“We Are Looking in a Mirror”: Ramsey Campbell Curates the History of Horror
By Rob LathamNovember 4, 2018
The Folio Book of Horror Stories by Ramsey Campbell
The book’s editor, British author Ramsey Campbell, needs no introduction to aficionados of the horror genre. He is arguably the most distinguished living writer of horror fiction, having won 12 British Fantasy Awards for his novels, stories, and anthologies, as well as lifetime achievement awards from the Horror Writers Association and the World Fantasy Convention. His fiction spans the gamut from eerie tales of supernatural dread to works of extreme, graphic horror, and this wide range perfectly equips him to helm a volume that purports to canvass the field from Poe to the present.
Campbell’s introduction makes the case for a generous construction of the genre’s borders. While horror is a form distinguished by its characteristic affects, those emotional states can vary from “supernatural fear” to “psychological disquiet” to “terror devoid of a physical cause.” Horror, Campbell writes, “is the least escapist form of fantasy […] It shows us the monstrous, sometimes to reveal that we are looking in a mirror.” The editor’s catholic tastes are evident in his choices, which start with Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” (1839) and conclude with Adam Nevill’s “Hippocampus” (2015). There are 15 stories in all: two from the 19th century, five from the first half of the 20th, five from the second half, and three from the 21st. They include obvious classics alongside unexpected selections by major authors and a few contributions from relatively obscure talents. The book thus manages both to satisfy readers new to the field, by providing a sense of its historical development, and to please well-versed fans, by presenting them with unexpected gems.
There are a few surprising omissions, none more notable than Robert Aickman, whom the editor himself has often praised as one of the finest authors of weird fiction ever. Campbell acknowledges that another curious absence from the book — J. Sheridan Le Fanu — was the result of a lack of space, but while Le Fanu’s work is in the public domain and thus readily accessible, Aickman’s is not — though NYRB Classics recently released a welcome compendium of the author’s “strange stories.” Considering that a third of The Folio Book of Horror Stories is consumed by two long texts, Arthur Machen’s “The White People” (1904) and Stephen King’s “1408” (2002), it might have been possible to select briefer works by those particular authors in order to find room for Aickman, or Clive Barker, or Roald Dahl, or Richard Matheson, or Joyce Carol Oates, or any number of other worthy figures who are absent here. It should also be said that the canon presented in Campbell’s volume is exclusively Anglo-American: no Hoffmann, no Kafka, no Borges, no Quiroga.
But these are quibbles. If the reader wants a more extensive introduction to the genre, there are comprehensive works available, such as David G. Hartwell’s The Dark Descent (1987), which features 56 stories, or Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s The Weird (2012), which includes over 100. One of the chief pleasures of The Folio Book of Horror Stories is its relative concision, the fact that it can be hair-raisingly devoured on a single lonely night, as well as the opportunity it presents to witness one of the preeminent talents in the field curate a “greatest hits” volume. Campbell has edited more than a dozen anthologies, including award-winning installments of the “Best New Horror” series (1990–’94), but none of his previous stints as editor has afforded him the historical or thematic scope this one does.
Campbell shows himself to be a skillful anthologist indeed: the selected tales echo one another in curious and provocative ways. The first two entries are a case in point: both Poe’s “Usher” and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) are tales of stifling claustrophobia, of domestic environments cursed by the tainted legacies of their past inhabitants. But while Poe’s story uses the distancing technique of an external narrator, who watches his childhood friend succumb to madness, Gilman offers an indelible first-person portrait: her narrator, by the end, is irremediably insane. As Campbell remarks in his introduction, works like Gilman’s show a particular strength of the genre — its ability to deploy narrative voices “impossible in conventional terms,” and thus to evoke extreme psychic states with terrifying immediacy. This contrast between distancing and immersive styles runs throughout the volume: Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann” (1922) and Reggie Oliver’s “Flowers of the Sea” (2011) relate, from an uneasy but external vantage, the mental deliquescence of an acquaintance or loved one, while Shirley Jackson’s “The Bus” (1965) and Dennis Etchison’s “Call Home” (1991) plant readers squarely inside the nightmarish predicaments of their protagonists, who find themselves at the end — like Gilman’s narrator — trapped in recursive loops of lunacy.
Several of the stories combine these two techniques via the traditional framing device of the mysterious manuscript found in some cryptic archive. M. R. James’s “Count Magnus” (1904) features the diary of a researcher whose antiquarian obsessions summon a vampiric revenant; his frightful story is bookended by the bland observations of a narrator who discovered the manuscript “in a forgotten cupboard” of a dilapidated house. In Machen’s “The White People,” a pair of occult dabblers ponder a wild account of sorcerous initiation penned by a young girl who died in mysterious circumstances. The most unnerving of this subset of stories is Thomas Ligotti’s “Vastarien” (1987), in which a hapless bookworm is literally possessed by the eponymous tome: “Each passage he entered in the book both enchanted and appalled him with images and incidents so freakish and chaotic that his usual sense of these terms disintegrated along with everything else.” By the end, he has been absorbed into its fragmented dreamscape.
A turning point in the volume, historically speaking, is Fritz Leiber’s 1941 story “Smoke Ghost.” As the title implies, it is a tale of eerie haunting, but the eponymous specter does not lurk in some cloistered abbey or rural forest, as in Algernon Blackwood’s “Ancient Lights” (1912); rather, it is the veritable incarnation of big-city squalor and malaise. A grimy, shambling creature “with the soot of the factories on its face and the pounding of machinery in its soul,” it stalks the protagonist relentlessly, first as a series of sooty silhouettes glimpsed from his subway seat and high-rise office building, then as a demonic amalgam of all the psychological trials of urban life, and finally as a demonic idol demanding total subservience and devotion. In short, Leiber transplants a Gothic monster into a hyper-modern space, thus setting the tone for future chroniclers of urban anxiety and dread, such as Campbell himself.
The editor sums up Leiber’s achievement succinctly: “Whereas previously the supernatural might invade a mundane setting, in ‘Smoke Ghost’ that setting is its source.” In the wake of “Smoke Ghost,” even the most trivial incidents of modern life can be occasions for ghoulish horror: a bus ride (in Jackson’s tale), a message left on an answering machine (in Etchison’s), a night spent at a big-city hotel (in King’s). Works that revive the Gothic tradition more directly, such as Ligotti’s, come across in part as self-conscious pastiche: a deliberate reversion to the genre’s roots. It is a tribute to Campbell’s skills as an editor that such a brief conspectus of the field can lend itself to such large-scale observations and comparisons.
The stories in the book that most affected me were the three I had never read before. They are also the most graphically gruesome, thus giving the lie to the notion, advanced by some critics, that it is always preferable to suggest, rather than to explicitly unveil, a tale’s central horror. Margaret St. Clair’s “Brenda” (1954) is a skin-crawling story of a pubescent girl who, while on holiday with her parents, develops a weird psychic bond with a stinking, silent, shambling stranger:
He was not a tramp, he was not one of the summer people. Brenda knew at once that he was not like any other man she had ever seen. His skin was not black, or brown, but of an inky grayness; his body was blobbish and irregular, as if it had been shaped out of the clots of soap and grease that stop up kitchen sinks. He held a dead bird in one crude hand. The rotten smell was welling out from him.
The tale hints cryptically at — but never offers a clear answer for — Brenda’s motives in embracing this foul golem; as Campbell comments in his introduction, sometimes “an enigma can be richer than an explanation.” St. Clair was, during the 1950s and ’60s, a prolific author of science fiction and fantasy whose work is neglected today. The editor deserves credit for unearthing this genuinely creepy story from the moldering issue of Weird Tales where it has been immured for decades. Indeed, Campbell has done much to rehabilitate interest in this author’s work, having edited a retrospective volume for Dover Press, The Hole in the Moon and Other Tales by Margaret St. Clair (though this title has unfortunately been delayed by copyright issues).
Campbell’s own contribution to The Folio Book of Horror Stories is the sublimely grotesque “Again” (1981), a tale of claustrophobic entrapment so intense you actually feel vaguely frantic while reading it. While several of the stories in the book derive their frissons from repressed sexuality, there is nothing repressed about Campbell’s story: it is shockingly explicit in its grim evocation of an erotic slavery that survives death itself. I found myself stifling gasps at its baleful twists and turns. Surprisingly, the story was not included in Campbell’s 1987 volume Scared Stiff: Tales of Sex and Death, where it would have been right at home.
The final story in the volume, Nevill’s “Hippocampus,” is something of a revelation. Campbell calls it, in his introduction, “bracingly experimental,” and it is most certainly that: a calmly narrated exploration of an unmanned freighter adrift in mountainous seas, it slowly unveils — without ever fully explaining — the grisly bloodbath that claimed the ship’s crew. “The pale flesh of the rotund torso is whipped and occasionally drenched by sea spray, but still bears the ruddy impressions of bestial deeds that were both boisterous and thorough.” There are Lovecraftian hints of occult entities unearthed and unleashed, but these are mere background to a boldly cinematic and meticulously detailed tour of a floating abattoir. The effect is, by turns, bewildering and disgusting, and altogether brilliant. “Who can say what future [the story] adumbrates?” Campbell inquires. If “Hippocampus” is any indication of the present strengths of the genre, its future would appear to be as bright as the past so ably anatomized in The Folio Book of Horror Stories.
Rob Latham is a LARB senior editor. His most recent book is Science Fiction Criticism: An Anthology of Essential Writings, published by Bloomsbury Press in 2017.
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