OCTOBER 20, 2013
IN THEIR INTRODUCTION to Modern Gothic, Victor Sage and Allan Lloyd Smith illuminate one of the basic concerns of gothic fiction — its “peculiar unwillingness” to let the past be the past, to have it go away. Considered by scholars and writers of horror alike as the top voice in the field at present, Ramsey Campbell is a prolific author who has been regularly producing, since his teens, both Lovecraftian short stories and novels more in line with the visions of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone writing team or the strange stories of fellow British author Robert Aickman. For this unassuming author from Liverpool, horror offers an opportunity to evoke and explore what Gary William Crawford calls the “urban gothic.” Campbell’s fans have for decades responded positively to his vision. Reviewers generally find his prose style masterful, both engaging and unique. Crawford calls his writing “rich in imagery and an attention to detail, usually of putrescence and filth.” This is putting it mildly.
Campbell is unequalled in finding the eerie in everyday life. Among Campbell’s favorite devices of disquiet is that most ubiquitous of all presences, multimedia technology. While he never goes as far as having ghosts or demons crawl out of television sets, or having dead relatives make phone calls to the living to induce them into joining them in the realm of the afterlife, Campbell has to date written four novels that find the uncanny in media, film, photography, the Internet, and — now with Ghosts Know — radio. The visual arts are no stranger to horror fiction, since artists play integral roles in works by Anne Rice (Vittorio, the Vampire), Dean Koontz (Hideaway), and Graham Joyce (Indigo), and the fragmentation and surrealism of modern visual art informs recent horror favorites by Michael Arnzen (Grave Markings) and Kathe Koja (Extremities). The weird quality of media informs Campbell’s Ancient Images, published in 1989, which follows the escapades of film editor Sandy Allan as she journeys to the farm community aptly named Redfield (as its crop success has been dependent on sacrificial blood), facing off against dog-like demonic creatures, in search of a supposedly cursed, never-released Lugosi and Karloff film. Despite the potential for supernatural scares, the most eerie scenes are those where Allan navigates the seedy underbelly of the urban landscape, including her visit to the abode of two horror scriptwriters who would make any woman cringe. While the cursed-object trope does cleverly turn out to be a red herring, the novel gives Campbell the opportunity to examine visual media as a vehicle for literary horror. In an e-mail message, Campbell noted that “certainly the media are subjects for and indeed sources of the macabre as far as I’m concerned. Folk often claim some new development will do away with the uncanny tale — the electric light was one — but in fact the uncanny simply finds new ways of manifesting itself.”
Granted, there is a certain sense of the surreal in watching any type of video, whether it be television, feature-length film, or home video, which shows images of people, perhaps even loved ones, who are no longer with us. Campbell taps into this weird feeling further in (The House on) Nazareth Hill in 1997 and The Seven Days of Cain in 2010 , novels which render the art of photography eerie. Campbell had early in his short story career toyed with the horror potential of photography in the story “The Limits of Fantasy” (written 1975, updated 1989), which serves as a metaphor for sexual obsession. In Nazareth Hill and The Seven Days of Cain, the idea of the developing (or fading) photograph serves as a vehicle for ushering the horrifying into the ordinary lives of characters, or at least making their lives disquieting. Campbell further explains the role of various media in The Seven Days of Cain, which ties the horror potential of photography to the most modern of multimedia technologies, the Internet: “I looked at the Internet as a breeding ground where the monsters within us are set loose in The Grin of the Dark.” Tying this to the rise of social media, such as Facebook, he added, “I should think the sense of personal impermanence is increasingly widespread, and I’d say that would be hospitable to the uncanny in at least a symbolic form.”
Readers of Ghosts Know are treated to some of this Campbell magic at its best. Novels like Nazareth Hill, The Seven Days of Cain, and 1995’s The One Safe Place evoke the undefinable dread of the ordinary in their best passages: an oversized office complex turned condo waits like a spider for a young girl; a swing set creaking in the breeze signifies not just a psychological state but also the real possibility of ghost children in a barren landscape; and a minor incident gets turned into an all-out battle against a family of murderous thugs. As in most of Campbell’s weird fiction, in these texts reality is invaded by the past. Not coincidentally, these novels are also studies of relationships. And they have something else Campbell fans have come to expect in his work, the feeling of an author playfully leading his readers to endings that come as complete surprises. What makes his jarring turns of narrative work are the settings — ordinary, all-too-mundane worlds — and surreal, dreamlike techniques: slight hiccups of narrative distortion, akin to film discontinuities produced by jump cuts.
In the larger context, Ghosts Know comes across as the masterwork of an artist who has been honing these aforementioned elements of his craft for decades, arguably for a lifetime. It contains the overbearing menace of The One Safe Place, peppered with just a touch of both the surrealism of Nazareth Hill and the tragic sense of impending doom of The Seven Days of Cain. Like those Campbell novels that feature postmodern multimedia, it strains sight and sound through the lens and filter of the gothic. Campbell, in the vein of M.R. James, always introduces the horror slowly into his texts, after typically offering a disorienting glimpse of it in the first chapter, and then allows it to take center stage as the story progresses. The intrinsic gothic weirdness of media distortion allows him to direct the supernatural, to slowly allow it to take center stage. While The Seven Days of Cain echoes a trope from the Ringu/Ring series, having horror invade the realm of realism via the motif of photographs that begin to go out of focus (readers and viewers are dared to ponder what it means when the most mimetic of art forms, the photo, can be thus invaded), Ghosts Know challenges yet another mainstay of our modes of perception — hearing. Campbell plays up the eerie nature of what it means to be on (or listening to) the radio, implying a connection between the disembodied voices that we all hear when we tune in with those voices going on inside our heads (or perhaps outside, as the novel challenges where these so-called whispers originate). By pitting a radio host against a psychic, Campbell speaks to the issue of what it means to hear things that no one else does.
The novel’s chronology of events may come across as nothing special. A teenaged girl, Kylie Goodchild, disappears, and the authorities and her parents suspect foul play. The family hires a psychic, Frank Jasper, to find the killer. A cynical local radio host who is trying to make it nationally decides to debunk the psychic, who then subtly casts blame his way. The family and the police begin to suspect the radio host, and events seem to conspire, especially after he is the person to find the girl’s body, to make him look like a murderer. If narrated by a lesser writer, these events might become predictable, and their resolution tedious. Campbell himself on various occasions has satirized such hacks, typically writers who reduce all stories to straightforward prose adventures. In Ghosts Know, however, Campbell introduces into the mix characters with pasts that they cannot shake, deep-seeded senses of anger and resentment, and unresolved psychological issues. Combine this with his knack as a wordsmith and his ability to create memorable secondary characters, and you have a uniquely unsettling and effective novel rather than a cookie-cutter story.
Furthermore, Ghosts Know works as a gothic text because it fits well into Campbell’s self-described comedy of paranoia. Paranoia plays such a large role in Campbell’s works, in fact, that S.T. Joshi devotes an entire chapter of his Ramsey Campbell and Modern Horror Fiction to it, writing that “one of the most severe effects of modern urban life in Campbell’s work is paranoia…. [E]xtreme paranoia is itself the source of horror, with no supernaturalism even suggested.” The protagonist of Ghosts Know, radio chat show host Graham Wilde, is the perfect vehicle for this type of claustrophobic horror. Wilde is also the perfect narrative consciousness for the novel because he is a pragmatist extraordinaire, able to rationalize even the need for the “shock jock” techniques for which he expresses personal distaste. On Wilde Card, his local show, he will stoop to goading callers into making statements that he knows are reprehensible, and it does not matters if he has to speak against his own core beliefs to get them to do so because, pragmatic as he is, he knows that this is what it takes to make his station manager happy and to get higher ratings. In Wilde’s mind, the practical and real take precedence over all else (as he hopes to launch a career with the BBC, with whom he holds secret interviews of which his colleagues are unaware). It is well within his character to without reservation dismiss not only what he considers a huckster psychic in Jasper, but also his own possibly psychic abilities, rationalizing them as an acute sense of observation or just pure dumb luck.
Wilde, therefore, serves various purposes for Campbell: he is a truly engaging character, one likely to put American readers in mind of talk personalities like Morton Downey, Jr. or, in his finer moments, Chris Matthews. Younger readers may think Howard Stern, but Wilde allows little to no gratuitous titillation on the air, sticking mainly to political issues. To fans of Canadian director Bruce McDonald’s 2009 film Pontypool, it will be difficult to not hear the tones of talk radio host Grant Mazzy when reading Wilde’s brilliant exchanges with callers. Campbell also captures the same claustrophobic atmosphere of the DJ booth with which McDonald imbues his film. Since Campbell has Wilde serve as the consciousness of the novel, his cynicism tips the scales, leading readers toward a non-supernatural reading. In fact, the careless reader will very likely finish the novel without ever realizing that Campbell does in fact introduce the titular ghosts, albeit in the text’s last two chapters, where he hints that perhaps Wilde’s actions throughout the novel have not been accidental.
There’s a sense of predetermination in the novel’s conclusion, with the implication that perhaps the dead can talk to Wilde, that in fact they may have been doing so all along. Even this is undercut by Campbell’s cleverness; he has Wilde, the incredulous narrative consciousness, react with the same kind of skepticism and black humor for which he is known throughout the text, even when faced with the possibility of his own psychic aptitudes. Wilde dismisses the implications that something supernatural may have been at work in leading him to guess the identity of Jasper, find the body of Kylie Goodchild, and at long last determine the identity of her murderer. Ghosts Know shows that Campbell can, at will, expertly walk the tightrope between genre fiction and the mainstream, something he has done for decades. When asked about how this affects his authorial style, Campbell responded, “I actually don’t think the shift towards the mainstream has affected my critical status in particular — over the decades I’ve been reviewed pretty favorably by most of the respectable British journals and quite a few American, along with some more disreputable ones, of course. None of this has affected my writing as far as I can tell — I just carry on trying to develop as best I can and not to repeat myself, unlikely though that ambition is.” Fully aware that reviewers of his earlier novels often commented on his using the supernatural as a red herring (most obviously in Ancient Images and arguably in Nazareth Hill), Campbell here adeptly avoids, to use his words, repeating himself, and turns the tables, giving readers (and unsuspecting reviewers) a seemingly non-supernatural novel — and then inviting them, in the text’s final pages, to revisit the events they thought they had grasped. In Ghosts Know, Campbell may well have created his finest work to date.