Celebrating Our Elders: Interview with Ramsey Campbell
The Oxford Companion to English Literature describes Ramsey Campbell as “Britain’s most respected living horror writer,” and the Washington Post sums up his work as “one of the monumental accomplishments of modern popular fiction.” He has received 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. The two volumes of Phantasmagorical Stories offer a sixty-year retrospective of his short fiction. The Village Killings collects his novellas, and Ramsey’s Rambles his film reviews. His latest novel is Fellstones from Flame Tree Press, who has also recently published his Brichester Mythos trilogy.
Did you start out writing or working in the horror field, and if so why? If not, what were you writing initially and what compelled you to move into horror?
It depends how far back we reach. Discounting a verse about my dog in the local paper’s Children’s Corner when I was five (and there’s a challenge for collectors), I had my first go aged seven and a half, the opening chapters of an aborted novel, Black Fingers from Space. It does feature a monster. Shortly after I seem to have written an entire novella, Dogs in the Stratosphere, pinching liberally from Clifford Simak. But Ghostly Tales, a collection written in pen and ink and illustrated in crayon by its eleven-year-old author, certainly sought horror, and that became the road I stumbled along thereafter. I’d acquired a taste for terror in fiction as early as I can recall, and by the time I hit six, I was reading M. R. James and Edith Wharton (both and many others in Fifty Years of Ghost Stories). I think there’s no doubt our field was where I would inevitably end up as a writer.
Who were your influences as a writer when you started out and who, if anyone, continues to influence you?
By the time I was fourteen, I’d had a stab at imitating Arthur Machen (an unfinished novel) and John Dickson Carr (two unfinished drafts of one, the second draft starting from scratch). And then I read a complete book by H. P. Lovecraft, his first ever British paperback, Cry Horror. I skived off school and read the whole thing in a day, and was overwhelmed by the intensity of his vision and the cosmic scope of some of the stories. Pretty soon I was trying to imitate them, using far too many of the famous adjectives that he used much more sparingly himself. After that I was influenced by a whole bunch of writers. Fritz Leiber was crucial, especially his seminal story “Smoke Ghost”, where instead of being invaded by the supernatural, the mundane setting—forties Chicago—is now its source, and the grubby half-glimpsed spectre its genius loci. Around then I was finding my own sense of the uncanny in my home town of Liverpool. At the same time I greatly admired and learned from Graham Greene, whose blurb led me to Lolita, which was an absolute revelation to me when I turned seventeen, in terms of what you could do with language and with the way you could approach narrative. I then devoured all the Nabokov I could find. I’d say all of those, along with M. R. James and Algernon Blackwood, have been subsumed into my stuff.
How have the changes in horror publishing over the past decades affected you?
The temporary collapse of horror as a commodity in the 1990s forced me into crime. I don’t mean I committed it, unless my writing was criminal. It was more a case of producing crime fiction to order rather than the occasional natural progression of my writer’s journey. The interlude generated three novels, and I’m not ashamed of any of them, though Pact of the Fathers is pretty minor. Since then my kindly publishers have let me write exactly what I want to.
Do you think you’ve encountered ageism? If so, how do you counteract or deal with it?
Just inside my own head. For quite a few of my twilight years, whenever I send out a new tale I think it will show folk I’ve lost any talent I had and succumbed to incompetence. So far nobody has told me so, unless they’re just being kind. Indeed, I receive more requests for new stuff than ever, and the recipients profess themselves satisfied. I just hope they’re not indulging an old codger, because I wouldn’t want to let anyone down.
All this said, while I haven’t personally suffered it, I’ve observed a tendency of too many recent conventions to undervalue and sideline veterans of the field. I recall the extraordinary panels some of the early World Fantasy Conventions presented, made up of venerable pulp writers. I wonder if comparable panels are in every sense a thing of the past now, and whether all that kind of experience and insight will be lost. If so, posterity will be poorer.
What do you wish you knew when you were just getting into the field?
How to enjoy rewriting as ruthlessly as possible.
Do you have any advice for writers just starting out?
We all have an optimum period of creativity each day, and it’s worth beginning work then if you possibly can. Mine is from about six in the morning until noon or so. It’s easy to get distracted away from your work, but music may help. Don’t be too eager to feel you’ve exhausted your creative energy for the day, but if you sense you’re close to doing so, then don’t squeeze yourself dry: better to know what the next paragraph is going to be and start with that next time. Scribble down a rough version of it rather than risk forgetting it. Always have a rough idea of your first paragraph before you sit down to write, and then you won’t be trapped into fearing the blank page. If you must take a day or more out from a story, break off before the end of a scene or a chapter, to give yourself some impetus when you return. Always carry a notebook for ideas, glimpses, overheard dialogue, details of what you’re about to write, and developments of work in progress. If an idea or something larger refuses to be developed, try altering the viewpoint or even the form: if it won’t grow as a short story, it may be a poem. Sometimes two apparently unproductive ideas may be cross-fertilized to give you a story. Then again, you may not be ready technically or emotionally to deal with an idea, and it can improve with waiting.
What else can I tell you? Only to write. Surprise us, astonish us. Enjoy your work. Above all, don’t despair. The frustration you will inevitably experience sometimes, the feeling that you don’t know how to write, maybe the birth pangs of something genuinely new. I know I still suffer that experience every time I write a story. Believe me, it’s preferable to play it safe with a formula. Good luck! I look forward to reading you!
Do you think older characters are represented fairly and honestly in horror fiction?
I’ve seen no reason to complain, but if I did I imagine I would try and write fiction to counteract depictions I disliked.
What are some of your favorite portrayals of older characters?
Two novels by Kingsley Amis—the acerbic black comedy Ending Up and the mellower Old Devils (written, we may think significantly, more than a decade later, when he’d reached his sixties). I think Brian Aldiss shines some of his own special light on the condition in Greybeard. Samuel Beckett’s oldsters, often at the end of themselves, are piercingly authentic. In our field, Peter Straub’s elderly quartet in Ghost Story and Steve King’s Judson Crandall in Pet Sematary come readily to my mind.
Do you have anything you’d like to add that we haven’t asked?
Perhaps this is relevant—the opening paragraphs of the afterword to my next collection:
Some things are beyond me now. On a recent walk along the Wirral Way nature trail Jenny and I made a detour not far from the site of Arthur Pendemon’s house to revisit a favourite place, a cave to which we used to scramble with our children. I took time to realise how I can no longer risk the climb, or shin up the popular rock at Thurstaston. As we sat on a bench below the cave to contemplate the past, a couple who might have represented our younger selves made the ascent with ease and clambered past the cave to the sandstone ridge. It won’t last, I found myself thinking, but perhaps in memory, it does. Perhaps we do.
Old age brings tricks, which tend to be played on the oldster. One of mine is falling off chairs, a trait that might act as research for my Three Stooges monograph, though I really don’t need to live the work so literally. I recently bought Jack Reacher on disc and was suitably engrossed, only for Jenny to tell me once we’d watched it that we already had, and indeed there was the previous copy on the shelf. If my mind is offering the chance to experience films as if for the first time, I wish it had chosen Psycho instead, daunting though the implications may be (indeed, fearful). At least I can still write, even if I’ve taken to intermittently omitting or repeating words and even phrases in the first draft. I hope I’m remote from that terminal state that caused Kingsley Amis to write “seagulls” over and over, perhaps a note to himself or a complaint about a distraction. So long as what I present to the reader is acceptable, there’s some point to me yet.