A Quick Guide to Ramsey Campbell

Where to start with one of the great masters of horror fiction? Here’s a primer…

Dubbed “Britain’s most respected living horror writer” (Oxford Companion to English Literature), Ramsey Campbell has been writing horror for more than fifty years and is generally regarded as one of the finest in the field.  He has won four World Fantasy Awards, ten British Fantasy Awards, three Bram Stoker Awards, and the Horror Writers’ Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award, and has been named a Grand Master of Horror.

Eschewing gore his works focus more on the psychology of horror and many critics have considered him to be the natural heir of HP Lovecraft (there’s a very strong element of MR James in his work too – Campbell is a master at making the innocent seem dangerous and the most natural of settings to be riven with evil). So, where to start? Here’s a primer…

ESSENTIAL READING

Ancient Images (1989)

When a lost movie – starring Karloff and Lugosi – is rumoured to have surfaced, film editor Sandy Allen begins to investigate its shocking legacy.

A very atmospheric chiller with an original concept and a strong narrative.  The idea that a film might contain something unspeakable is mined well throughout (Campbell is also a film critic, so has in-depth knowledge of the field), as is Campbell’s recurring motif of making ordinary things menacing (shadows particularly, in this one).

House on Nazareth Hill (1996)

Only two books have ever kept me awake – this was the first of them (the other was an MR James collection which didn’t overly disturb me individually, but after reading a number of the stories left me questioning everything around me.  It’s the atmosphere in a James story which is so beautifully – and terrifyingly – evocative, and Campbell does exactly the same here).  The horror throughout escalates throughout before reaching a shockingly horrific climax.

RECOMMENDED

The Hungry Moon (1986)

A quiet Derbyshire village harbours a shocking, ancient secret.  And it’s waking up…

Suspenseful throughout, this is Campbell at his most Lovecraftian.  Playing with religious themes, conflict and hidden history, this is perhaps Cambell’s most accessible novel, whilst also containing all his key tropes.

The Count of Eleven (1991)

After a run of bad luck, a man begins to wonder if the chain letter he received really should have been passed on.  But what if the other links in the chain won’t do what they’re supposed to?  Played very much as black comedy (and horribly, this doesn’t stop being amusing when things become very unpleasant) this is one of Campbell’s best depictions of a gradually unravelling mind.

The Grin of the Dark (2007)

Tubby Thackeray was a huge comedian in his day, but now he’s forgotten – even his films are lost.  Or are they?  Simon, a film critic, is determined to raise Tubby’s profile and write a biography, but why is it that every fact he uncovers suggests that there was something very wrong with Tubby and his smile?

Frequently funny (Simon gets into several on-line arguments with trolls) this is also hauntingly unsettling throughout, particularly as the lines between fact and fiction, madness and sanity become blurred.

FOR COMPLETISTS

Bride of Frankenstein , Dracula’s Daughter, The Wolf Man (as Carl Dreadstone, 1977). Novelisations of the Universal films written under a pen-name.

AVOID

Nothing.  Seriously.  He’s a great writer.


Ramsey Campbell: website | Twitter 

❉ Alun Harris is a regular contributor to We Are Cult.

Header image: Howard Davies/Trinity Mirror © Image subject to copyright.

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1 Comment

  1. An excellent introduction, though I’d personally raise Grin Of The Dark to Essential Reading. For me, it’s the novel in which Campbell most disturbingly blurs the line between the possibly supernatural and the purely personal realm of madness. The humour, as you so rightly observe, balances the increasing paranoia to beautiful effect.

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