Halloween Extravaganza: INTERVIEW: Ramsey Campbell

Meghan: Hi, Ramsey! It’s great to have you here today. Thank you for agreeing to take part in my sixth annual Halloween extravaganza. Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Ramsey Campbell: I write horror, and have for more than half a century. For me writing is a compulsion, driven by the pressure of untold tales and unwritten prose. Jenny is my first reader, partly because she’s among the few who can read my handwriting. She’s also the best part of me, and we’ve been together for nearly fifty years.

Meghan: What are five things most people don’t know about you?

Ramsey Campbell: If you ask me my favourite composer I’ll immediately say Beethoven, only to feel that Johann Sebastian Bach is equally essential. My favourite film is probably Letter from an Unknown Woman. Over the years I’ve often listed ten favourites, but while the list changes, it has never included a horror film – they’re crowded out by other titles. (For the record, I’ve loved Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon ever since I saw it most of sixty years ago.) Jenny and I watch a film almost every day, once I’ve finished work about mid-afternoon. I very much enjoy dreams – free surrealist films, they are.

Meghan: What is the first book you remember reading?

Ramsey Campbell: When I was two years old and apparently horribly precocious, reading a tale of Rupert Bear gave me my first taste of terror in fiction. One of the many presents I found in a bulging pillowcase at the end of my bed at Christmas 1947 was a copy of More Adventures of Rupert. The tale that haunted my nights was “Rupert’s Christmas Tree”, in which Rupert acquires a magical tree that decamps after the festivities and returns to its home in the woods. Perhaps this is meant as a charming fantasy for children, but the details—the small high voice from the tree, the creaking that Rupert hears in the night, the trail of earth he follows from the tub in his house, above all the prancing silhouette that inclines towards him, the star it has in place of a head—are surely the stuff of adult supernatural fiction. I think I got my start in the field right there, and many of my preoccupations must derive from my early childhood.

Meghan: What are you reading now?

Ramsey Campbell: A study of The Three Stooges for production information as I work on a monograph about all six or more of them, and I’m revisiting Agatha Christie from my childhood, The Murder at the Vicarage, just now.

Meghan: What’s a book you really enjoyed that others wouldn’t expect you to have liked?

Ramsey Campbell: That would depend what image they have of me, and how would I know? On the assumption that their view of me is severely limited, perhaps W. E Bowman’s hilarious comic novel The Ascent of Rum Doodle, which parodies mountaineering books.

Meghan: What made you decide you want to write? When did you begin writing?

Ramsey Campbell: I never really decided to be a writer – I was at it by the age of five, writing doggerel that appeared in the children’s corner of the local Liverpool Echo (perhaps because my mother, prolific but almost entirely unpublished, encouraged me to make the effort). 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.”

Meghan: Do you have a special place you like to write?

Ramsey Campbell: Always here at my desk on the third floor of our Victorian semi. You’ll find me here well before seven every morning, by which time I’ve prepared the first sentence or sentences of the day and probably scribbled in my notebook other ideas for the day’s session. I can certainly write elsewhere – if we go away while a work is in progress, it goes with me and I work on it – but as I age I do prefer to take less taxing work with me, rereading a first draft prior to the rewrite, or proofreading.

Meghan: Do you have any quirks or processes that you go through when you write?

Ramsey Campbell: I never sit down to write without having composed at least the first sentence of the session. I always write the first draft of a piece of fiction longhand in a spiral-bound exercise book, using a basic Parker cartridge pen. Rewrites are done onscreen, and I work on non-fiction directly on the screen – perhaps it’s a way of keeping the fiction process separate. New fiction is my morning work, non-fiction (such as this interview) waits until the afternoon.

Meghan: Is there anything about writing you find most challenging?

Ramsey Campbell: The early stages of creating a new tale, where the characters have no names and I have no idea what they do in life, and only the vaguest sense of what the tale will contain. Ideas (for me at least) are the easy part, but then comes the task of development. Often enough it feels like groping about in the dark for items I need but can’t even identify. So far, or at any rate mostly, I eventually reach that magical place where things begin to come together.

Meghan: What’s the most satisfying thing you’ve written so far?

Ramsey Campbell: Perhaps my recent (and only) trilogy, which I think multiplied the energy novels generally generate for me while I’m writing them and gave me an unusual amount of scope to develop various themes.

Meghan: What books have most inspired you? Who are some authors that have inspired your writing style?

Ramsey Campbell: Cry Horror, the first British paperback collection of Lovecraft’s work, was crucial when I was fourteen and set me on my path. M. R. James demonstrated how to show just enough to suggest far worse (and both of them exemplified careful choice of language and structure). Fritz Leiber’s crucial development of urban supernatural horror Smoke Ghost, where the everyday environment is the source of the uncanny rather than being invaded by it, pointed me towards my subsequent work. I’d just turned seventeen when I read Lolita, which was a great revelation and liberated my style and approach to narrative (as did all the other Nabokov books I immediately devoured). Graham Greene’s precision and impressionistic conciseness was another influence. I’d also cite Buñuel’s Los Olvidados and ResnaisMarienbad, two films that deeply impressed me and prompted emulation.

Meghan: What do you think makes a good story?

Ramsey Campbell: If I thought about that I might lose my instinctiveness, which is how I write.

Meghan: What does it take for you to love a character? How do you utilize that when creating your characters?

Ramsey Campbell: That’s not how I approach it. I simply want to believe in the characters as human beings and present them as honestly as I can. I’ve never required characters I read about to be sympathetic, and so I don’t create them in that way either. If they are, fine, but I think fiction is a good place to met people you would ordinarily cross the street to avoid.

That said, I’m quite fond of a number of my characters, not least the family in Thirteen Days by Sunset Beach – they seem like people to me. I was disconcerted by how many readers protested that one of them (Julian) was unsympathetic. He is, but what of it? At one point we glimpse a reason why he’s how he is, not that this excuses his behaviour. However, I concluded long ago that the writer can’t control the reader’s response, and I haven’t tried for many years.

Meghan: Which, of all your characters, do you think is the most like you?

Ramsey Campbell: Several, representing different stages of my life. I’d include the narrator of “The Chimney”, Peter in The Face That Must Die and to some extent Dominic Sheldrake, the narrator of the trilogy, which however is less autobiographical than some readers have assumed.

Meghan: Are you turned off by a bad cover? To what degree were you involved in creating your book covers?

Ramsey Campbell: Generally a cover by itself won’t put me off a book. PS Publishing in particular often ask me for suggestions for images, and Flame Tree routinely do.

Meghan: What have you learned creating your books?

Ramsey Campbell: That you can always improve as a writer.

Meghan: What has been the hardest scene for you to write so far?

Ramsey Campbell: Just about the whole first section of Midnight Sun, where I felt I wasn’t engaging sufficiently with the material – only the scene where Ben Sterling tells his tale of the ice spirits seemed to come alive, inspiring me as much as him. Even so, once I’d finished the section I seriously considered abandoning the novel, such was my apparent lack of inspiration. I reread what I’d written – again, something I virtually never do these days until the first draft is completed – and decided there was just about enough reason to continue. The first part was very considerably rewritten and condensed later. All this said, I recently reread the book for a reissue and found it wasn’t as much of a failure as I recalled.

Meghan: What makes your books different from others out there in this genre?

Ramsey Campbell: That’s for readers to decide. I simply hope the books are literate and truthful – authentic, if you prefer – and that some convey at least a hint of uncanny awe while others offer some psychological insight.

Meghan: How important is the book title, how hard is it to choose the best one, and how did you choose yours (of course, with no spoilers)?

Ramsey Campbell: It should grow naturally out of the material. Sometimes a working title is supplanted by a better one. I’m fond of using titles with multiple meanings – Needing Ghosts, Thieving Fear – but then I like ambiguity of language in the tales as well. Perhaps my favourite of my titles is Think Yourself Lucky, which only reveals its significance some way into the novel.

Meghan: What makes you feel more fulfilled: Writing a novel or writing a short story?

Ramsey Campbell: Generally a novel or even a novella, given their scope and their ability to surprise me in the process of writing.

Meghan: Tell us a little bit about your books, your target audience, and what you would like readers to take away from your stories.

Ramsey Campbell: I write horror, ranging from the psychological to the supernatural (which are often inextricably bound together), from the uncanny to the gruesome (again, not mutually exclusive), from comedy of paranoia to bids to achieve awe. My audience is anyone who likes my stuff, and I hope it enriches their imagination and makes us – me included – look at things we’ve taken for granted.

Meghan: Can you tell us about some of the deleted scenes/stuff that got left out of your work?

Ramsey Campbell: The first draft and indeed the first rewrite of my 1980s novel The Claw (aka Night of the Claw) was several kinds of a mess. Although the central issue was a young girl in increasing danger from her apparently possessed parents, there were (incredibly) no scenes from her viewpoint. I deleted about a dozen chapters, including a redundant subplot about a cult in search of the titular talisman, and substituted scenes seen through her eyes. Some of the deleted material is included in an afterword to later editions.

Meghan: What is in your “trunk”?

Ramsey Campbell: I’ve several uncompleted novels from before the start of my career, and didn’t expect ever to see them into print, but the last one – a pastiche of John Dickson Carr with Lovecraftian interpolations, Murder by Moonlight – I recently resurrected as the foundation of a book for Borderlands Press. I use the adolescent narrative as a lens to look at how I and my parents were when I wrote it, and it will appear as The Enigma of the Flat Policeman.

Meghan: What can we expect from you in the future?

Ramsey Campbell: Flame Tree Press have a new supernatural novel, The Wise Friend, for the spring. PS Publishing have an immense two-volume retrospective collection, Phantasmagorical Stories (note the initials). Electric Dreamhouse will bring out my collected Video Watchdog columns, Ramsey’s Rambles, and that Stooges book. I’ve recently completed the first draft of a novel, Somebody’s Voice.

Meghan: Where can we find you?

Ramsey Campbell: Facebook ** Twitter

Meghan: Do you have any closing words for your fans or anything you’d like to say that we didn’t get to cover in this interview?

Ramsey Campbell: I hope you may see me as an element, however minor, in the literary continuity of our field.

Photo Credit: Tony Knox

The Oxford Companion to English Literature describes Ramsey Campbell as “Britain’s most respected living horror writer”. He has been given more awards than any other writer in the field, including the Grand Master Award of the World Horror Convention, the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Horror Writers Association, the Living Legend Award of the International Horror Guild and the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2015 he was made an Honorary Fellow of Liverpool John Moores University for outstanding services to literature. Among his novels are The Face That Must Die, Incarnate, Midnight Sun, The Count of Eleven, Silent Children, The Darkest Part of the Woods, The Overnight, Secret Story, The Grin of the Dark, Thieving Fear, Creatures of the Pool, The Seven Days of Cain, Ghosts Know, The Kind Folk, Think Yourself Lucky, Thirteen Days by Sunset Beach, and The Wise Friend. He recently brought out his Brichester Mythos trilogy, consisting of The Searching Dead, Born to the Dark, and The Way of the Worm. Needing Ghosts, The Last Revelation of Gla’aki, The Pretence, and The Booking are novellas. His collections include Waking Nightmares, Alone with the Horrors, Ghosts and Grisly Things, Told by the Dead, Just Behind You, Holes for Faces, By the Light of My Skull, and a two-volume retrospective roundup (Phantasmagorical Stories). His non-fiction is collected as Ramsey Campbell, Probably and Ramsey’s Rambles (video reviews). Limericks of the Alarming and Phantasmal is a history of horror fiction in the form of fifty limericks. His novels The Nameless, Pact of the Fathers, and The Influence have been filmed in Spain. He is the President of the Society of Fantastic Films.

Ramsey Campbell lives on Merseyside with his wife Jenny. His pleasures include classical music, good food and wine, and whatever’s in that pipe. His web site can be found here.