An interview with Ramsey Campbell


Since first gaining recognition for his work in the 1960’s Ramsey Campbell has been widely praised as the one of the leading authors of horror, labeled by some as an equal to Lovecraft himself. He has worked in dark fantasy, thrillers, and science fiction as well, with his work winning countless awards. Ramsey is a lifelong president of the British Fantasy Society.

His newest works include the novella out now, The Last Revelation of Gla’aki, the new collection Holes for Faces due out in August, and the forthcoming novella The Pretence due out this Fall.

What were you like as a child? What would you say are some of your fondest memories from that time?

I suppose they would mostly involve my mother. When I was younger we drew pictures together, played word games and board games and cards and ball games, the last of which must have been a trial for her, since she’d suffered a prolapsed womb at my birth. She encouraged me to write and to finish what I wrote. Her favourite film, to which I accompanied her dutifully on each reissue, was Gone with the Wind, though often when she revisited a favourite old film or book her disappointment would convince her that someone unspecified had changed the text (Edgar Wallace novels, which proved less surprising than when she had first read them, were among the commonest offenders). At home we listened to radio shows together – plays and serials and comedies, though she never liked Spike Milligan’s “Goon Show” with its gleeful explosion of taboos – or simply sat by the fire and read (sometimes the same authors: Patricia Highsmith, Ray Bradbury, Cornelia Otis Skinner). I was always enthralled when she told me her memories: of Father Young, a Catholic priest who used to scuttle after her and her sister in Lon Chaney’s latest role; of working at Rushworth’s department store in Huddersfield where eventually she became a buyer and where her assistants used to confide all their problems to her; her years at the Ministry of War Transport, and the Christmas Day she had been working there alone while a man prowled the deserted street outside; her chaste love affairs which she always terminated; her pet dogs, one of which another dog-owner had kicked to death; the plots in great detail of films she’d admired, The Barretts of Wimpole Street, the Mamoulian Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the Claude Rains Phantom of the Opera… It was her way of sharing herself, which she did with a very few people – too few.

Do you remember what your very first favorite story was?

There were many I enjoyed, but the first I vividly recall looking forward to rereading and did indeed enjoy at least as much the second time round – I would have been nine or ten years old, I believe – was Conan Doyle’s The Lost World. Its sense of awe and wonder lingers still.

As someone one who had a relative that struggled with mental illness what advice would you offer other that might be dealing with a similar situation?

I fear not much from my actual experience. “It will end eventually”, perhaps, and a sense that other people have been through it and survived.

What do you think is the most important thing you learned from the experiences you had with your family early on?

That one’s perception of reality (or, in this case, my mother’s) need not be the same thing as objective reality. I was three when I realised this – specifically, at the end of a fierce argument my parents had, ending at the front door. This contained nine small panes of glass, reaching from chest level to the top of the door. My father blocked the door from outside as my mother tried to close it; presumably they were struggling for the last word in the argument. My mother’s hand went through one of the panes. I remember her dripping bright red blood and crying out that he had deliberately closed the door on her hand. The sight of blood except for my own has distressed me ever since. A neighbour – Gladys Trenery from next door – looked after me while her husband took my mother to hospital. I suppose they humoured her to calm her down, but then I thought they were accepting her version of the incident. Since my father had fled, I tried to set the record straight. What did I know about it? I was only three years old. I don’t think it’s fanciful to relate one of my recurring themes – the difference between perception and reality – to this. I don’t think I ever accepted my mother’s belief throughout my childhood that various radio programmes and newspaper cartoons were about her or addressed to her by some of our neighbours in disguise.

Do you think society’s view on such matter has improved much with time?

I don’t know that I’m qualified to judge. It seems commoner to hear that mental illness is a disease just like any other. Too often it appears to be used as an excuse, absolving the patient from making moral choices and taking responsibility for their actions. A bookseller friend of ours was murdered by a lunatic who wanted vintage postcards John had collected. Our neighbour opposite is a member of a string quartet, one of whom was stabbed to death by a schizophrenic in the street. The chap who lives next to him was attacked by another such person who used to live in a so-called care home (minus any care) next door to us – the victim was confronting him for stalking the chap’s teenage daughter. All these people were treated as not responsible for what they did. Perhaps I’m biased by all this, but you can see why I write some of what I write.

Did you develop your love of film early on? What are some of your favorite films?

I suppose I really fell in love with the cinema when I was nine – my first viewing of This Island Earth, the first time I was overwhelmed by the intensity of colour in a film. (The DVD confirms my memory.) Serious filmgoing began for me when I was fourteen and could pass for sixteen so as to watch any number of the films I’d read about and seen illustrated in Famous Monsters of Filmland. But that quickly led elsewhere – I encountered Bunuel’s Los Olvidados as support for Bert I. Gordon’s The Cyclops, and it was a revelation (I’m sure I owe to it some of the combination of urban grit and the uncanny in my tales). Other films had an influence around my mid-teens too – Last Year in Marienbad in particular.

As for favourite films – well, my list has changed over the decades, but a few are firmly ensconced. They include Les Vampires (Feuillade), Perfect Day (Laurel and Hardy), Make Way for Tomorrow, Bringing up Baby, La Regle du Jeu, Singin’ in the Rain, Sansho Dayu, Vertigo, Touch of Evil and Night of the Demon.

Do you think the film industry of today is lacking in imagination when compared to the early classics?

Not when we have directors such as David Lynch (half a dozen of his films genuinely terrify me), Michael Haneke, Ben Wheatley, Richard Linklater, Abbas Kiarostami, Todd Haynes, Martin Scorsese and quite a few others.

Why do you think the world has always enjoyed things that fuel the imagination and offer a bit of escapism?

Well, they aren’t necessarily the same thing. If we had no imagination I think we would have no souls (which isn’t to suggest that the latter are imaginary – I’m hoping not). I think things that enrich the imagination are a basic human need. Escapism – I forget who pointed this out, but while we may escape imaginatively into the fantastic in art, we aren’t usually escaping from anything by doing so. In any case I think fantasy in all its forms – horror fiction certainly inc;luded – can throw a different light on reality and allow us to renew our experience of it.

What do you love most about the art of writing?

Surprising myself. Whenever I’m writing a first draft in particular I always want to write something I didn’t know I would until I got to it. It’s an edgy process but works for me (so I keep telling myself).

You have written often of the supernatural. What are your feelings on such things? Would you say you are a believer of things we cannot explain?

I grow more agnostic as I age. I do think the house we live in is haunted – mostly the guest room up here on the third floor next to my workroom. Here’s the most spectacular incident:

My wife Jenny and I had discussed befriending the room by spending the night up there together. During one of my attempts to let her sleep without my snoring I wakened at about two in the morning to discover that she’d decided to try the experiment. It was only when I opened my eyes and reached for her that I realised the silhouette next to me, its head on the other pillow, wasn’t Jenny. I tried for a very long time to move and cry out. Apparently I achieved the latter. In our bedroom on the floor below Jenny heard me make some kind of protest, but I’ve often exhorted her not to wake me if I’m having a nightmare, because I believe these dreams contain their own release mechanism, and I resent being taken out of them before the end. Jenny headed for the toilet on the middle floor, and when she returned I was still making the noise. Perhaps I was dreaming, in which case it had to be the longest nightmare, measured in objective time, that I’ve ever experienced. It consisted purely of lying in the bed I was actually in and trying to retreat from my companion. I admit to never having been so intensely terrified in my life. After minutes I found myself alone in the bed. I made myself turn over and close my eyes, but had a strong impression that a face was hovering above mine and waiting for me to look. Meanwhile, downstairs, Jenny felt an intruder sit beside her on our bed.

Are there any little known things about yourself that your readers might be surprised to learn?

Not if they’ve read my non-fiction, which is as openly autobiographical as I can make it whenever it needs to be.

How do you feel about being labeled one of the best authors in the horror field? Did you ever imagine when you wrote your first piece that it would lead to such notoriety?

I’d say people have been very kind. When I wrote my first pieces – the Lovecraft imitations, which were the first tales of mine eventually to be published after all the necessary revision – I didn’t even expect to be published.

Can you tell us a little about your latest releases The Last Revelation of Gla’ aki and The Pretence?

Gla’aki is a return to my Lovecraftian roots – an attempt to scrape away the conventions I employed in my first book and get back the visionary quality of Lovecraft’s greatest work. I’m not claiming I achieved it, just saying I tried. Pete Crowther of PS Publishing actually proposed it, and I’m grateful to him. The Pretence is also a novella, on the theme of coming back home from abroad and finding things strangely changed.

You are also releasing your newest collection Holes for Faces in August. What can your readers expect from this one?

I tried to sum the contents up like this: uncanny dread, and disquiet and terror, but also poignancy and comedy of paranoia. One theme runs through all the stories: youth and age.

Do you still get excited when you release your work to the public?

Apprehensive, more like – fearful I’ll be revealed as never having known what I was doing, or if I was, folk will see it wasn’t very good.

Is there any one subject you’d most like to cover in your work that you have yet to?

Not that I’m aware of. I don’t suppose I will be until it presents itself – that tends to be the way for me.

Do you have a dream project you’d most like to see come to completion before your time is up?

To write a tale that achieves the sense of awe I find in the best of Blackwood and Machen and Lovecraft. Meanwhile, the omnipresent Pete Crowther has proposed an interesting project that would occupy me for years – we’ll see.

How do you hope to be remembered when your time does come?

To have been worthy of the best traditions of the field and to have brought something of my own to it – I’ll make a claim for comedy of paranoia. But the most I think my stuff deserves is to be remembered as at best an honourable failure.

Is there anything else you’d like to say in closing?

That horror fiction at its best is a literary form, as legitimate as any other, with a considerable tradition. I hope to see more writers working in it on the basis of being aware of that tradition – many are.

2 thoughts on “An interview with Ramsey Campbell

  1. I’ve been reading Mr Campbell since The Hungry Moon which is well over twenty years. He has a loyal readership and hundreds of followers on Facebook. I know a number of people who read him. Failure hardly but it is shame we don’t seem him published by the big houses any more.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s