Friday 30 October 2015

For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow! The Joy of Horror with Ramsey Campbell…

Ramsey Campbell needs no introduction, but if you would like one have a read of this potted biography from when he was awarded an Honorary Fellowship from Liverpool John Moores University earlier this year.

Yes, Ramsey Campbell is a horror writer - and proud of it - yet he has managed to transition from great genre kudos to writerly acclaim in the wider literary world. He has been garnered with scores of major awards, including ten British Fantasy Awards, four World Fantasy Awards, three Bram Stoker Awards, and the Horror Writers’ Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Ramsey Campbell is a prolific writer and reader...
The Scrawl is proud to present a very special Halloween treat – in this extensive interview, Ramsey Campbell talks to Remy Dean about people, places, the past, the present and generously shares some top tips that will benefit any writer… 

Remy: I grew up near Ormskirk, on the Lancashire flatlands, and the house you describe in Again seemed unnervingly familiar – I feel that I have hurried passed it on country walks, because of a disturbing reflection caught in one of its windows… Such a sense of place is a prominent part of your writing.

What usually happens – does a story come to you and then you think, ‘where shall I set this one?’ or, does visiting a place suggest the story? Either way, is this strong sense of place created ‘poetically’ or through ‘proper research’ into the past of a place and ‘location visits’?

Ramsey: “Very often the place is the seed of the tale. I believe I owe some of this perception to the great Fritz Leiber, in particular one of his earliest and most important tales, Smoke Ghost. 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.

"In my case the fruitful setting is Liverpool. It has been for forty years, ever since I wrote my first tale set there in 1965 – The Cellars, which grew out of an actual underground location in the city centre – and is still enlivening my imagination, recently in Creatures of the Pool, my ultimate Liverpool novel. That’s founded on decades of research into local traditions and history, and I’m weirdly pleased that because the process was so protracted, I no longer always recognise which bits I simply found in obscure volumes and which I made up. Since the book is to some extent about Liverpool as a pool of legends, I’m rather pleased that it has the potential to become one.

"By contrast, stories using invented settings – Moonwell, Goodmanswood, and so on – tend to build their locations out of my memories. I’m intrigued you found the house in Again recognisable. In fact that tale came out of an idea – my having, as a child, once had to climb in a window of the house when my mother left her keys inside... and then the kind of train of thought we writers have, wondering what might happen if an adult found himself in the same situation. The Wirral Way was just a convenient spot to start from."

You may have invented the urban gothic genre, consolidated in the early 1980s by the likes of Clive Barker, and you both hail from Merseyside – was there a scene (I mean a literary one) based in Liverpool back then that you both were part of?

"Well, I rather think I was writing that kind of tale more than a decade earlier. The Cellars was first published in 1967, and Cold Print not long after. They typify a tendency in my tales to explore the darker areas of city life. Again, I don’t think my stuff gets much more urban or Gothic than The Face That Must Die from 1977.

"Clive – well, I gave a talk on horror to the sixth form at his school back in the early seventies, and he was in the audience. He cites it as a formative experience – meeting someone who actually did the kind of thing he wanted to do for a living. The Liverpool literary scene back then mostly involved poets, and I wasn’t part of it, while Clive was already involved in the theatre, writing and directing friends. All that said, I do think Liverpool has produced a lot of creativity in all sorts of fields, and Clive and Pete Atkins and I were the dark trio it set loose on the world."

The English Eerie is a term being used quite a lot recently (as an example see Adam Scovell’s magnificent weblog, Celluloid Wicker Man). I would say that you are the leading contemporary proponent of this sub-genre - with M R James sowing the first seeds. So, what do you think are its defining components and what marks it aside from the Gothic? Also, with your evident interest in and love for Lovecraft and Poe, what do you think differentiates the American Eerie?

"Well, thank you! I suppose it involves more of the spectral or fantastic than the Gothic generally does - after all, one of the great modern Gothic trilogies is Peake’s Gormenghast series, which involves nothing actually fantastic, though much that is grotesque. As to national differences – I really don’t know...

"In a way Poe and Le Fanu were similar, both refining the Gothic novel and concentrating the uncanny and fantastic elements while also scrutinising the psychological. The English tended towards the mystical and numinous for a while – Machen, Blackwood – but then of course Lovecraft united that tradition with the American, and later Leiber was to bring the unification up to date. Indeed, later writers such as T E D Klein do."

Why do you think English-language cinema shies away from producing your material for the big screen? I am truly surprised your stories are not continually optioned by British indie film producers – so why are the only two major adaptations Spanish language? With Guillermo del Toro making movies like The Orphanage, Devil’s Backbone, Crimson Peakhas Spain finally hijacked the Gothick genre?

Los Sin Nombre aka The Nameless - Spanish film adaptation
"Well, there are English-language options on some of my work, and I’m hoping they’ll prove fruitful. The first Spanish film led to the second – I was in Madrid helping to promote Los Sin Nombre on a radio show and talked about my new book, which the producers immediately wanted to buy. Sadly, they bought the first submitted draft to develop, and it needed a great deal of work, which I put in on the novel while another writer did so for the film.

"I don’t know that Spain has snaffled the field for ever. There’s some pretty fine work being made in Britain and America and elsewhere."

Drawing on your experience as a film critic – which of your own stories would you most want to see adapted for cinema? Who would be in that ‘dream’ cast and crew?

"Needing Ghosts often strikes me as the basis for a disconcerting film, as does The Grin of the Dark. But who would be in the films or make them I couldn’t say, though I do dream of David Lynch."

Whilst we are on the subject of films, what recent films (horror / dark fantasy /  other) would you suggest for my watch list?

"It Follows, Kill List, The Borderlands, The Casebook of Eddie Brewer, Absentia, Oculus… those have all kept my enthusiasm for disquieting horror alive. Outside the field as it’s generally perceived, Paddington - which is sometimes unexpectedly reminiscent of Wes Anderson, whose films I’ve also grown fond of, Certified Copy and almost anything else by Kiarostami that I’ve seen - especially Shirin, The Turin Horse, Tu N’avais Encore Rien Vu - which I admit I liked far more than Resnais’ next film, his last, Amour - Haneke, Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, I Wish…"

Probably my favourite of your books in my collection is the edition of Alone with the Horrors, featuring illustrations by J K PotterI believe he has repeatedly produced work inspired by your stories and their locations – did you have any creative input on this and what do you think of those graphic representations?

Essential Ramsey Campbell reading - with illustrations by J K Potter
"No indeed – I trusted J K to follow his own remarkable instincts, and I’m delighted I did. I did show him around locations I’d used, and so his image for The Companion was based on the fairground that had suggested the tale, though the park shelter from Mackintosh Willy had, sadly, been demolished. By contrast, his illustrations for The Face That Must Die were made long before I took him to the actual place, but I for one couldn’t tell. His images for The Influence actually star our daughter, on whom Rowan in the tale was to some extent based, and my wife, Jenny, shows up cradling her."

Have you, or would you, consider writing specifically for a word-based visual medium, such as scripts for graphic novels or teleplays?

"Never have, except for a horror comic I wrote many years ago, which Barry Forshaw drew. We sent it to Warren Comics, but to no avail, and it has vanished into limbo. I remain to be tempted."

Do you have a writing ritual, regimen or a tried-and-tested process?

"I’m here at my desk every morning I’m at home - Christmas and my birthday too - usually in time to see the dawn. Certainly, I’ll be working on the first draft of a tale about six in the morning, when I’m generally most creative.

"One thing I’ve learned in fifty years as a writer is always to compose the first sentences before I sit down to write. I generally work until late morning on a first draft, sometimes later. If we go away the tale in progress goes with me, and when I’m out I always carry notebooks – usually one for the novel in progress or next to be written, another for more general ideas.

"I was also lucky to learn very early in my career – even before August Derleth sent me editorial advice – to enjoy rewriting. These days I do more of it than ever. Absolutely everything in a first draft has to justify itself to me to make the final version, which is pretty nearly always significantly shorter than the first one - anything up to twenty per cent shorter, I’d estimate. The first drafts of fiction are always longhand - with the solitary exception of A Street Was Chosen, written in the form of an experimental report, which I couldn’t write except on the computer - and the rewrites are at the keyboard.

Is there a difference in approach to writing a novel and a short story?

"My approach to both is pretty instinctive, eschewing any kind of prepared synopsis and trusting to my sense that I’ve gathered enough material to get started. I’d much rather the tale grew of itself and surprised me. I would say novels are more likely to do the latter, and gain more energy from the time they take to write."

You have mentioned Lovecraft a few times already, my favourite of his tales would be Dreams in the Witch House… What would be your favourite Lovecraft story?

"The Colour Out of Space. For me it finds the perfect symbol to convey his sense of the alienness and awesome vastness of the universe, even more eloquently than his suggestive mythos. I analysed its style and structure at length - along with other Lovecraft tales - in an essay in Ra Page’s critical anthology Morphologies."

What is it about Lovecraft that inspires respected authors in their own right, such as yourself, to ‘write in the style of’?

"In my case – that is, in my recent attempts, not my slavish youthful bids at imitation – his extraordinary care with language, his use of the precise voice at the particular point in the narrative to convey what he wants to convey, his modulation of style within a single work, his eloquent structure, the gradual accretion of telling detail. There’s a great deal to learn from without modelling one’s work too closely on it."

OK, back to cinema – what films do you think have best captured that Lovecraftian vibe, so far?

"For me no film has come closer to Lovecraft’s ambitions for supernatural horror than The Blair Witch Project. In its documentary realism, its use of hints and allusions to suggest horrors vaster and more terrible than are ever shown, and the psychological authenticity with which the characters react to their plight, it virtually sums up his rules for the genre. That said, I also admire the H P Lovecraft Historical Society’s films of two of his tales, made in the style they might have had of they’d been filmed in the years the originals were published."

What was the first book you can remember reading that really carried you off into its world and left an impression on you?

The horror of Rupert...
 (cover of the 1947 annual)
"Well, if we discount a Rupert Bear annual I seem to have read in late 1947 - one tale therein was my first experience of sheer supernatural dread - it was probably George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin, which proved pretty well as terrifying when I was five or so. I believe that despite being aimed at children, both employ the technique of showing enough to suggest far worse – certainly to me."

Who have been your favourite writers and what did you learn from them?

"Lovecraft – see my ‘thumbnail’ analysis above – and M R James, specifically his ability to convey more terror in a single glancing phrase or sentence than most writers achieve in a paragraph. Graham Greene was certainly an influence in terms of social realism and terse keen imagery, and Nabokov – not just Lolita, though that was my introduction to his work – was a revelation: his joy in language, his discovery of comedy in the unlikeliest places, his use of words to make you look afresh. And Thomas Hinde for comedy of paranoia."

After such an impressive and a long-running writing career, do you have any advice or ‘words of wisdom’ for the aspiring young writer of imaginative fiction?

"I’m not the first to say that the most important thing for a writer to do is to write, but I’ll add that you should work on whatever you’re writing every day until it’s finished; to do otherwise is to court writer’s block, every blank day adding to the hurdle that prevents you from getting back into the story and making the task seem more impossible. An example of this is my story Litter, where six months elapsed between my first day’s work and my return to the story, which I took up by writing the line 'That’s how he enters the story, or this is.' I should have rewritten the story to improve its shape, of course.

"Now I rewrite more and more severely, and take great pleasure in cutting thousands of words out of first drafts; I think that’s a pleasure worth learning as early as possible in one’s career, not least because realising one can do it helps one relax into writing the first draft, where it’s better to have too much material for later shaping than not enough. Learning to relax enough with the technique of writing novels comes easier to some than others; you may feel you need to plot a novel in advance - maybe all the way to breaking it down into chapter synopses - before you begin the first chapter, but it’s worth trying to regard the synopsis merely as a safety net once you begin writing, trying to let the novel develop itself as it takes on more life. I did that first in Incarnate, and since then I’ve avoided plotting or constructing too far ahead, trying to know only as much as I need to know to start writing and head in the right direction. It can be fearsome to find yourself losing your way halfway through a novel, all by yourself in the unknown, but I find that the solutions are usually somewhere in what you’ve already written, and I can tell you that the bad days are worth the days when you feel the novel come to life.

"I’m still stressing the arduousness, but let me see if I can pass on some tricks I’ve learned. 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 seven in the morning until noon or so. It’s easy to get distracted away from your work, but music may help; my desk is between the speakers of the hi-fi on which I play compact discs - which last longer than records and keep me there longer - of all sorts of music from Monteverdi onwards. Steve King uses rock, Peter Straub jazz.

"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, 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-fertilised 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, may be 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 playing it safe with a formula."

Thank you for giving such a considered and full answer there, full of actual, practical advice for any writer! It certainly seems to have kept you in good stead… I lose count of how many books you have written – in excess of 30 novels and 20 or so collections of short stories - so… if I’d never read anything by Ramsey Campbell – where should I start?

"Since you have, I think you should say. Let’s see if I agree with your choices."

My recommendation as a starting point is always Alone With The Horrors - that's the one I lend out to friends to get them on the road to Ramsey country. Possibly because it is one of the first books of yours I read myself, and also because I do think that you are a master of the short story form and this is a great showcase of 'essential Ramsey Campbell' material. Also the Waking Nightmares collection... As for novels - and I must admit that I have not read them all, then probably Incarnate for its inexorable immersiveness(?)...  and Ancient Images for the evocative and effectively chilling milieu...

...what do you say to that?

the funny side of paranoia...
"Those choices sound good to me, Jeremy. That said, I might add Needing Ghosts and The Grin of the Dark to represent my comedy of paranoia."

Finally, how will you be celebrating Halloween / Samhain?

"In no way at all, though I’ll be at a convention."

Well, have a good one! Thank you very much for such a stimulating interview and for the well-considered full answers to my questions.

For more info and up-dates check out the official Ramsey Campbell weblog.

If you are somewhat serious and scholarly, you could access the Ramsey Campbell archive, held at Liverpool University...

- Thank you Ramsey Campbell!

Ramsey Campbell was talking with  Remy Dean 

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