Ramsey Campbell is not only an immensely talented author that has been giving the reading world beautiful nightmares for decades, but he’s a hell of a good guy, too. The first story I ever wrote for publication was an “homage” (pastiche, fan fic, out and out rip off – take your pick) to one of his amazing additions to what is commonly called the Cthlhu Mythos. Yes, when I first tried my hand at writing weird, cosmic horror, it was Ramsey Campbell I emulated, not H.P. Lovecraft. So I reached out to Mr. Campbell, introduced myself, and humbly asked if I could play with one of his wonderfully weird toys. He not only gave me his blessing, and wished me luck on the story, but gave me some sage advice as well. Over the years since, I have dealt with Mr. Campbell from time to time, and he has never failed to be anything but a complete gentleman. That includes when I came to him and asked his blessing on the newest weird fiction anthology from Dark Regions Press, the book: The Children of Gla’aki, and when I bothered him for this interview. So without further ado, here is one of the best, both professionally and personally, wordsmiths we have, Ramsey Campbell.
Brian M. Sammons – Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us, Ramsey. Now before authors began to write, they were readers, so what were some of your earliest literary loves? Who inspired you and made you want to keep on reading?
So many that I fear I’ll forget some, but let’s see who comes readily to mind. I was horribly precocious, I should explain, and reading before I was two years old. Among the first books I owned – Christmas presents and birthday gifts, I imagine – were a collected Hans Christian Andersen and George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin. I recall finding quite a number of the Andersen tales disturbingly bleak: for instance, the image of the little mermaid feeling as if she’s walking on razorblades as she becomes a human being. At the end of the story the angels raise her up, but even at the age of four or so I found they came too late – I believed in the razors more than the angels. As for The Princess and the Goblin, I found sections of it utterly terrifying, and some of the illustrations by Arthur Hughes too. It was a very small step from the suggestiveness of MacDonald’s prose, presumably meant to be restrained in the interests of his young Victorian readers, to reading M. R. James and other masters of terror. James in particular got to me with images that showed just enough to suggest far worse, and I first encountered them in Fifty Years of Ghost Stories when I was six. At seven I read “The Colour out of Space” and was disturbed to my core. All these tales I’ve cited haunted my nights, but I wanted more, which is surely exactly what separates the lover of horror from those who avoid our field. One more book I loved and reread was The Lost World, and I recently went back to it, a little afraid that the magic would have faded. Not a bit of it, I’m glad to say.
BMS – What is your favorite book or story and why?
Heavens, just one? In our field, do you mean? Much as I admire “The Colour out of Space” and “The Willows” for their sense of cosmic terror, I believe no tale I’ve ever read conveys the uncanny more insidiously than Arthur Machen’s “The White People”. I’ve tried to use the naïve voice to convey terror in several tales, but never as powerfully and obliquely as that story achieves. Favourite book – well, Lolita was a revelation to me when I’d just turned seventeen (the extraordinary celebration of the possibilities of language, the way it discovered dark comedy in the most unlikely places), and I bought and hugely enjoyed everything else Nabokov had in print. Without that book I would certainly not write as I do, and I often return to it and find new marvels.
BMS – Do you recall when you first thought about writing your own stories? Was it a sudden epiphany, a gradual thing, or something else entirely?
Gradual, so much so that I can’t now recall the process. Certainly one factor was that my mother wrote (largely fiction), although she was almost never published, I suspect because her work was a little too dated. She encouraged me to write and finish what I wrote, even if her encouragement was as uncritical as parents tend to be of their children’s productions. At the age of eleven I completed my first collection of stories: Ghostly Tales, handwritten (as all my first drafts still are) and illustrated in crayon. Various publishers understandably sent it back, though Tom Boardman Jr wrote a remarkably encouraging letter. After that I attempted novels – indeed, a trilogy when I was twelve. It got as far as the first few chapters of volume one, some of it aping Arthur Machen. After that I had two tries at imitating the detective novels of John Dickson Carr, in an opus called Murder by Moonlight. I wrote about fifty pages of the first draft before abandoning it, and some time later had a second go, starting from scratch and giving up around page 130. So by the age of thirteen I’d already learned to rewrite.
BMS – What was your first sale and to what market?
It was “The Church in High Street”, one of the Lovecraft imitations I’d sent to August Derleth for his opinion (no more than that). It appeared in his Arkham House anthology Dark Mind, Dark Heart. With my agreement he edited and rewrote it somewhat, and so the first publication that was all my own work was my first book, The Inhabitant of the Lake, two years later. You can find the first draft of “The Church in High Street” in the PS edition of that first book, and PS have also published all the Campbell-Derleth correspondence.
BMS – What is the best thing about being a writer?
The enjoyment of language, the engagement of imagination.
BMS – What’s the worst thing about being a writer?
I suppose depression, which I’ve come to believe is an integral and necessary part of the process. I seem frequently to need to feel uninspired and incapable so that the act of writing overcomes this – in other words, the feelings function as a spur to writing. Recognising this intellectually doesn’t make it easier, but I live with it. I imagine it’s an effect of writing instinctively more than to a preconceived plan.
BMS – You have penned both short stories and novels, do you prefer one format over the other? How are writing the two different, other than length, or do you approach each the same way?
I like both, but I do think novels can generate great energy. While I may know the end of a short story in advance – at any rate before I reach it, not necessarily before I begin the tale – I prefer not to know how a novel ends until I’m virtually there (quite often not even when I start the final chapter). I’m a believer in letting it grow organically and following where it may take me.
BMS – Do you have a set routine as an author, like a specific time of day to write, a set number of hours you devote to it, do you use longhand or just go right to typing it up?
When I’m working on a new piece I’ll write every day, Christmas and my birthday too. If we go away the work goes with me. I’m at work by six in the morning and generally carry on until late morning. Afternoons are for other work – a column, say, or an essay. First drafts of fiction are always longhand, and I rewrite on the computer, but non-fiction is written at the keyboard.
BMS – If I asked you for three stories or books that would give a reader who is unfamiliar with your work the best representation of you as an author, what would those three be?
For comedy of paranoia, Needing Ghosts or The Grin of the Dark. For uncanny terror, The Darkest Part of the Woods or The Kind Folk. Alone with the Horrors gives a fair overview of my short stuff but may be superseded by the forthcoming Fearful Implications.
BMS – What draws you to the horror genre you have helped shape and define for so many years?
At its best it engages my imagination at the deepest level. That said, I value disquiet in art wherever I find it – some of the music of Janacek, films such as Last Year in Marienbad and Los Olvidados, the paintings of Bosch and Francis Bacon, plays by Pinter and Beckett… To return to our field as it’s more usually defined, I stay in it because it’s so capacious, containing tales of psychological disquiet and spectral subtlety and extending to work that reaches for awe – which is not by any means to dismiss the imaginatively gruesome or stories that go for intense dread.
BMS – You’ve been writing horror, weird, and dark fiction for more than a few years, how has that genre most notably changed since the time you began writing until now?
I’d say in the willingness of quite a few writers to address social issues through the fiction, and also in the considerable development of the horror novel as a valid form.
BMS – You began your career writing stories that are classified as Cthulhu Mythos or Lovecraftian in nature. What about those kind of tales inspired you? Drew you in and made you want to add your own sizable chapter to the huge and still expanding Cthulhu Mythos?
I should say at once that it wasn’t huge when I was fourteen. I read a collection of Lovecraft’s tales (Cry Horror) and was overwhelmed by his vision. That same year I set about trying to add to the mythos, expanding hints by Lovecraft and members of his circle – even then I didn’t simply want to reuse his creations, and soon I was creating my own minor additions to the myths. I fear I was convincing myself that I could do as well as Lovecraft. Believe me, now I’m aware that I didn’t, but I’m still trying.
BMS – Even early on your Mythos tales seemed very different than most that had become before you. They were modern, not only in setting but in feel, and were as much psychological as they were weird. Now was this a conscious decision to stand out from the rest, or was this an organic, subconscious evolution as you as a writer?
Entirely unstudied. Indeed, back then I wasn’t even really aware of modelling specific tales on particular Lovecraft tales, a bid my subconscious must have been making to try out various forms he’d tested himself – “The Church in High Street” from “The Festival”, “The Horror from the Bridge” from “The Dunwich Horror” and Charles Dexter Ward, “The Insects from Shaggai” to an extent from At the Mountains of Madness. Later on (actually, even as early as “The Will of Stanley Brooke”) I set out to handle his themes in my own way. By “Cold Print” I’d written my first real tale (“The Cellars”) and took that approach, trying to deal as much with character as with the cosmic.
BMS – Dark Regions Press is releasing a tribute anthology to what is perhaps you most well-known addition to the Cthulhu Mythos: Gla’aki, aptly titled The Children of Gla’aki. Where did the idea for that spiny horror come from?
Honestly, I’ve no idea, though the genesis of the story – the idea of a haunted or dreadfully inhabited lake – was a note in Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book.
BMS – Can you share any info on what you’re working on now?
I’ve recently completed the first draft of Born to the Dark, the second volume of my Brichester Mythos trilogy. Now I’ve a number of short stories to write, and then I’ll rewrite that second volume as a preamble to starting the third, possibly to be called The Way of the Serpent or Time is the Serpent – we’ll see. After that I mean to write The Black Pilgrimage, the novel that turned into The Kind Folk, which moved so far away from the original conception that I still have that to work with.
BMS – Any words of advice, or even warnings, you would like to give to beginning authors?
Tell as much of the truth as you can.
BMS – What is the best way for people to learn more about you and your work?
Read Ramsey Campbell, Probably, my non-fiction book. Go for the expanded 2015 edition from PS Publishing, which includes a substantial autobiographical essay. By the time you’ve read that and the rest of the contents you’ll know a lot about me and my stuff.
BMS – Thanks again for your time today, and for all the wonderful stories you’ve given us over the years.
Hey, my pleasure!
Ramsey Campbell is described by The Oxford Companion to English Literature 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 and Thirteen Days by Sunset Beach. He is presently working on a trilogy, The Three Births of Daoloth. 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 and Holes for Faces, and his non-fiction is collected as Ramsey Campbell, Probably. His regular columns appear in Dead Reckonings and Video Watchdog. Ramsey Campbell lives on Merseyside with his wife Jenny. His pleasures include classical music, good food and wine, and whatever’s in that pipe.