs, Lawrence Durrell and many more. Nabokov — initially Lolita, after which I devoured all of his work I could find — was the greatest revelation. Even in an early tale like “The Stone on the Island” (1963) I’m beginning to share his delight in language and its myriad possibilities.
TH: Of course, most writers want to have bestsellers or make some sort of artistic or literary impact, and you’ve already won more awards than perhaps any writer in the horror genre, the Bram Stoker Award, World Fantasy Award, British Fantasy Award, etc. Is there some unrealized accomplishment that you’re striving for in the near future?
RC: Always to write better — to learn from the mistakes (alas, too many of them published) that I’ve made. I think you carry on writing in the hope of achieving that one good tale or book — the one you thought you were going to write last time and then fell short of it.
TH: Have you yet to write that “one good book?” Is this something you can achieve, or is there an inherent perfectionism telling you that every book is not as good as it could be? Is this the artist’s quest for the masterpiece?
RC: I write in hope. If I didn’t keep reaching for the book I haven’t yet written I mightn’t be able to keep my hands off my old stuff, all of which looks ripe for rewriting. (That said, I sometimes find it’s better than I was afraid it was — both The Face That Must Die and The Influence seemed to stand up pretty well in the new Millipede editions.)
TH: What are some of the things that inspire you?
RC: Reality. The arts. My family. Hallucinogenics. Overheard phrases. Passing thoughts. The tradition of my field.
TH: What about the writing process most appeals to you?
RC: Its capacity to surprise me — to produce things I didn’t know I was going to write until I got there. Equally, the sense that it’s to some extent an unconscious process, which means that I can discover on rereading elements that I wasn’t aware of introducing or developing. You have to yield yourself up to the tale and give it time to develop.
TH: When you “yield yourself up to the tale and give it time to develop,” how often does it occur that the tale takes on a life of its own?
RC: Actually, more often than not. Novels are especially liable to generate their own impetus and head for places I didn’t know they were going, much to my delight and occasionally to my temporary apprehension.
TH: Do you let it go or rein it back in?
RC: I feel you have to let it go where it will. Sometimes this actually means I travel so far from the original idea that it’s still left to be written as another story — Incarnate, for instance, began life as an idea about terminal insomnia. (Come to think, Steve King had that one too.) Sometimes I regret the tale that didn’t get written. I think my story “One Copy Only” has some personality, but it could have been as pure as a piece of Ray Bradbury if the narrator hadn’t taken it in various directions I hadn’t originally envisaged.
TH: How much time do you allow for a novel to develop?
RC: The actual writing — between penning the first line and delivering the text to my agents — is liable to take about a year. It can be developing for years before that in my notebooks, though. I was working on the initial notions for The Darkest Part of the Woods in the mid-nineties, but the book wasn’t begun until 2000.
TH: What are the most successful ways you have used to promote yourself and your work? Are there any promising marketing avenues that you might yet explore?
RC: I think authorship has become far too much about marketing. I’d rather write as well as I can and leave marketing to those who know about it (including on my behalf, certainly). I love reading and talking to audiences, though, and people seem to think I do it well.
TH: Is self-marketing and “must” or a “must not” for a first-time published author?
RC: I think it’s probably a good idea if you have the capability. I did very little of it early in my career, though.
TH: Have you reached the point at which you realized that you had “made it” as a writer and author? If so, can you describe the milestone or circumstances where you had that realization? Do you recall how that felt? If not, what is the milestone you’re seeking?
RC: I think there were quite a few. My first anthologisation in 1962, my first book in 1964. Reading T. E. D. Klein’s amazing exegesis of Demons by Daylight, and Joel Lane’s at least equally detailed criticism of my first few novels. Having an issue of Weird Tales, a magazine as magical to me as Arkham House, devoted to my stuff. All these felt splendid.
TH: Some say that professional writers have to look at themselves as a business, a branded commodity. Do you take that approach? Do you write under any pseudonyms?
RC: I just think of myself as a writer if I bother thinking of myself in that way at all. Mostly I just get on with writing and trying to write (always a new problem if you don’t repeat yourself). I’ve used a couple of pseudonyms. The Claw (otherwise Night of the Claw) was credited to Jay Ramsey because my publishers were backed up with forthcoming titles of mine and I wrote this book for someone else, using the pseudonym so that the book wouldn’t be competitive. There were also the Carl Dreadstone books — Universal monster movie novels that were commissioned by Piers Dudgeon of Star Books in London. The original idea was that I should write all six, but two werewolf novels would have been one too many, and since I can’t swim, I wouldn’t have been much use to The Creature from the Black Lagoon. (At the time I didn’t know to suggest David Schow.) We therefore needed a house name, and I originally suggested Carl Thunstone, but Manly Wade Wellman felt people might think it was hiding him. Dreadstone was the compromise. For the record (and no matter how many times I say this, I seem to need to repeat myself) I did not write The Mummy, The Werewolf of London or The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and even Piers can’t recall who did.
TH: What can readers expect to see from you in the near future? What are you working on?
RC: I’ve just completed a new novel, Creatures of the Pool, founded on some of the stranger aspects of Liverpool history and tradition. The novel in the pipeline is The Seven Days of Cain, and I have another one in mind, Ghosts Know. There’ll be short stories too, of course. The one presently in progress –“Safe Words” is a reworking of ideas I planned to use in a novel, Spanked by Nuns, which I’ve aborted because my friend Niki Flynn dealt with the issues much more cogently in her memoir Dances with Werewolves.
TH: What is the most memorable moment (good, bad, or other) you have had in your life as an author?
RC: There have been many. One I treasure is the reading I did in 1976 with Fritz Leiber at Jack Sullivan’s apartment on the Upper West Wide after the World Fantasy Convention in New York. I’ve done quite a few readings at Jack’s and Robin’s — at different times the audience has included T. E. D. Klein, Gahan Wilson, Kirby McCauley, Peter Straub and Jay Gregor — but that was especially special. Fritz read “Little Old Miss Macbeth” and I did “Call First”, which was then one of my party pieces.
TH: Where did the idea for The Grin of the Dark come from?
RC: I think from reflecting on S. T. Joshi’s criticism of Ancient Images — that the old film that’s the basis of the quest in that tale proves not to be as thematically relevant as it might be. Originally the lost material in Grin related to a silent-movie master villain — the idea even suggested a title, The Sixth Face of the Spider — but ultimately the notion of a sinister comedian engaged my imagination.
TH: What is it about the darkness that appeals to you as an artist?
RC: It accords with some of my view of the world.