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Ramsey Campbell Book Reviews

Review of "Thirteen Days by Sunset Beach" by Ramsey Campbell

PS Publishing. Hardback edition, 224 Pages. Review by Steve Dillon


An interesting take on a common-enough horror trope, but written as a ‘local/island-myth’ tale and presented as only Campbell knows: through the eyes of an everyday family faced with their own inter-generational conflicts, health problems and a sense of ensuing tragedy. So, with “Thirteen Days by Sunset Beach” we have two horror stories in one, the first of which is rather sad, filled with melancholia and a sense of inevitable heartbreak that is (perhaps?) assuaged by the second tale; the myth that prompts the local islanders to avoid and/or ‘bless’ the family as they pass, offer them cryptic warnings and gifts to help avoid the disaster that is yet to befall them. Set in a fictitious Greek island whose local saint is Titus, who — apart from being remembered as a ‘peacemaker’ — bears little resemblance to the real-world saint.  The family consists of the grandparents, their two children, their partners and the three grand-children, the youngest of whom brings an eerie sense of realism to the whole story which is generally seen through the eyes of the grand-father. It’s hard to say more without giving away the whole story, although in typical Campbell-ian style, the beauty of the tale lies not so much in its destination — we guess from an early chapter where the threat seems to come from, if not why — but from the journey itself, written almost as a day-to-day diary of the events that befall the family each day (and watchful night) of their holiday. The final climactic couple of chapters provide a terrifying and memorable reveal, and an ending that could not be predicted, which left us guessing right from the opening chapter. There is an undertone of sadness running throughout the book and I can’t help feel this is in part inspired by real-world concerns. Add to this the odd (very) colourful scenic views, strange findings, unusual responses from the locals, and eerie tourist trips that the family may well-wish they hadn’t experienced, this is a refreshing overseas jaunt away from Ramsey Campbell’s usual stage-set based in Liverpool and its surrounds, or indeed the fictitious locales of his earlier work. 

Review of 'Think Yourself Lucky' by Ramsey Campbell

PS Publishing, 2014 - Review by Steve Dillon

Chapter One consists of only 18 (menacing)  words*, which Ramsey Campbell’s regular readers will admit is remarkable. Thirty-two chapters later and we’re at the epilogue without hardly putting the book down, makes this a highly readable story. Set in a struggling fictional travel agency ‘Frugogo’ in Liverpool, the story follows the day-to-day life of one of the agency’s finest, the long-suffering David. Plagued by the unwanted attention of various memorable customers, neighbours, council workers, passers-by, cinema-goers and someone who seems convinced that David ought to be a writer despite his continued denials, David has to work beneath his ex, and alongside her current. Fortunately his current love interest also works nearby, and even his parents play a role in the story.


In what is a typical Campbell-ian domestic setting, we know that bliss will never be on the table. Corpses will. And in abundance!

Running parallel to the story and providing an alternate view of things — in fact, it is written in the first person and reflects the words from a mysterious online blog — is the narrative of what happens to these unfortunate souls. Seemingly coincidental at first, David is compelled to read and follow the blog because it uses the same website name (Better out than In) that he flippantly gave as the name he would choose if he were to write a blog. Which he won't, because he’s not a writer. Confused? It will all be made crystal clear when you think yourself lucky


*Chapter One: "Hello?" It was the last word they ever spoke, but by no means the last sound they made.

Review of 'The Searching Dead' by Ramsey Campbell
PS Publishing, 2017 - Review by Steve Dillon

The Searching Dead is the first part of a trilogy which will ultimately form The Three Births of Daoloth. Despite being a first-parter, it is actually a great read in its own right, and I felt the ending was suitably conclusive as a standalone, so I wouldn't hold back on reading this now rather than waiting for the next book. Although it doesn't end on a cliff-hanger, which personally I find annoying at times, the ending leaves unanswered questions that will doubtless be explored in future books in the series. Not least of these will involve Daoloth itself, the render of the veils, which is barely mentioned in the first book, although there are subtle hints peppered throughout the first part of this trilogy...


The style at times is reminiscent of previous generations of writers, referring as it does to a dark tome of arcane knowledge which is suitably extracted in the latter part of the story. And although this series builds on the Lovecraftian mythos from where Campbell's roots firmly sprout, that is not to say it is Lovecraftian in tone, for the language is modern and far from baroque or florid. Nor is it overly-peppered with the trademark Campbell-isms which any of his regular readers will doubtless recognise, although there are enough to keep us grinning darkly as we race through the story.

Set in the early 1950s and written largely as the reminiscences of a schoolboy on the threshold of his own journey to maturity, The Searching Dead is far from a 'coming of age' story. Although not printed as such, the narrative hints at times that it may be transcribed from our protagonist's (Dominic Sheldrake) diary in the manner of Adrian Mole, and at others it becomes more of a Biggles-style adventure that the Tremendous Three (Dominic, Jim and Roberta aka Bobby) find themselves entangled in. Among the main characters is an ominously stooping schoolteacher who talks to his young offspring as though she is an adult, and who responds likewise, a woman whose misguided spiritualist beliefs and faith have led her to regret something she'd only recently longed and wished for, the protagonists' families who are eager to keep the youngsters away from adventures, but who themselves become drawn into it, and the usual politics of a post-war British city that abounds with religious, political and family concerns.


To my mind, if Enid Blyton had worked alongside the likes of HP Lovecraft or Brian Lumley (especially his Necroscope series), then this is the resultant story, and it works extremely well, although what Sheldrake witnessed on a school trip to France is hardly something the Famous Five would have encountered.


The backdrop for the story, as with many of Campbell's stories, is one which he is intimately familiar with. There is a street party for Queen Elizabeth's Coronation, trips to the cinema accompanied by an usherette wielding a flashlight (torch) and bus rides through Liverpool's post-war, bombed-out landscape that has for the most parts now perished to be replaced with a new growth of commerce and urban sprawl.

To summarise, although returning to Lovecraftian-style cosmic horror, the story demonstrates to me a new direction for Campbell in some ways as his various favourite topics, writing styles and techniques become blended to become a new and easily consumable format which newcomers to Campbell will doubtless enjoy. I eagerly await the second and third in the trilogy!


Edition reviewed: ISBN: 978-1-786360-30-4. 271 pages, hardback edition with dustjacket cover.

Review of 'The Overnight' by Ramsey Campbell
PS Publishing, 2004 - Review by Steve Dillon


I read The Overnight on a recent trip to the UK from Australia, and I had to read it over several nights, despite being enthralled and engulfed by the gradual creeping fog that gradually swamps our protagonists in the story.


Set in a bookshop in a newly-built commercial estate in the North of England, and managed by a successful (American) company-man, the story is written as only Ramsey Campbell is able. The menace is hinted at; it lurks; it creeps over the threshold of the bookstore like the fog which has surrounded it. There are personality conflicts among the staff, a subtle sense of ‘us and them’ caused by the fact that the manager is ‘foreign,’ and more pointedly by the inclusion of characters with differing life-styles and views. One is gay, another is homophobic; one is keen to impress, another is happy to get away with the bare minimum, and so on.


A key skill of Ramsey Campbell’s is to entice the reader into an everyday scene (much like M.R. James, one of Campbell’s literary forebears,) and to introduce shadow-plays and human foibles in such a way that we’re not immediately certain whether the strange goings-on are substantial, or the result of some psychological interpretation brought on by fatigue, stress, or psychiatric illness, or whether indeed there are supernatural forces at work, threatening to assault us from some other place into our everyday humdrum lives. Do the lines on the pages truly become blurred when one of our lead characters fumbles to read them, or is this a throwback to the days when he was rendered incapable of reading due to stress and bullying? If so, why has that manifestation come back to haunt him now, and what can he do about it? Likewise, the books that are scattered on the floor or rearranged to the level of chaos could be the result of some impish schoolchildren with a dislike for literature, or could this equally be a manifestation of the destructive goal of some mini-mud-goblin?


Besides the main characters, Campbell has included a couple of characters who seem intent to pull up a soft-chair and watch as the events in the bookstore unfold… I found this pair both humorous and intriguing enough to wonder if they represented Mr. Campbell and the reader, enthralled yet incapable or unwilling to change the way the various scenes are acted out. And in the end, they remained an enigma, for which I’m personally grateful, as not all stories need a definite conclusion in my mind.


One other point, which I also made at a recent reading by Ramsey Campbell and Pete Crowther, I believe this story is one of the most suitable candidates for a Ramsey Campbell movie, of which there have been none so far made, at least not in English. For me, it has all the right elements: atmosphere, bizarre plot, psychological tension between characters, intrigue, suspense and action.


In conclusion, expect this ‘overnight’ shift in the bookstore to forever dwell in the midst of your thoughts should you ever find yourself in a bookstore at night, or working an overnight shift of your own.

Review of 'The Booking' novella by Ramsey Campbell

Dark Regions Press - Review by Steve Dillon


I’ve had the advance review copy of Ramsey Campbell’s The Booking for a while but was savoring it until I had some real quality downtime. A recent bout of flu, combined with food poisoning and bed-rest, has given me that time, and an intermittent helping of delirium has helped me along… and I must say it’s almost worth bearing the bug for.  Reflecting the Lovecraftian influence on Mr. Campbell, the opening line hooked me in: “When they found him, this text was all he had.”


After a brilliant opening line, the reader dashes headlong into the story, but then there is a section break and—boom! You hit a wall that you have to climb.


Although I’ve read a lot of Ramsey Campbell, I still find it hard at times to get straight into some of his stories, and this one proved no exception. He sometimes really makes you work through the words to get the sense of what’s happening. Don’t get me wrong… I always find it’s well worth the effort, but I sometimes think new readers may be put off by the opening paragraph of the story proper:

“The scrawny bench might have been designed to discourage lingering. The seat was an uninviting chilly metal lattice, and the back leaned inches away from the vertical. As Kiefer perched on the thin scroll that was the edge of the seat he felt poised to make a getaway— some move, at any rate.”

Overall, Campbell is really playing at home with The Booking. Above anything else, even his knowledge of the horror genre in which he is a past master, the author knows books, libraries, and book shops. Essentially, in The Booking a hard-to-find-bookshop is owned and run by an eccentric bookseller who is in need of a web presence. The bookseller and his protégé—an unemployed book lover—are at the centre of the mystery.


After a few pages, I was enjoying the story but not really carried along with it when the following few sentences really grabbed me and stopped me from closing the book for a couple more hours of much-needed sleep:

In that case you can swear,” the bookseller eventually said. “Your camera has to be dead all the time you’re here.” Kiefer took a breath to keep down any inadvertent response. “I swear.” “No, swear it,” Brookes insisted, lifting a rickety Edwardian annual for boys off a Bible on the desk. “Swear on this.” Kiefer planted a hand on the holy tome, which felt like a leathery body as cold as the room. “I swear,” he declared with studied steadiness, “the camera won’t be on while I’m in your shop.”


After the above line, Ramsey held me throughout the book with his usual mixture of paranoia, word play, psychology, and human relationships. With books at the heart of things, I will add this to my still-growing pile of “favourites.”


On a final note, Ramsey still surprises me with the beautiful prose which he sprinkles over his work, as with the following line: “When he shut the laptop he had an impression of preserving her image like a flower between the pages of a book.” It’s undoubtedly sentences like this that have contributed to his World Fantasy Association Life Achievement Award, which he earned in 2015 to add his huge collection of awards for horror and dark fantasy.

Review of "Holes for Faces" by Ramsey Campbell

Dark Regions Press - Review by Steve Dillon


This collection of short stories has been in print for a while now, but I’ve chosen to review it for a few reasons. Firstly, I wanted to begin with something by Ramsey Campbell to celebrate his recent ‘Life Achievement Award’ given by the World Fantasy Association. Also, this is the first time the book has been available in hardback. Finally, this particular volume is a great collection of tales by Britain’s greatest horror writer.


Reviewing short stories is always problematic – it’s the nature of the beast; if you write too much, you’re at risk of giving it all away; too little and you’re no more than a bibliographer. So, I’ll try to be neither and do both. I’m not sure if the stories collected here were consciously chosen with the theme, but most of the tales conform to it: aging and youth. Perhaps this reflects the fact that we’re now into Campbell’s sixth decade as a professional writer, and these have all been collected from the past decade or so.


Some commentary, then, about the tiny tales that give you Holes for Faces:


Passing Through Peacehaven

Quite simply, Marsden, an elderly man, gets off a train at the wrong stop, Peacehaven. He is confused and struggles to make sense of the railway announcements or the timetable as he tries to get back on the right train. Ramsey Campbell plays well with mis-heard words, allowing him to serve up some of the darkly humorous puns he is famed for. We share Marsden’s paranoia, agitation and fear, mounting as he attempts to get through to a taxi service and to make other, more personal calls. There’s an underlying sadness in this tale as we begin to realise he’s unlikely to ever get away from Peacehaven; it might well be his final resting place, while the voices he hears are smudged and smeared as though through a veil of smoke.


Peep

This one will appeal to anyone with a fear of clowns, stories involving children’s toys and games, or dark shapes in the corner of the bedroom. It concerns a grandpa and the short time he spends with his daughter’s twin children. The narrator’s thoughts (“Peep” is written first-person) return to his own ancestors–notably, his Auntie Beryl as he wonders where the children learned the archetypal kids’ game Peep. Perhaps Peep is the first game we learn, and Campbell has managed to make it one of the scariest…


Getting it Wrong

Another older person, at least older than his fellow workers and feeling very isolated from them, is called upon to take part in a very surreal game show to help one of his colleagues. Scary. It also draws on Campbell’s love for (and knowledge of) movies. This tale would make a great short movie itself, reminiscent of The Game or SAW, but without the explicit gore and sadistic violence, although there are undertones and shadows of what might be happening on the other end of the phone line…


The Room Beyond

I will quote one sentence to give insight to Campbell’s mastery of storytelling through imagery and his command of the English language: “On both sides of the street the slender terraced houses huddled together like old folk afraid of descending the precipitous slope.” Master of simile, metaphor and symbolism, this story is dark. Worth a second read if you don’t get it the first time. It was similar to “Peacehaven,” I think, and may suffer for being so close to the opening story, but nonetheless, it is a timeless piece of true horror. The kind of terrors we all have to face one day as an elderly man returns to a place from his past, only to find his future lies in ambush.


Holes for Faces

The title piece brings us firmly into Charlie’s world, which mostly revolves around a holiday with his over-protective frightened mother and his father who tries just that bit too hard to help him make the most of their holiday. A trip to Italy is made worse by the family who seem dead set on mirroring their own family holiday plans. Add to the mix Charlie’s increasing paranoia and a growing fear of holes and faces (including the one in the mirror), heads without bodies, bodies without heads; and the family’s trip to the Catacombs and Vesuvius don’t give Charlie the memories his parents hoped for. But travel broadens the mind, so they say, and Charlie will return a changed person.


The Rounds

Another tale set on a train in the Liverpool loop (a city familiar to any regular readers of Campbell’s stories), this tale is the exception that proves the rule (whatever that means). No children or old people in this one. But the paranoia pervades, this time born of a very real fear for anyone who grew up in Liverpool in the 60s, and again in today’s climate as we’re constantly told to ‘stay alert for terrorists.’ The fear of an abandoned parcel or luggage in a public place, coupled with the urge to not make a fuss in case your suspicions are wrong or you’re accused of being a racist. Then there’s the feeling of being stuck in a loop…


The Decorations

An eerie psychological Christmas read with more children, more grandparents, another funeral. More things to be afraid of, lurking in the dark, and the fear that Santa isn’t real, or perhaps he’s just too real…


The Address

This time an elderly man, Fraith, is simply trying to find a railway station to get back home. Campbell once more deals us a hand of cards from a very mundane deck, but uses his Aces (the subtle use of words and imagery) and then bangs down the pack’s Jokers to defeat us with something unexpected and quite horrific. Fraith feels like he’s getting in the way of his daughter and her young children, but he probably shouldn’t be out alone. Confused, lost, and gradually becoming more afraid, and rightly so based on some of his encounters. The underlying horror here is real again and deals with aging and the threat of Alzheimer’s. It also makes us confront the loneliness of old age, the alienation and exclusion, the loss of clarity and direction in a world where one’s hearing and sight are diminishing, people and places are changing, and the way forward isn’t made any clearer by easily-overlooked signs and pathways.


Recently Used

An old man, Tunstall, wakes in a bed that’s “too bare and wide by half” by a phone call from the hospital where his wife is lying ill. He dashes off to visit her, hopefully in time, but is confounded by a maze of hospital corridors, poorly signed and organised, deliberately, it seems, to cause confusion and delays. Another commonplace theme in Campbell’s work, this tale is a dream-like race that is equally suspenseful and frustrating and has the protagonist running round and round in circles.


Chucky Comes to Liverpool

If you don’t get the title’s references, you might not be a horror movie fan or a Ramsey Campbell fan. I’m sure this story will appeal to any horror buffs and will doubtless be many readers’ favourite. It deals with schizophrenia, overly-protective parenting, obsessions, peer pressures, and teenage rebellion. Add a dash of dope, and introduce Chucky, the star of the Child’s Play/Chucky movies, and get ready for some great fun. Worth buying the book just for this one in my opinion.


With the Angels

Two sisters, and the children of one of them, visit their old family home and are greeted by some long-lasting and haunting memories. Playing games with children should be a fun thing, shouldn’t it? When the kids’ Auntie finally allows herself to do just that, it leads to frightening consequences.


Behind the Doors

A seemingly gifted schoolboy is given a reward by his aging teacher. Unfortunately (or not), his grandfather had the same teacher when he was at school. Creepy enough yet? Should a child be given treats as a reward, or punished for being poor with numbers? Should they be made to stand out in any way from the other children? And if so, what if the reward was a Christmas advent calendar, behind whose doors tiny chocolates lay waiting to be eaten; would you let your grandchild eat them? What if you felt you were becoming that teacher you’ve loathed all these years? These are the simple, everyday questions that Campbell manages to turn into plot devices and triggers for old memories and deep-seated feelings…


Holding the Light

Two teenage boys, cousins, forced to while away their Halloween together. Introduce two girls, frustration at the cinema, and some psychological quirks. Standard horror movie fare? What if one of the boys suggests a trip to “that haunted place”? A legendary double-suicide, a tree, and a tunnel. Add a spoonful of Campbell’s eerie medicine, and read this one at night.


The Long Way

I’ve tried to avoid quotes, but this is a classic Campbell-ism I had to share, “A chill wind kept trying to shrink my face.” This is a pun-filled tale of a teenager who helps his wheelchair-bound uncle on a weekly shopping trip. He also writes horror stories, secretly. His imagination takes hold as he has to pass through an abandoned estate to and from his uncle’s. One seemingly vandalised house might not be quite as vacant as it should be, and a stick-like figure he thinks he sees inside it reminds him too much of the nearby woods…

"Ramsey Campbell's work has been an ongoing inspiration to me since I met him in 1987 at the launch of Clive Barker's Weaveworld. Ramsey has been a continued supporter of my work at Oz Horror Con over the years. It was intended that Ramsey be our guest of honour at Oz Horror Con in 2013, but fate transpired against that happening. I was finally able to meet Ramsey again 30 years after our first meeting; in May 2017 at an author reading in Hull, along with Jenny, and the organisers and people behind PS Publishing, Pete and Nicky Crowther, and what lovely people they all are!

"I have been fortunate enough to publish reprints of three of Ramsey's short stories - 'Again' in 'The Refuge Collection, Heaven to Some!;' 'The Address' in 'Between the Tracks - Tales from the Ghost Train;' and 'The Cellars' in the forthcoming anthology 'Below the Stairs - Tales from the Cellar,' and I hope to be able to print many more of Ramsey's short stories in the future!"

- Steve Dillon, Oz Horror Con Director. 
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