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The best books on Horror Stories

recommended by Ramsey Campbell

From the psychological terror of a haunted house to the spectral dread of an indescribable colour, the British horror writer recommends five disturbing tales to get you in the mood for Halloween

Interview by Alec Ash

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What would you say to those readers who dismiss horror, who would take one look at the cover and not bother even picking it up?

First of all, they may have read some and nor realised. For instance, they may have read Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor, which was a splendid occult horror novel in my view. Or my favourite horror novel of the last decade or so—and I always take delight in saying this is horror, to see how people react—is Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, which is a wonderful example of the kind of horror fiction that is disturbing precisely because the narrator ignores the horrific aspect of her own situation and that of her peers. It’s a classic case of very powerful indirection.

Equally, a lot of horror fiction has been published as ghost stories, and people may feel that horror is the evil twin—or, perhaps more correctly, the disreputable relative—of the ghost story. But many of those are horror too. Even crime fiction can be horror. The range of the field is so large that if our hypothetical readers have read a couple there’s almost certainly some other kind that they’ve not yet encountered and might appreciate.

So what are the boundaries of the genre?

I’m not sure that I’ve found them. One of the reasons why I’ve continued to write in the field after 50 years is that I’ve not yet found the edges or the limits. The mistake that some writers make—I won’t name them—is the feeling that you have to find the boundaries of horror by going to as much of an extreme as you possibly can. That’s not my way. I’d rather explore the different directions that the field takes, from psychological horror to supernatural dread all the way to black comedy—or “comedy of paranoia”, as I like to call it—which is what I hope I have added to the field in my own way.

And for those readers who enjoy horror—whether knowingly or unknowingly—what is the attraction?

Again, it depends what kind of horror we’re talking about. What appeals to me most is the kind of story that attempts to convey something larger than it actually shows. Not the horror story that seeks to disgust—which is not, on the whole, very interesting—but that seeks to disturb, however you define that. One of things that good horror fiction does—as with all good fiction—is to make both the reader and the writer look again at things we’ve taken for granted.

Let’s get stuck into some of these disturbing tales, and lead by example. Your first choice is Arthur Machen’s The White People and Other Weird Stories.

Machen was one of the first great British writers of supernatural horror fiction. He was Welsh, and wrote in the 1890s and early 20th century. He conveyed a sense of spiritual dread in a way that nobody had before. I think his greatest story is “The White People”, which is mostly in the form of an adolescent girl’s diary. Nothing is directly shown. The surface of this story is absolutely innocent, and yet the implications are quite terrifying.

The story in brief is that the girl has been brought up by a governess, as they were in those days, and the governess clearly has links with the fairy folks, the pre-human creations, nymphs and so on. She has been taking this girl, from a very early age, off into the woods or into the hills, and the girl has had glimpses of the other side. A lot of the piece is told in the form of fairy tales and legends which she recounts. It’s a classic case of a horror narrative where the hints and allusions come together to suggest something very much larger than they ever directly say.

The only filmmaker who makes what one might describe as horror films which genuinely terrify me, on a very primal level, is David Lynch. And I find the diary of the girl in The White People has very much the same effect. It is as uncanny an effect as I’ve ever come across. And yet if you try to take it apart and analyse it, it’s difficult to tell where the uncanniness lies. It’s a story to experience, not to talk about.

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This collection doesn’t contain The Great God Pan, which is Machen’s seminal novel. But it does have a lot of other very remarkable stories. One of Machen’s favourite themes was the old, barely human or inhuman race which reaches back to the dawn of creation, and which is often still lurking around in Wales, which is the landscape he very frequently uses. This sense of a haunted landscape is not new—the Gothic novel did it, Ann Radcliffe did it, Edgar Allan Poe refined it—but there’s a special numinous quality about Machen’s landscape that is unique up to that point.

Machen had a strong mystical belief himself of a reality beyond our own. At one point he even joined a mystical order called the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. How much did he believe of what he wrote?

It’s difficult to know. In his autobiography he says that after he suffered intense depression after the death of his wife, he had a mystical experience, which is remarkably similar to some of the experiences his characters have in his fiction. What’s striking is that he had written about these things before having experienced them himself. He was certainly a religious chap—a High Anglican—but I think it was not so much organised religion that appealed to him as this enormous cosmic sense of the God perspective. That affected all of his best work.

Next up are the collected ghost stories of M R James.

M R James is arguably the greatest master of the English ghost story. His stories are considerably grimmer and grislier than ghost stories had been up until then. I’m by no means denigrating or dismissing the Victorian ghost stories—some of which are very fine—but they tended to be ethereal and to convey the afterlife in some way, whereas James’s spectres are considerably less human—if they were human in the first place. It’s interesting that he describes his work as ghost stories, as much of it doesn’t deal with ghosts in the conventional sense at all. There are demons, there are familiars, there is whatever horrid thing is glimpsed at the end of Oh, Whistle, and Ill Come to You, My Lad.

Oh, Whistle is a good story to start with when talking about James, in fact. What I think he does there—or this is my perception—is take the Victorian ghost story, where the ghost was often wrapped in a winding sheet, and in his story make the sheet the ghost, effectively. It is something that takes on a life of it’s own, having been possessed.

So he’s abandoning the Gothic clichés?

Yes, indeed. It’s often overlooked that although the background to his stories was often antiquarian or academic—he was an English medieval scholar at Cambridge and the provost of Eton—he actually writes about the everyday. In a story like Casting the Runes—which was very well filmed, if not very faithfully, as Night of the Demon in 1957—a character sees an omen in the form of an advertisement on the side of an omnibus. So he’s taken it out of the Gothic castle and put it into the everyday experience of the reader.

In James there’s a surreal quality where the utterly mundane is invaded by the utterly alien. There’s a scene in Casting the Runes that haunted me for many years, since I read the story in my pre-teens. Having heard a noise that suggests that someone is in the house, one of the characters, lying in bed, puts their hand under the pillow to take out a box of matches, and instead puts his hand into a mouth.

Some of James’s imitators feel that it’s the academic background, the use of old books and the scholarly protagonist, that’s the essence of him. But I think that the real essence of James is his genius for the glancing phrase that suggests more in terms of horror than most of us can do in a paragraph. And it’s precisely because it’s terse that it’s so effective. To be more succinct, he says just enough to suggest far worse.

I gather he wrote his stories to read them aloud to friends.

Yes, he wrote these stories initially to be read to friends at Christmas. They were only published later—he wrote them down for the telling. That style of candlelit scary storytelling is called Jamesian after him. And the other thing worth saying about James is that his ambition was to be as frightening as possible. He certainly succeeds.

Third is The Haunting of Hill House. Shirley Jackson was a mid 20th-century American writer and a great influence on the likes of Richard Matheson and Stephen King. What is the story in brief?

The Haunting of Hill House is one of several novels in which a group of ghost hunters or psychic investigators move into a house with a reputation of being haunted, and see what they find. But what makes this the greatest single ghost novel, in my view, is that it’s at least as much about the psychological interaction of the characters as it is about the overtly spectral. There’s a superb characterisation of the spinster character, who ultimately becomes one of the ghosts of Hill House, if you like. The scenes from her viewpoint are both moving and disturbing.

The original film version from 1963, directed by Robert Wise—there was a horrific colour remake that is best not mentioning—is probably the only supernatural horror film that shows absolutely no visual manifestation of horror. It’s a classic case of not opening the door. And the novel does that even better. It shows how little you need to convey utter terror. There’s a remarkable moment in the novel where the source of terror is nothing more than the spinster walking across the grounds at night and stumbling across a picnic, in broad daylight, for a moment. That’s not conventionally terrifying, but it’s extraordinarily disturbing.

How would you define the difference between physical, visceral horror and more psychological, unseen terror?

I think you defined them pretty well just there. It seems to me that it’s the tales of psychological terror or spectral dread that on the whole last longer that the ones that simply go for physical horror. It’s the subtler ones, the ones that reach higher, which seem to survive.

You can have too much gore.

Yes. Although it’s only fair to say that writers like Clive Barker can be very visceral but the quality of his inventiveness enriches the imagination. Whereas too much graphic stuff can just be a substitute for imagination.

Let’s go on to The Dark Descent, an anthology which includes Clive Barker, Shirley Jackson and Stephen King.

One of the reasons why I chose this is because it contains a couple of masterpieces of the field—for instance, Algernon Blackwood’s story “The Willows”, which I would judge to be one of the single finest tales of supernatural dread. It’s about two friends on a boating holiday on the upper Danube, who spend a night on an island which is covered with willow trees. It becomes apparent that in some sense the island is the focus of a wholly alien source. It’s not a ghost, it’s not an elemental, it’s something even more indescribable than that. Various manifestations take place during the night, and at the end they find a victim of whatever is living there. It’s extraordinarily uncanny. It’s pure horror, but there’s absolutely no physical or graphic horror in it.

David Hartwell said that in compiling this anthology he was conscious that people miss out on the best horror by restricting themselves to that label. And it includes writers we don’t necessarily associate with horror, like Joyce Carol Oates or Ray Bradbury.

Ray Bradbury was identified as a science fiction and fantasy writer once he came to prominence, but he started off writing horror. He wrote for Weird Tales magazine in the 40s, and his first collection published in the mid 40s, Dark Carnival, was almost entirely horror. Bradbury and Richard Matheson, both of whom belonged to the Californian school of horror, were instrumental in bringing the horror story up to date and dealing with more human spheres. At the core of most of Bradbury’s horror fiction are things like loss and loneliness.

And how do we bring the genre up to the present date with The Mammoth Book of the Best of Best New Horror?

Well, I didn’t want to give people the impression that it was just the writing published 50 years ago that was good, and there is nothing good being done now—because that is not the case. I was initially the co-editor of this series with Stephen Jones, but I found that there was so much dross to be gone through to get to the good stuff that I didn’t have the time. Now we’re on volume 22, but two years ago Stephen decided to select the best stories from the first two decades, and that’s The Mammoth Book of the Best of Best New Horror. There are stories in there that stack up against the classics of the field, in very different ways.

For instance, there’s a very striking story by Lisa Tuttle called “My Death”. It’s about someone trying to track down an unknown writer, and finding that there’s more about the author and their relationship to the narrator than they thought. The story is an enigma, and I’ve always felt that an enigma in this field can be more satisfying that any explanations. Neil Gaiman is in there too, as is Mark Samuels with his story “The White Hands”. I would argue that Mark Samuels and the American Thomas Ligotti are the two contemporary writers who have picked up on the tradition of Machen and of HP Lovecraft, and are doing new things with it.

The figure of HP Lovecraft seems to hover over this genre like a bit of a spectre himself. Tell me about him and his influence on horror.

Lovecraft had an ambition to convey “cosmic terror”. He invented as he went along an entire mythology, whose purpose was partly to get beyond what he saw as the excessively conventionalised paraphernalia of Victorian occult fiction, and invent something completely new while still drawing on the traditions.

The Dark Descent includes his story “The Call of Cthulhu”, in which he first brings on this mythology of alien creatures that have visited and sunk into hidden places in the world, and who are waiting to reappear and manifest themselves. They are worshipped by the odd cult, but the aliens themselves have very little interest in humanity. Their purpose in Lovecraft is to represent cosmic indifference and that perspective on the universe.

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Lovecraft’s masterpiece is The Colour Out of Space, where again he finds the perfect metaphor for what he wants to convey. It’s not an alien creature, it’s an indescribable colour not known to our human spectrum. Which is of course unfilmable—although lots have tried! The novel is built up—by an enormous amount of hints, allusions and gradual orchestration of prose and effect—to by far the most powerful conclusion in Lovecraft’s work. It has moments of physical horror in the middle, but it is mostly built on awe and terror.

What are the historical roots of horror? How far back does the genre go?

Back to the Gothic novel, really. There are folk who would quite reasonably argue it goes back as far as Beowulf, maybe even further. But in terms of the development of the modern horror story, I would say it begins with Edgar Allan Poe. He is the first horror writer we can recognise as contemporary, in terms of his psychological preoccupations. Poe was refining and intensifying the effects of the Gothic novel, but focusing much more on the psychological element.

Is Halloween a good time to read horror, or are you fed up to the teeth with it?

Halloween is a fun time to read these stories. Then again, any day is, as far as I’m concerned. If you want a classic Halloween film, I’d watch Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon, which has never been beaten for atmosphere as far as I’m concerned.

Interview by Alec Ash

October 31, 2011

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Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey Campbell is a British horror fiction writer. He is author of more than 40 books and collections, and has co-edited five editions of Best New Horror with Stephen Jones. Campbell has won four World Fantasy Awards, 10 British Fantasy Awards, and the Horror Writers’ Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award

Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey Campbell is a British horror fiction writer. He is author of more than 40 books and collections, and has co-edited five editions of Best New Horror with Stephen Jones. Campbell has won four World Fantasy Awards, 10 British Fantasy Awards, and the Horror Writers’ Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award