Friday, May 14, 2010

Alone with the Horrors by Ramsey Campbell

Alone with the Horrors
By Ramsey Campbell
Copyright 1991

This anthology of Ramsey Campbell short stories spans his career from the early 1960s through 1991.

The Tower of Yuggoth
Campbell delves directly into the Cthulu mythos in this tale about a young man’s tireless quest to find the origins of strange aquatic life inhabiting the woods in New England. As a teenager, he finds strange books in his parents’ home library that lead him first to Miskatonic University to read from the unholy book, The Necronomicon. He then heads off into the Maine woods to find the strange tower and it secrets it reveals about an unholy species coexisting with man.

Still imitating Lovecraft here, but getting better at it . . .

Cold Print
A man with a passion for “odd” books is guided to an out-of-the-way bookstore where he finds a treasure trove of his kind of literature. He soon finds himself prisoner of this literature – and its purveyor.

Campbell is taking his first tentative steps away from Lovecraft, establishing his own voice. The story is not particularly strong or frightening, but he’s improving.

The Scar
A family man’s brother in law tells him that he’s seen his double on a train near Liverpool, meaning the man is about to die. The only dissimilarity, according to the brother in law, is a long scar from the man’s temple to the base of his neck. A few days later, the man is attacked in an alley and disfigured – leaving him with a scar on his face. He undergoes a rapid personality change, so the brother-in-law takes him back to the scene of the crime to try to help him – with disastrous results.

I read this story three times and I still did not get the climax. This tale is not well told at all. The characters are uninspired and the story simply doesn’t make sense.

The Interloper
Four English boarding school students enter the catacombs that run beneath their school and find a familiar presence in their lives is actually a subterranean dweller.

The story shifts points of view about 800 words in and is quite confusing. It is not engaging, scary, or even interesting.

The Guy
The narrator is a teenage boy who decides to hang out with a troubled and shy youth who has an incredibly guilty conscience about a horrifying accident many years ago. As they prepare to celebrate “Guy Fawkes Day”, that guilt comes to a head.

At least this story was coherent. It was not, however, particularly interesting.

The End of a Summer’s Day
A woman and her husband go on a tour of a cave. She becomes terrified and inexplicably discovers her husband is blind. She endures the taunts of the tour group and guide as she tries to figure out how to get them out.

If this story had a point, I didn’t get it. Kafka authored an inexplicable transition in Metamorphosis, but at least that story of alienation was engaging and the allegory apparent. Campbell’s prose is anything but engaging and his character development is horrible, even for a short story.

The Man in the Underpass
A school girl becomes fascinated with a graffito man painted on a Liverpool underpass near her school. Soon, small pets begin to disappear and the girl’s friends become increasingly terrified.

Finally, we have a coherent story with a couple developed characters. The plot is original and its climax worthwhile.

The Companion
A writer spends his spare time exploring the various carnivals and amusement parks of England. He finds one that harbors a dark secret.

Ray Bradbury already told this story in Something Wicked This Way Comes and did a much better job at it. I want back the ten minutes it took me to read this incomprehensible tripe.

Call First
A librarian is fascinated by a patron’s daily ritual of calling home before he leaves the library – intoning without emotion “I’m coming home.” The librarian decides to see what the old man is going home to and finds a most unusual security system.

Campbell delivers a fantastic story with an unexpected conclusion. The story is taut and well paced.

In the Bag
A school administrator lays down a harsh punishment when students place a plastic bag over his son’s head, causing him to almost suffocate. When he gets home, he finds out how little the students appreciated the punishment.

This is a dull and predictable story. However, it managed to win a British literature award which might be telling of the quality of British fantasy and horror of the 1970s. . .

A Liverpool drunk becomes fascinated with an old woman and her pets. He follows her around the neighborhood as she pushes her shopping cart, believing that she might actually be rich and eccentric. He finds out the creatures with which she lives are not actually pets.

The Chimney
A paranoid youth develops a strong loathing of the fireplace in his room. Night after night, his fear slowly and inexplicably builds. He begins to fear Father Christmas himself because he comes down the chimney to deliver his presents. His fear of Santa is prescient as he finds out in the end.

This is one of Campbell’s more sympathetic characters. As a youth who was sometimes inexplicably terrified of household fixtures (my first home had a fallout shelter that terrified me) I could definitely sympathize. Campbell delivers his first real plot twist hear and it’s pretty good. This story would have worked as a “Night Gallery” script.

The Brood
A Liverpool apartment dweller develops a fascination for an ancient crone who hangs out under a streetlight at night outside his apartment. He follows her to her home and explores her apartment building where he finds her horrific secret.

This story is better than most in this collection, which isn’t saying much. It was incredibly average. The character development was not bad.

The Gap
A writer with a fascination with jigsaw puzzles has some friends as overnight guests. They bring along another writer who is an expert at witchcraft. After an unpleasant exchange over dinner, the writer receives a gift from his adversary – a puzzle with one piece missing. . .

Here, Campbell builds to a degree the strong dread that Lovecraft evokes with his writing without directly imitating Lovecraft’s prose. This was a satisfying story.

The Voice of the Beach
A man invites a friend to spend some time with him at his beachfront cottage. While walking along the beach, they discover what appears to be the remains of a small town made entirely of stone. Inside the ruins they discover a diary of a former inhabitant of the town. The hero’s companion becomes obsessed with the diary and the ruins. The hero falls ill and is left to ponder the constantly shifting sands of the beach. Both go insane for their own reasons.

The stone ruins evoke the same mood Lovecraft establishes in several of his stories – most notably “The Call of Cthulu.” His distortion of space is purely Lovecraftian. Of his attempts to imitate Lovecraft, Campbell does his best work here. He creates the fear and dread without showing you the evil, but he’s now writing in his own voice instead of copying Lovecraft’s style – which is best left to Lovecraft.

Out of Copyright
A publisher of anthologies is prone to stealing and rewriting the works of published authors without paying royalties. He finally steals from the wrong author and pays the consequences.

Campbell is living out an author’s fantasy here. Slaying publishers and editors is something that lies in the darkest wells of the souls of writers. Campbell says he had no particular anthologist in mind when he wrote it, but Ray Bradbury apparently recognized the target, according to Campbell.

Above the World
A writer returns to the hotel where he and his former wife honeymooned. She and her new husband have just died in an accident. He strays from the beaten path into the wooded mountains. There, he finds the unpleasant answers to many questions.

This story is written in the style that made me want to read Campbell in the first place. The man can create a vivid scene like no one I’ve ever read. His descriptions of the woods and the mountains rival Tolkien in their grandeur.

Mackintosh Willy
A homeless drunk torments kids in a park who dare to venture near the underpass where he lives. One day, he ends up dead. The kid everyone suspects killed Willy becomes the object of desire for an adolescent girl. There final date ends in tragedy when Willy gets his revenge.

There’s nothing original here. The characters are not engaging and the story is an oft-told tale of ghostly revenge.

The Show Goes On
A shopkeeper is convinced that burglars are entering his store through the abandoned theater next door. He decides to enter the theater at night and preempt their thievery. As he moves about the creepy movie palace, he finds that, while the theater may be abandoned by the living, some performers and audiences do go on after death.

This is a well written haunted house story. The concept of a haunted theater is not particularly original. However, Campbell makes the best of a recycled idea. The theater becomes a maze in which the hero becomes lost. Campbell builds the terror nicely.

The Ferries
An urbane Londoner travels to a seaside town to bring his dying uncle to his home in London. His uncle, at death’s door, recounts a voyage where he and his shipmates encounter a ghost ship. His uncle dies and the man takes home with him a bottle he finds on the beach near his uncle’s house.

A ship in a bottle serves as a talisman of evil. That’s pretty original and Campbell develops his story and his character well.

Midnight Hobo
A late night radio host becomes obsessed with what he is sure is an evil creature that lurks under an overpass near his home. He avoids the overpass when he walks to work and has nightmares after finding the remains of a cat that has been torn to pieces. Like the teenagers in the prototypical slasher film, he just has to see what it is down there.

Like “Three Billy Goats’ Gruff,” the terror living under the bridge figures into a lot of Campbell’s horror. It’s interesting to read Campbell’s work develop from his earlier stories that seemed to have no point when they ended to one where he wraps up a horror story masterfully. In this story, Campbell shows that the hero need not die at the end for the story to be scary.

The Depths
An author tortured by writer’s block rents a house that was the scene of grisly murders. Upon leaving, he finds that he is able to predict ghastly crimes before they happen. What’s worse, the murder rate in his neighborhood is soaring!

I love this tale because it keeps you guessing. I developed two hypotheses about the character that were shot down as I read and was surprised by the ending.

Down There
A woman and a male coworker are working late in a high rise building with only one working elevator. The building has a colorful past and an oddly cavernous sub-basement. She and her coworker try to make the elevator work correctly to leave the building, but end up in that strange sub-basement which was stocked with unholy terrors by its builder.

Campbell has a great concept here, but really misses the mark in character development. I love a plot-driven story, but Campbell doesn’t put any effort into making either of the characters sympathetic or unsympathetic. They’re just “there” for the action to revolve around.

The Fit
A pubescent boy spends the summer with his aunt who works as a seamstress in rural England. Delivered to his aunt are two dresses to be altered. The dresses are made by a strange hag who lives in a one room cottage in the woods. The strange fabric has human hair woven into it. After reluctantly working on the dresses, his aunt is haunted by her work and it is up to her nephew to save her.

Great character development here with the adolescent boy (one must believe that Ramsey Campbell was once an adolescent boy). The story is an original concept as well and builds to a nice climax.

Hearing is Believing
A man is tormented by the sound of rain that comes from his expensive stereo. At first he is merely annoyed at not being able to enjoy his music. But the sound of rain in his small house dominates his waking and sleeping hours.

This is the first fiction haunted stereo story I’ve ever read. Keep in mind the true story of Ron DeFeo who is notorious for having murdered his family in Amityville, NY after he heard a voice in his stereo telling him to do it. A few more pages of story and character development might have made this fair story good.

The Hands
A man is talked into entering a church to take a survey. After being led to a room to fill out the survey, he finds himself trapped in a shifting maze and strange pursuers.

Think “Hotel California” set in an old English church. “Hotel California” is a better short story than this mess. This is the worst story in the second half of the book.

A man hiking along a park trail happens upon a cabin and an old crone who has apparently locked herself out of her home. The man obliges her and crawls through a window to unlock the door. Inside, he finds the cottage to be a small house of horrors and discovers the crone’s dark secret.

This is the first I’ve seen Campbell delve deeply into tales of the undead. He sets the scene masterfully with his descriptive prose and drives the story forward in a well paced narrative.

Just Waiting
A quarreling couple take their young son into the woods on a picnic. During the hike, his parents argue constantly and make the boy miserable. When they arrive at the glade where they plan to hold their picnic, they find a very formal wait staff catering to them. . . and to the boy’s escape fantasies.

There’s more than a touch of absurdity to the story. The main character is a sympathetic tyke and his parents bores. You can’t help but feel good for him in the end.

Seeing the World
Richard and Angela’s annoying neighbors insist that they come over and see their slides of their latest Greek vacation. Some neighbors are annoying, and some have evil inhabitants lurking in the basement of their homes!

Not a strong story. The characters were well developed – especially the annoying neighbor that just insists on showing slides. But the terror is almost tacked on and really tangential to the tale.

Old Clothes
A mover “acquires” an old coat while emptying the home of a dead spiritualist. Soon, treasures start appearing in the coat’s pockets. Like most treasures in horror stories, these bring consequences. The mover finds he can’t lose the coat.

A rather unsatisfying story with a good character. Maybe Campbell undertook one too many haunted garment stories in as much as Stephen King undertook one too many haunted car stories.

A childish prank of stealing apples from the neighborhood crank ends badly for children on Halloween night

For Campbell, this was a rather light tale like one might encounter in a comic book It was thoroughly enjoyable.

The Other Side
A schoomaster is taunted by prank phone calls from his students and a capering clown that he can see from his apartment window that affords a view of the “other side of the tracks.” When he observes one of his female tormentors in danger, he ventures to the other side of the tracks and confronts the monster.

Again, as Campbell is wont to do, he lost me in the climax. I reread it several times and ended up saying, “so what?” I just didn’t care to ponder it anymore.

Where the Heart Is
A recent widower whose wife and child died in childbirth sells the home they shared and falls into a deep depression after closing. Keeping a key for himself, he visits and observes their various renovations before ending his despair.

There’s not much of a supernatural element to this story; just tremendous sadness. Campbell establishes this mood nicely. It’s a well told, sad tale of loss.

Boiled Alive
A dull payroll manager in a British factory starts receiving strange phone calls inquiring if he is Dr. Doncaster. He soon finds out that he is living out the plot of a bad movie. After having seen the movie and its ending, he must decide whether to maintain his tenuous grip on reality or to become the film’s hero.

This story had a nice element of unpredictability, a well written climax, and just the right amount of uncertainty as to the outcome.

Another World
A man lives a life of total seclusion, hidden away from the real world by his ultra religious father. When his father dies, he has to venture out to see that his father’s remains are taken care of. He finds the world a much more unwholesome place than he ever dreamed.

This is a variation on Hawthorne’sYoung Goodman Brown” where the man, pure of heart, ventures into the dark foreboding forest (or in this case, city) to confront and be tempted by evil. Campbell gives us far less resolution to his story than did Hawthorne.

End of the Line
A telemarketer selling videophones always opens his sales pitch with, “I bet you wish you could see my face.” Apparently, he is unable to see the faces of his friends and associates.

For some reason, Campbell thought there was some humor in here somewhere. I found no humor – just a series of random sentences marching across the landscape in search of a plot. What a useless story with which to end an anthology that chronicles his life’s work up until 1991.


  1. Forgive me, Brian, but what on earth made you think I wrote "The Thing on the Doorstep"?

  2. It was in the edition of the book I read. I did not look carefully at who wrote it. You said yourself that, when you started writing, you imitated Lovecraft until you found your own voice. I assumed you were REALLY imitating Lovecraft here.

    I reviewed a few of the stories rather harshly. However, as a noted horror author once rote in the anthology "My Favorite Horror Story," you write incredibly vivid prose.

    I find that I can still visualize the settings and recall the plots from your stories. This leads me to believe that sometimes, stories ought to be allowed to resonate before reviews are written. Your stories have remained in my consciousness more than a year after I read them, meaning there was more there than I first realized upon writing them.

  3. Thank you very much, Brian! If you've any way of identifying the edition of the book that contains "The Thing on the Doorstep" I'd be most grateful - I certainly don't know of one, and I believe I have all of them. I should add that I would have been happy to have written Lovecraft's tale!

  4. A great site. Could you review my books as well? Here is my website for you to have a look at them: