Meet Ramsey Campbell 'Britain's most respected living horror writer'

Interviewed by author Luke Walker

How much of an influence was your childhood of growing up in 1950s Liverpool on your early writing? 

In quite a few ways it was crucial, though not so much to the early stuff as my more personal tales. My parents became estranged before I started school, but we continued to live in the same small house (40 Nook Rise in Liverpool). After a violent parental argument when I was three my mother asked if I still wanted to go out with my father, and I sided with her, which was pretty well the end of any relationship with him. He became the footsteps on the stairs, the presence on the far side of the door, the muffled voice I would hear talking to my mother, though she avoided him as much as possible. Add to this that she was an undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, who was convinced that (for instance) the neighbours were conspiring against her and that radio programmes contained messages aimed at her, and you might think my childhood was the foundation of my fiction. To some extent it has been – of some of its themes and effects, at any rate, not least that of misperception. In addition I had the experience of religious schools in the fifties – to begin with Christ the King Primary, followed by a private school when I was seven (Ryebank) and then a Catholic grammar, St Edward’s. You’ll find traces of these in some of my tales, though little direct autobiography. I wouldn’t want to suggest all this explains why I write horror, though. I’ve valued the experience of terror in fiction for pretty well as long as I can remember.

Many writers struggle to find their voice and produce work that is uniquely them for several years. Was there a particular moment or piece that you realised was your voice?

Indeed so. It was in “The Cellars”, the first of my stories to be set explicitly in Liverpool. It was written in 1965, but I was already trying out a new voice two years earlier. Having delivered my first published book, which was based upon – indeed, clung to – Lovecraft, I wrote a story (“The Stone on the Island”) in early 1963 where my style began to be liberated by Nabokov (whose Lolita I’d just read). Though its setting was called Brichester (one of the Severn Valley towns I’d invented) it was really Liverpool, though not very specifically. “The Cellars”, on the other hand, came out of an actual Liverpool location, and the description of the route to it in the story is just as accurate. The prose is increasingly personal, though some of it strikes me as clumsy now. Just the same, for me that’s my first real tale – certainly the first recognisably Campbell one.

Obviously writers are influenced by other writers and creatives; outside books, is your work consciously (or unconsciously) influenced by factors such as people, locations or environments?  

Environments, certainly, and Merseyside above all. The Liverpool of my teenage years still displayed the effects of the blitz, for instance – whole streets of ruined houses, routes I’d walk through on the way to suburban cinemas soon to shut forever. Much horror fiction and its predecessor the Gothic novel is based on landscape, but another crucial insight that set me on my path as a writer was Fritz Leiber’s work, specifically “Smoke Ghost”, where the familiar urban environment is no longer invaded by the uncanny but is its actual source. (My ultimate Liverpool novel in some ways is Creatures of the Pool, which draws extensively on local history and traditions, the stranger the better.) Other places – the Lake District, the Peaks, Greece and elsewhere – have generated stories too. Occasionally somebody’s behaviour will suggest a tale, and old girlfriends did figure in some of my early stuff, but generally speaking I don’t base characters in detail on real folk, though in some instances I’ve taken from a few to build a character. I suppose my family figures in my fiction more often than anyone else. Our children did as they grew up, for instance.

How have relationships with writers such as Robert Bloch and August Derleth shaped you?

August was crucial. I sent my earliest Lovecraftian tales to him when I was fifteen, purely to see what he thought of them and with no ambition to have them published, and he eventually wrote me a detailed editorial letter drawing attention to their many shortcomings but also suggesting that with work they could be the core of an Arkham House book – much more than I would have dreamed. As well as a mentor, he was something of a father figure to me, and all our surviving correspondence has been collected in Letters to Arkham. He supported and published my stuff even when I moved far from Lovecraft, and I can only regret that we never met and that he didn’t live to see publication of Demons by Daylight, which he bought when I feared it might be too radical a departure for Arkham House.

I did meet Bob Bloch, and many another veteran at the early World Fantasy Conventions – Fritz Leiber (with whom I did a reading at Jack Sullivan’s apartment in New York), Frank Belknap Long, J. Vernon Shea (all of them friends of Lovecraft’s), Manly Wade Wellman, L. Sprague de Camp, Hugh B. Cave… Quite a few of these became friends of mine, and meeting them all felt very much like inhabiting a continuity, along with other writers of my generation who were there – Karl Edward Wagner, Charles L. Grant, David Drake, T. E. D. Klein and others. I’m a great believer in the tradition of the field, and I think we see it exemplified right there.

With your work, do you have recurrent themes? Do you aim to include them in your fiction or do you simply let them come when they come?

I tend to write very much from instinct, and so the themes generally make themselves known in the act of writing. I try not to repeat myself, but some themes certainly recur – the vulnerability of children, the willingness of people to espouse a belief system that denies them the right to question, the growing tendency to create scapegoats for the ills of the world… That’s pretty well an answer to the next question too.

As a horror writer, your job is to scare or at least unnerve your readers. Do you use your personal fears or the issues that get under your skin to power your writing?

I don’t use them so much as they use me for expression, and I should say I see my job as just to produce the best work I can. I haven’t tried to impose an experience on the reader for nearly forty years, when I stopped labouring to make the fiction as scary as it could be. It’s more that I’m trying to convey how the material engages my imagination and affects the characters, and to make us (me included) look at things we’ve taken for granted. The psychological and the uncanny engage me most, and I do take pleasure in putting strangeness into words.

Writing is obviously a solitary role. Do you feel a support network is important? Does one help with issues such as imposter syndrome?

All I need is my wife Jenny, who is my first reader (she reads the first drafts of my tales, and each new chapter if it’s a novel). She often comments. I know many writers doubt their own success and worth – it appears to come with the job. In fact my experience and observation has brought me to feel that depression is frequently essential to writing. I wake up pretty nearly every morning with a sense that the work in progress isn’t worth the effort, only for ideas to occur to me and prove the depression wrong. Ultimately, all you can do is believe that your work is worthwhile. I still recall completing the typescript of Demons by Daylight, my second book,late one night and being convinced it wasn’t worth the postage to send it to August Derleth. Only the thought that I would have wasted all the energy of typing made me shove it in an envelope and post it the following day. 

Horror as a genre gets a bad reputation. What do you see as its most laudable qualities that might often be overlooked?

Here’s a summation I did once: Horror fiction is the branch of literature most often concerned with going too far. It is the least escapist form of fantasy. It shows us sights we would ordinarily look away from or reminds us of insights we might prefer not to admit we have. It makes us intimate with people we would cross the street to avoid. It shows us the monstrous and perhaps reveals that we are looking in a mirror. It tells us we are right to be afraid, or that we aren’t afraid enough. It also frequently embraces, or at least is conterminous with, the ghost story. It flourishes here and there in the fields of science fiction and crime fiction, and not infrequently it bobs up in the mainstream, whatever that is. Despite its name, it is often most concerned to produce awe and terror in its audience, but it is not unusual for a horror story to encompass a wider emotional range. All these reasons justify one answer I give anyone who wants to know why I write what I write: that horror fiction seems to me to be an extremely broad field—quite broad enough to allow me to deal fully with any theme I want to deal with. Another answer is that I want to pay back some of the pleasure that horror fiction has been giving me almost since I learned to read. One particular appeal for me is that much of the finest work depends on the precise selection of language (Lovecraft at his best is an exemplar of the modulation of prose, for instance, while M. R. James is a master of succinctness and restraint, showing just enough to suggest far worse).

Where do you see horror now? We often hear reports that it’s due a comeback after years/decades in the wilderness but would you say it’s fair to suggest there’s little support for that from the Big Five publishers and it’s down more to the smaller presses?

I think it has risen once again from a premature burial. I predict a new vitality, but I just want to establish that it’s been vital throughout this new century and never really gone away. Certainly the small press has been crucial – for me the splendid PS Publishing in particular – but I’m heartened to have been taken up by the hugely enthusiastic Flame Tree Press, and I think in terms of publishing they’re the best new thing to happen to our field for quite a while.

After fifty years of writing and publishing, where do you see yourself and your fiction at the moment? Are you writing for yourself, for an audience or for your legacy?                                                                                                                             

I’d like to think a few of my things may survive beyond me. Meanwhile I’m still learning, and I’ve quite a few ideas I’d like to develop. I write for myself first, on the basis that if I don’t like it I can’t expect anybody else to. Some folk generally do, and some writers cite my stuff as an influence. That’ll do for me.

Ramsey's new contemporary horror Thirteen Days by Sunset Beach publishes on 6th September. 

Luke Walker has been writing horror, fantasy and dark thrillers for most of his life. You can find Luke's blog here and on Twitter @lukewalkerbooks. Sign up to his newsletter here too