Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Influence of Anxiety

Demons by Daylight by Ramsey Campbell:
Star Books edition (1975, identical to 1973 Arkham House edition): Potential  (1973); The End of a Summer's Day  (1973) ; At First Sight  (1973); The Franklyn Paragraphs  (1973); The Interloper  (1973)   [as by Errol Undercliffe ]; The Sentinels  (1973); The Guy  (1973); The Old Horns  (1973); The Lost  (1973); The Stocking  (1968); The Second Staircase  (1973); Concussion  (1973); The Enchanted Fruit  (1973); Made in Goatswood  (1973).

Jove/HBJ edition (1979): omits The Second Staircase and The Enchanted Fruit; adds The Last Hand (1975), The Telephones (1976), and Reply Guaranteed (1968).

The great Ramsey Campbell's writing shifted almost tectonically between his first and second collections. And all this shifting, which took place over a decade, occurred before he was 25. Demons by Daylight is that second collection, in slightly different forms for its British and American paperback editions (Arkham House originally published it in hardcover in 1973).

Campbell went from being a very young (16!) and gifted writer of pastiches of H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos fiction to being a still-young horror writer with a prose style and approach to the supernatural that was, even with this second collection, uniquely his own.

Cosmic horrors would still appear in Campbell's work, along with ghosts and monsters and homicidal maniacs. But the description would be disturbingly off-set from the usual -- Stephen King once likened Campbell's descriptions of reality as being almost LSD-derived in their disturbing, vaguely hallucinatory quality. Everything, even the most simple of objects, has been radically destabilized and gifted with malign life. Sometimes that malign life is subjective. Sometimes that malign life is objective. Sometimes the whole matter remains unclear.

Already at work in this collection is Campbell's wedding of horror and anxiety. That anxiety usually occurs within the minds of his protagonists, and finds some answering echo from the world around them. That answer may be supernatural. It may be mundane but horrific. Or the answer may be unanswerable as to its provenance: is it real or is it entirely inside the mind? Or is the 'or' really 'and'?

Take "The Telephones," for instance. The settings are mundane: a pub, the side of a highway, a succession of phone booths. But the protagonist seems to think he's telepathic. And he may be. But he's also in the midst of a personality crisis about his sexual orientation. And weird things are happening, ultimately never to be entirely answered. It's not a great story, but it's a very good one.

Or take "The End of a Summer's Day." The protagonist's anxiety relates to her belief that she's unworthy of the love and marriage she's found relatively late in life. There's a bus tour with her spouse. There's a cave. Something happens that may or may not be real. My take is that what happens is real, in a supernatural sense, but that it also preys upon the anxieties that could conceivably reflect an unstable mind that's actually invented everything that's happened. A certain portion of Campbell's fiction exists in this gap.

But there's also the windy, twisty supernatural, overtly deployed, to be dealt with. Demons by Daylight contains my favourite dual narrative in Campbell's body of work, "The Franklyn Paragraphs" and "The Interloper"  [as by Errol Undercliffe], appearing jointly under the title of "Errol Undercliffe: An Appreciation."

Campbell himself (well, a character called Ramsey Campbell) narrates "The Franklyn Paragraphs." That faux memoir deals with (fictional) cult horror writer Errol Undercliffe, his disappearance, and the Lovecraftian events leading up to that disappearance. "The Interloper," ostensibly a story by Undercliffe, mixes the supernatural with the anxieties and fears of teenagers as related to the world of adults and authority and their peculiar powerlessness against authority figures who are not what they appear to be. It's a great duo.

The collection begins to flesh out the fictional cosmos centered around the fictional English city of Brichester that would appear a lot in Campbell's work around this time. Brichester, modelled partially on Campbell's hometown of Liverpool, would eventually be superseded by the real city in Campbell's work, though his fictional towns and cities of Brichester, Goatswood, Temphill, and others would continue to appear right up to the present day. These are places in the Severn Valley you don't want to go. But it's great to read about them. Campbell's work would continue to grow and improve after this collection. Still, this is a delight, and a sign of things to come. Highly recommended.

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