Saturday, November 27, 2010

Ramsey Campbell: The Paperback Covers

The prolific Ramsey Campbell, born in Liverpool in 1946, was a staple of Tor Books's horror line throughout the 1980s and well into the '90s (and remains so, I believe). Lately I've learned, through posts and comments on various horror blogs, that horror fans are rather ambivalent about Campbell, who is quite famous within the horror fiction field but not well-known at all outside of it (perhaps he suffers from being the "horror writer's horror writer"?), as author, editor, and critic. Some feel he's overrated and consider many of his stories well-nigh unreadable due to an overly oblique, subtle, or confusing prose style. In Danse Macabre, King likened reading Campbell to taking a small hit of LSD. I don't know how many horror fiction readers find that particularly appealing.

My own impressions of Campbell have been decidedly mixed as well. I still plan on reading his first couple novels, The Doll Who Ate His Mother (1976) and The Face That Must Die (1979) - such wonderful titles! - but must admit barely even getting to the 30-page mark on both Obsession (1985) and Ancient Images (1989) many years ago for the reasons noted above. If anybody would like to weigh in on their feelings and experiences with Ramsey Campbell, I'd love to hear them. Meanwhile, what (mostly) lovely cover art (much of it by Jill Bauman, who illustrated many a Tor cover)...

30 comments:

William Malmborg said...

I have had the same troubles when reading his work and am always dismayed by it. He is one of those authors I really want to like, but just can never seem to connect with. I find myself having to re-read too much stuff too often within his pages to get a good flow going.

Barry said...

Agreed that Campbell is a writer you really WANT to like, but he's an acquired taste to say the least. The Hungry Moon was AWFUL. I couldn't finish that one, or The Doll Who Ate His Mother. Ancient Images was not bad though.

But his best novel ever is The Face That Must Die. Given his writing style, he slips into the mindset of a paranoid schizophrenic with disturbing ease. Another good one of his is Scared Stiff, a slim book of six erotic short stories. There's one where a college kid starts tripping out on a mix of LSD and Viagra brewed up in a chemlab. That one's pretty good!

Craigo said...

It's nice to see the same options put to words that I have held of Campbell for years. As a kid, the cover-art on his books drew me in, but I could never get into them (I had the exact same problem with OBSESSION and ANCIENT IMAGES). I think I somehow once made it through THE NAMELESS, but I could only do so by turning back to the cool cover of a girl on fire and attempting to reconfirm that I was reading something appealing. King said something about his prose having a definate United Kingdom slant, which I guess is where so many people are divided. Anyone ever read Jay Ramsey's NIGHT OF THE CLAW? It's better than Campbell's work, but it also has that wheels-turning-but-not-getting-too-far approach.

bluerosekiller said...

Odd thing about all those great covers illustrating this piece is that I've actually owned them ALL. Yet, I've never successfully finished a single one of them...

My older sister is a lifelong genre fiction fan as well & once she was done with her books, she would often pass them along to me. And she had no problem reading & enjoying Campbell's work. So, all these titles have wound up in my collection.
But, as stated in my previous post regarding his work, I've never gotten past the first couple of chapters of ANY of his novels. Not even THE NAMELESS, which years later turned out to be such a chilling film IMO & introduced me to the work of one of my favorite contemporary genre film directors.

Shaun [The Celluloid Highway] said...

Nice work Will :-)

lazlo azavaar said...

I love his short stories, but haven't read a single one of his novels---nor do I want to. His style is fantastic for short stories, but I can't imagine putting up with it for the that kind of length. His prose is dreamy and unsettled, in an M.R.James sort of way.

Joe Monster said...

I heartily agree with the general consensus seen in the previous comments. I have his collection ALONE WITH THE HORRORS, and man did I want to really enjoy those.

His early Lovecraft tales are easy to get through, but the more Campbell started developing his own voice, the less I started liking him! (How's that for irony?)

Granted, he has some choice tales like "The Chimney" and "Voice Of The Beach". But stories like "Above The World"? What the FUCK was that even about?!

As much as I want to proclaim my love for Campbell to the world, I have to admit that our relationship is hot and cold at best.

Anonymous said...

So many provocative covers! I suspect the artists were stimulated by the offbeat themes of Mr. Campbell's impressive work. I enjoy his unusual and intelligent storylines but I don't believe in or care about his characters.

Rabid Fox said...

Ah, I have Obsession sitting on my to-be-read pile. Grabbed it at a little shop specifically because of that fantastic cover.

Will Errickson said...

Thanks so much for the insightful comments, guys. Got me wondering if there's any other author that causes the same divided opinion in horror readers...

Luis said...

"Some feel he's overrated and consider many of his stories well-nigh unreadable due to an overly oblique, subtle, or confusing prose style."
My sentiments EXACTLY. I have not read any of his novels but that's only because even his short stories are difficult to get through. I read his collection Cold Print some years ago and was not sure of what I head read upon finishing the book. Same with Demons by Daylight, another collection that I started but didn't finish.

Will Errickson said...

I bought a later reprint of Demons By Daylight about 10 years ago, looking to reacquaint myself with Campbell. I'd heard it was his best collection and boy, was that wrong: the stories made little to no impression on me and I only felt a vast disappointment. However, the 1979 Jove paperback has really sweet vintage cover art - tough to find online - so I'm trying to find it for that alone.

Craig said...

Campbell is probably my favorite horror author, but I would agree that he can be a challenge. Actually, though, I find his short fiction to be the most difficult. I checked his book Incarnate (still my favorite) out of the local public library when I was growing up and was immediately hooked, searching out everything I could find. I've read most of his novels and they vary greatly in their readability. Some are faster-moving than others and the horror varies from the very quiet/subtle to much more in-your-face stuff. For awhile, he was writing more dark crime stuff than horror (The Last Voice They Hear, Silent Children, The One Safe Place), but then he migrated back to supernatural horror. His first-person explorations of insane protagonists are amongst his most memorable (The Face That Must Die, Secret Story, Obsession). I've struggled several times to get into Midnight Sun and Nazareth Hill and have several other of his newer books in the TBR pile.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I can understand how people might feel ambivalent about his work, or outright have no patience for it, but to claim that it's "overrated" seems to me way off the mark.

As a short story writer, he currently has no peer in horror, even if his recent output is nowhere near his best work. His prose style is subtle and understated, sometimes convoluted and excessively ornate, but when it works, it works spectacularly, whether at conjuring atmosphere or producing vivid images that make Clive Barker's look amateurish. And he clearly understands that horror is ultimately about fear and dread, and his best work pulls no punches in that regard. "Demons by Daylight" is as good a place to start as any.

He's not as successful at novel length, but even there his work often ranks with the best (in particular, "The Nameless" is easily one of the most powerfully chilling horror novels I've ever read; and a much more intense and compact read than, say, "Ghost Story").

Sve said...

I have a short a story collection - Dark Feasts - that seems to be problematic to get through, sometimes it´s very effective (the chimney, the beach, the companion ) sometimes the prose stylishly and quietly runs (walks?) along in search of narrative or plot.

However, i'm kind of hooked after reading the grin of the dark, which was really unpleasant in a quietly ominus sort of way... It had a tendency to stay a while after a reading session, 'nightmares while you´re still awake' robert bloch said, i think. quite right.

A_Wonder_Book_Of_Rockets said...

He's about the only living writer of fantastic fiction whose stories stay with me for weeks and months (and in the case of a particularly unsettling elevator set piece in The Overnight, years)after I've finished them. I've run through the gamut of popular writers but I think it's safe to say that Campbell is my favorite. I actually find it hard to read select authors now that use to sit just fine with me, but after reading Campbell, they seem so....oversimplified. I tried reading Bentley Little's The Walking after finishing Campbell's The One Safe Place and I just couldn't, my brain was spoiled and accustomed to working harder. Campbell definitely trusts in his reader's intelligence and doesn't pander to them, something in this day and age I consider a treasure. I'm definitely in the camp of people who believe him to be the greatest living writer working within the genre's field.

A_Wonder_Book_Of_Rockets said...

P.S.
You run a fantastic site. Keep up the good work!

Will Errickson said...

Thanks for reading, Wonder Book, and glad to hear from a rabid Ramsey fan!

the night watchman said...

Campbell -is- an acquired taste. I can sympathize. But, honestly, he's one worth the effort of acquiring. I was once in the same boat as are you (and many others, apparently); wanting to like Campbell but always coming up frustrated from my endeavors. And then, about ten years ago I went on a Ramsey Campbell / Dennis Etchison kick (another acquired taste). After reading as many of Campbell's short stories as I could lay my hands on, I found I could finally settle into his novels. It takes some doing, but -- wow! -- the rewards! Read a lot of his short stories, and then I'd recommend going to "Nazareth Hill," "The Overnight," and "Incarnate," which is one of my all-time favorite horror novels.

John T. Plunket said...

Campbell is one of my favorite horror authors. He has a talent for putting horror in everything in his stories, producing a kind of altered reality where even inanimate objects are imbued with terror. His novels aren't as good as his short stories, though - his style doesn't seem to work well for longer works. I enjoyed "The Doll Who Ate His Mother" and "The Hungry Moon", "The Parasite" had a great opening sequence but then fell flat, and most of the rest I've read were just so-so. "Ancient Images" was especially bad.

Will Errickson said...

Good points, John. I quite enjoyed DOLL when I read/reviewed it a couple months back. At some point I will read FACE THAT MUST DIE, another I've heard good things about...

Rob said...

Although it's been some months now since this thread was last active, I felt compelled to comment. I too have some ambivalence with Campbell, but mostly I'm a fan. His short fiction is often masterful - he has a claustrophobic style that engulfs the reader in what feels akin to a waking nightmare. That's something a horror fan wants, right? Unfortunately, in his longer things, such as the novel Nazareth Hill, this can become tiresome and repetitive; it doesn't help that his characters are so dull and ordinary, thus hard to really care that much about. Nazareth and The Parasite were both a chore for me to get through and I finished each with real dissatisfaction. I did like The Overnight, however, which had nice underpinnings of social satire and was simply flat-out scary - the elevator (or "lift") scene - damn.

Will Errickson said...

Rob, thanks for commenting - Too Much Horror Fiction is open every night all night! His story in CUTTING EDGE, "The Hands," is as claustrophobic as he gets, and I really liked it. As for his novels, THE DOLL WHO ATE HIS MOTHER I read and reviewed last year and quite liked it. However I have not read any of his 21st century stuff; I'm pretty much old-school here. Ah well. But you are right: when he's good, he's great.

Rob said...

Thanks, Will - I would recommend his ALONE WITH THE HORRORS collection above all else. "The Hands" is in there, along with greats like "The Companion," Macintosh WIlly," "The Chimney" and others. It's awesome. And try THE OVERNIGHT: bookstore horror! Right in your field of interest, I would think!

Will Errickson said...

I've read a lot of those stories in DARK COMPANIONS, his early '80s collection I reviewed at the very start of this blog. You're right though, THE OVERNIGHT sound just like my kinda book!

Mauro Vargas said...

I've read five Campbell's novels, and I couldn't finish only one of them: "Obsession". The other novels were great and quite satisfactory. Campbell has a very special prose.
My favourite so far is "Midnight Sun": very atmospheric, a sort of old-style horror that grabs the reader from the begining, wrapping him slowly in the horror. You almost can feel the winter cold trough the pages, as well as the clear influence of Lovecraft.
He's one of my favourite horror writers.

Jezzer said...

I find Campbell's novels extremely difficult to get through, but I've enjoyed his short fiction immensely. His prose does take a bit of effort to get through, and reading his work at length can give me a mild headache, or the sensation of being slightly feverish, which might be why I prefer the short works to the full length novels.

Will Errickson said...

Jezzer, I concur.

Donald Pulker said...

"Anyone ever read Jay Ramsey's NIGHT OF THE CLAW? It's better than Campbell's work, but it also has that wheels-turning-but-not-getting-too-far approach."

As far as I can see no one has addressed this highly ironic comment -- Jay Ramsey is Ramsey Campbell. It's his one (to the best of my knowledge) pseudonymous work.

Will Errickson said...

Ha ha ha, Donald, good call, I'd totally missed that comment! Like when Gahan Wilson referred to Richard Bachman's THINNER as a "Stephen King pastiche"...