There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

A forest as large as the dark: Midnight Sun by Ramsey Campbell (1990)




"Does anyone walk in the woods?"

"You won't see many. There's no paths, and if you aren't careful you'll think you've found one. It's not a place to walk on your own, but there's been a few who have."

"What happened to them?"

"Got lost and couldn't find their way out before dark. Had to stay there overnight and froze to death." He shook his head slowly and turned towards the stairs. "Unless you reckon they strayed in there after dark."

"What would have made them do that?"

"Just what I say," he responded as if she'd expressed more scepticism than in fact she had. "But to hear some of my dad's generation talk you'd think the forest was to blame, not these folk who go gallivanting when anyone with any sense wouldn't put their nose out of doors if they could help it. They're born that way if you ask me. If they aren't getting themselves stuck on the crags because they think they're Edmund Hillary, they're trying to prove they've more ice in their veins than the rest of us when it comes to the weather."

__



Midnight Sun by Ramsey Campbell (1990)


There are many ambitious horror writers, but few in the last hundred years with the skills and the commitment to write about the "horrors" we perceive in our confrontation with nature. Woods, open fields, mountains, rivers, oceans, and sky are different forces than spooks, possessions, psychotics, and beastly creatures, and it takes real artistic ambition to tackle them.

Feelings of uneasiness, awe, and menace inspired by measuring ourselves against Nature, the risks of self-forgetting involved in being isolated within its meshes, are beautifully articulated by Campbell in Midnight Sun.

Protagonist Ben Sterling brings his wife, son, and daughter back to the village where he was born and spent the first eight years of his life: Stargrave, in Yorkshire. (It is hard for me to imagine a more evocative place-name than Stargrave.) Ben and Ellen write and illustrate childrens books, and inheriting the property from Ben's aunt is a life-changing wind-fall.

Sterling Woods, which Campbell describes as being "above" Stargrave and the new house, is more than equal to Goodmanswood, the uncanny forest in The Darkest Part of the Woods. The more Ben explores the woods, alone and with his family, the more he senses something stirring in response. Soon Ellen, Johnny and Margaret start sensing it, too.


....Johnny avoided looking at it as he tramped across the crunchy grass to the trees.

The hovering mist steeped the forest in a twilight in which the tree trunks, which resembled scaly bones, appeared to glow. As soon as Johnny set foot on the path between them he saw his breath. He ran along the path, searching for trees he could shake to dislodge snow from them, trying to run far enough to be out of sight of his family and lie in wait for them. But the trees wouldn't shake; when he threw his weight against a trunk, that didn't bring down even so much as a snowflake. For a moment he thought the others had sneaked behind him, and then he saw them approaching on the path, his father's eyes gleaming in the forest twilight, Margaret rubbing her arms with her mittened hands. She looked ready to suggest going home out of the cold, and so Johnny shouted "Let's play hide and seek. Daddy can be It."

Their father went to the nearest marker post, which was painted with a blue arrow, and stared brightly at them before closing his eyes. "You'll be found, I promise," he said in a voice like a wind through the trees. "Off you go."

When Johnny saw that his sister was staying near the post he raced on tiptoe into the forest. By the time his father had counted thirty aloud, johnny had run far enough for the path and his family to be invisible for treetrunks. He darted behind two trees which grew very close together, and crouched to peer between them. He heard his father shout "Fifty" to announce that he'd finished counting, a shout which sounded tiny in the silence. Johnny crouched lower, waiting to catch sight of his father. He was still watching, and listening for movements in the hush which felt as if it was pinned down by all the trees, when he sensed that his father or Margaret had crept behind him.

No, not them. Their breath on his neck wouldn't be so cold, and even if both of them were standing there, their presence wouldn't feel so large. He swung round, sprawling on fallen needles. There was nobody to be seen, only trees like an enormous cage, but for an instant he felt as if whatever he'd sensed at his back had just hidden behind all of them at once. It had to have been the twilight, and the breath on his neck must have been a stray breeze. All the same, he was glad when he heard his father shout "I see you, Gretel" and Margaret's squeak of dismay, because then he was able to dash back to the marker post without fear of being made It.

When Margaret began to count he ran off the path. Though she was almost shouting, her voice immediately sounded even smaller than his father's had. Johnny dodged away from his father, who was also heading deeper into the forest, and hid in the midst of a circle of five close trees. He saw his father vanish among the trees to his left, and could just hear Margaret still counting, and so surely he was wrong to feel as if he wasn't alone in his hiding place. He glanced all around him, and then up. Of course, the mist was as close as the treetops to him. The pale blur above the branches laden with snow made him think of a patch of a face — a face so huge that he was seeing too little of it to distinguish any features. The thought of a face as wide as the forest and hovering just above it sent him fleeing towards the marker post as soon as he heard Margaret stop counting.

"I see Johnny," she called almost at once, and beat him to the marker, though without much enthusiasm. When he skidded onto the path, kicking needles across it, she said "I don't want to play any more."

Now that she'd admitted it, he didn't need to. When he shrugged so as not to seem too eager she called "Dad, we've finished playing."

Perhaps Daddy thought she was trying to trick him, because he made no sound. Was he stealing towards them or standing as still as the forest? "We aren't playing any more," they shouted more or less in chorus, but the silence seemed to cut off their shouts as soon as the sound reached the first trees. "He's going to scare us," Margaret wailed.

Johnny couldn't tell if he shivered then or if the forest did. For a moment he thought the trees had somehow drawn together, then that something had inched towards him and Margaret between far too many trees. He could hardly see beyond the nearest trees because of the fog of his breath. When a figure appeared to his right, between trees so distant they resembled a solid scaly wall, he wasn't sure that he wanted to see what it looked like....

__


....This was how Christmas should be, Ellen thought: the air so cold it made the dark between the streetlamps glitter, the cottages displaying trees and open fires, the community rediscovering itself. She squeezed Ben's hand, but he was gazing above the town at the cloud rooted to the earth. Terry West led "The Holly and the Ivy" in a high strong voice, and Ellen found herself thinking how many ancient customs had been taken over by Christmas: the pagan holly and mistletoe, the fairy on the tree, the tree itself, even the date, which had originally been the winter solstice, the shortest day ... On the way home up the track she saw the shining tree and felt as if stars had got into the house.

___


....Ben had been gazing at the stars above the forest as he walked, watching the forest grow almost imperceptibly brighter and feeling as though he was about to understand what he was seeing, truly understand for the first time in his life.

...."What do you think would dream of snow? Maybe something that needs it to be even colder so that it can wake up."

....He felt as if he was observing the family and himself from somewhere high and cold and still. The darkness all around them was a huge insubstantial embrace whose stillness he was sharing.

__


I was with Midnight Sun and its protagonist Ben Sterling until Chapter 45.  Within that chapter I think the author let one of his plates wobble.  Ben terrifies his children and his wife by telling them about ancient truths behind Christmas, and about the great and imminent transformation they will experience on the coldest, darkest night of the year.  Ellen and the kids end up inside the house, and Ben ends up outside.  At which point he has a change of heart: instead of embracing the transformation he has somehow facilitated by returning to Stargrave, he decides to thwart it.

We can all imagine other ways of writing about Ben's change of heart.  I think it would be useful to recall the transformation Sam experiences at the end of The Darkest Part of the Woods.  The entity within Goodmanswood has prevented Sam from thinking clearly while in the wood, and given him amnesia about his experiences there whenever he leaves it.  In this way, the role Sam plays in facilitating Nathaniel Selcouth's plan is hidden from him until the very end.  Only by seconds is he able to take command of himself to prevent his mother Heather from unknowingly carrying Selcouth's avatar out of the forest and into the town of Goodmanswood, and into the world at large. Sam does not die; in fact, his life is ennobled.

Of course Sam Price is not up against an entity of the same scale as Ben Sterling confronts.  The frozen heart of the forest above Stargrave conceals an inconceivable immensity for which the only aesthetic term is sublime in the Longinian sense.


Jay

28 February 2018


N.B.  It has been 28 years since Midnight Sun was published.  As much as it looks back to the sylvan and agapic visions of Blackwood and Machen, I think it also looks forward to matters of lore and mise en scène that today fall under the rubric of folk horror.  

J.R.




Tuesday, February 27, 2018

The Overnight by Ramsey Campbell (2004)




The Overnight (2004) by Ramsey Campbell



The Overnight is an ambitious novel. It has dozens of characters and takes place in a bookstore called Texts, located in a fog-bound shopping center between Liverpool and Manchester. It's not just any bookstore, either. Texts is the big-box flagship of a huge U.S. retailer setting its sights on the Old World.


Campbell has a great time juxtaposing U.S. "team" management versus the personal lives and limitations of store employees.


Frustrations flow constantly from misunderstandings, competing priorities, and underlying confusions.  It does not help that the Fenny Meadows shopping center was built on land already owned lock, stock, and barrel by the kind of things that once guarded the treasure of Abbot Thomas.


Weird icons appear on computer screens, aisles of books are damaged and disarranged, and one employee is killed by a car in the parking lot. Concert videos get returned by customers because other imagery appears on them.  Texts employee Gavin takes a couple of the returned tapes home to check them out:



[Gavin] lets himself into his flat beyond the senile porch and drops the videotapes on his parents' old sofa on the way to tossing his coat on the bed across the room. He holds up the rickety toilet seat with one hand while he directs himself with the other, then leaves the bathroom for the even smaller kitchen to discover what he left himself for breakfast. There aren't too many pimples in half a carton of milk, and it isn't so sour that he's unable to use it to wash down the cold remains of last night's second hamburger. He dumps the carton in the pedal bin and the plate in the sink, and shoves Cuddly Murderers into the video recorder before he lands on the quarter of the sofa that isn't occupied by clothes or compact discs or magazines or books.


Cuddly Murderers dance onto the stage like forks of lightning, and the forest of an audience starts to sway as though it has been caught by a wind. The band launches into screaming "My Sweet Uzi", but they're less than halfway through the song when the screen turns grey and swallows them. They're replaced by a film of two gangs of men in armour fighting, and then some more wearing another kind in combat with a group clad in none. Gavin speeds them up, only to have to watch a further mob dressed in nothing much clubbing one another to the earth. He wouldn't even call this a battle; it's a contest for who'll be left alive. Eventually a single hulking figure survives to be raised high on some kind of triumphal platform, though not for long while Gavin's pressing the fast-forward button. Then a crowd of squat shapes hold one of their number down on a mound and slash at her with a knife or a sharp stone. What kind of film is this supposed to be? Was someone copying a video of death scenes and did they put the Cuddly Murderers tape in the machine by mistake? The victim swiftly twitches her last and vanishes into renewed greyness. Gavin keeps speeding the tape, but when five minutes' worth has shown him nothing more he lurches off the sofa to substitute Pillar of Flesh.


As the spotlight finds Pierre Peter onstage he begins to sing "Seeds Like A Pumpkin" while the audience finishes cheering and whistling. Another light settles on Riccardo Dick, but no sooner does he start his guitar riff than the image shivers, letting greyness in. The concert has been ousted by a blurred monochrome film or one so poorly copied it has turned black and white. Gavin is reaching for the control, though he feels as if he's trying to move while struggling to awaken, when he sees what else is wrong. More accurately, it's the same thing: it's the same film.


He races through the battle footage before his grasp slackens on the control. Why would anybody want to copy this material over a second tape they'd bought? He opens the cassette boxes to peer at the name on the Return slips. He squeezes his eyes shut and stretches them wide and looks again. The tapes were bought by different customers, one from Liverpool, one from Manchester.


He feels incapable of understanding what this could imply until he has been to sleep. He might as well be dreaming the images on the screen; he can't judge whether the savages clubbing one another are bathed in gore or mud. Now that the tape isn't speeded up he sees that the victor is elevated by an object like a huge rudimentary limb. Having brandished him, it plunges him into the earth or the fog, whichever it sprouted from, perhaps both. The screen is overwhelmed by grey before it shows what happened next, or was it earlier? The stunted shapes dragging their victim to the mound that appears to form itself out of the mud look even more primitive than the combatants did, and the object they use to open her up is worse than crude, hardly even sharp. When at last she stops writhing and silently screaming, does Gavin really see the mound sink into the earth and bear her gaping corpse with it? Fog or blankness engulfs everything, and the featureless tape continues to run until he fumbles to switch it off. Perhaps he'll watch it again later, but just now he has no idea how much he may have only imagined he saw. Nevertheless as he pulls off his clothes and trips over his trouser cuffs as he flounders towards the bed, he tries to hold onto an impression that he has been given the answer to something he was recently asked. Once he has slept, perhaps he'll be able to remember both.




Disorienting events and inter-staff hatred increase as a tour by Texts U.S. owners approaches. During mandatory overnight stocking before the visit, the manager gets trapped in his office, the power fails, and another worker gets stuck in the store's elevator.


Assistant Manager Ross heads out into the fog-bound landscape to find a phone to call for help:



All the same, he wouldn't have minded some company. If Greg had kept his mouth shut for once, Ross might have had Jake. Still, no doubt Jake would be anticipating aloud what may lie ahead. Ross concentrates on walking fast, not giving himself an instant to think of a reason to falter. His footsteps sound isolated and shrunken to childishness by the silence, which is as oppressively pervasive as the fog. Even when he remembers that the motorway is closed, that doesn't make the silence seem any less unnatural, though since the retail park is artificial, isn't black silence closer to its natural state? He feels as if each of his breaths is gathering fog to lie stagnant in his lungs and seep into his brain. Under the floodlights that are fattened like cocoons restless with eagerness to hatch, the glaring murk drags itself over the deserted pavement and the tarmac bare of vehicles and peels itself reluctantly away from the shopfronts. Posters in the window of Happy Holidays remind him of a dozen or more places he would rather be, although he thinks several of the handwritten destinations are misspelled, or is he too tired to recognise how they should be spelled, or both? In TVid someone has left the televisions on, presumably tuned to a sports channel, since they all show people fighting, figures so blurred and unstable they appear to be sinking or melting into the darkness behind or below them. In Teenstuff the air-conditioning must be on; flimsy clothes shift in the dimness as though at least one intruder is crawling behind them, unless the intruders are too small to need to go on all fours. He even fancies he sees a head, or rather less than one, writhe into view from the neck of a bellying dress on a hanger. He hastens past that and the sight of far too many identical cloth faces staring glassy-eyed out of Baby Bunting, but his speed does him no good. He's left with the impression that among the dolls he glimpsed a face pressed as flush as the underside of a snail against the pane; he also imagines he saw its flattened grey blobs of eyes move, smearing the glass, to watch him. When he twists around, of course he can locate nothing of the kind, and surely the glistening vertical trail down the pane must be condensation. Now he's alongside Stay in Touch, where any number of mobile phones on stands blink nervously in the dark. He has no idea what has set them off, but he's assailed by the notion that they all have the same message for him: perhaps that if he owned a mobile he could have made the call without venturing so far, or might it be information he would welcome even less? Walking faster only brings him to the unoccupied section, where the words scrawled on the boards over the shopfronts have abandoned all resemblance to language; trails of moisture have distorted them and the crude figures that accompany them so much that they suggest first attempts at writing and drawing by a mind too elementary to be called childish. All this is beginning to make him feel as though Fenny Meadows has reverted to a state worse than primitive, an era before there was anything worth describing as intelligence in the world. He finds he's grateful beyond words to hear a voice.



Ross will not have long to wait before he hears a voice. He won't like it.


Among many other achievements (and as a testament to its author's power) The Overnight has reawakened my own bookstore employee PTSD. In 1988-1989 I worked for SBX in Columbus, Ohio. In 1992 I lasted one week at Half Price Books (also in Columbus) before being fired. Bookstores are no place for adults with undiagnosed and untreated HFA.


Ramsey Campbell has dredged up some truly horrifying memories out of the ooze, bless him!




Jay

27 February 2018






Swallow this: The Overnight by Ramsey Campbell (2004)



The Overnight is Ramsey Campbell’s hilarious and harrowing 2004 novel about the launch of a U.S.-based book superstore opening a branch near Manchester, UK.

The store is at a shopping center called Fenny Meadows, permanently fog-bound and built on land with a very dark history of rage and self-destructive violence going back half a millenia.

Wilf is one of my favorite characters.  He has overcome dyslexia to work at the store. But when he is put in charge of a reading ground hosting a mountebank author named Oates, and his former boyhood bully Slater also reappears, disaster strikes. He loses the ability to read.

 

Excerpt:

"Have they promoted you already?"

Wilf turns as slowly as he can, though it's childish to assume that will make Slater vanish. More than ever Slater's face resembles a moist translucent mask stuck on a wider lump of ruddy flesh. His mouth droops open as if encouraging Wilf to catch the joke or miming how cloddish he thinks Wilf is to miss it. "What do you mean?" Wilf almost manages not to ask.

"Looks like they've made you chairman."

He follows this with several times the mirth the joke deserves while he stands so close Wilf feels the laughter is being thrust in his face. He can't breathe until Slater has finished, by which point Wilf's mouth tastes clogged with fog. "Want to look something up for me?" Slater says then.

"You'll have to ask at Information. I'm busy here."

Slater lets his mouth fall open in such contemptuous disbelief that Wilf sets about rearranging the books on the table to prove him wrong. "That looks like the job for you all right," says Slater. "Shouldn't think even you could get those out of order."

"I thought you wanted information. This is where people are coming to hear an author talk."

"That's why I'm here. I was sure you'd be pleased I'm supporting your shop." Once he has left his mouth open for a while Slater adds "Your boss ought to be."

Wilf's hands have begun to tingle and draw into fists as his mouth turns sourer. He fumbles with the books, but his fingers are so unwieldy that one copy sprawls off the table onto the floor. When he retrieves it, the open pages are smeared with mud. It will have to go to Nigel as a damaged copy. Wilf is staring at Slater to place the blame when people start to converge on the chairs.

He would be grateful for the distraction if they weren't the writers' group he had to abandon. Before he can move away from Slater their spokeswoman, chosen or otherwise, marches over to him. Her grey hair is piled snakelike on top of her head, and she's wearing more colours than ever. "Have you made any sense of it?" she enquires.

"What can't he make sense out of now?" Slater is avid to hear.

"He has problems with the ending like the rest of us."

She has taken an instinctive dislike to Slater, who turns his retort on Wilf. "Got the rest of it though, did you?"

"I'd have said so."

"What's it all about, then?"

For once Wilf feels as if Slater's handing him punch lines. "You'll have to read it and decide for yourself." Wilf hesitates, but not long enough to resist saying "If you can."

"Don't you be giving anybody the idea I'm the one that can't read, Wiffle."

"You aren't suggesting this gentleman can't," the woman in the rainbow garb objects. "He wouldn't be working here."

Slater is only starting to dangle his lower jaw when she presents him with her considerable back. Wilf doesn't know what Slater might be capable of calling after her about him or telling him for everyone to hear if there weren't an interruption. Woody has returned quicker than Wilf could have expected the fog to allow anyone to be. "Buying that? Good for you," he says of the book in Wilf's hand.

Wilf is suddenly afraid that Slater will accuse him of damaging it, but Woody gives nobody a chance to speak. "Welcome to our first Fenny Meadows author appearance," he smiles as he clears a space on the table for six bottles of wine and a pillar of plastic cups. "Our famous guest will be with you momentarily," he says more jubilantly still, uncorking a red and a white. "Please have a drink on the store. That's everybody except staff."

He keeps his smile towards the gathering until he's well on his way to the staffroom, but Wilf wonders if he's concealing disappointment at the size of the audience. Two more people—a man in a creaky yellow oilskin jacket and a woman in denim, even her feet—join it, perhaps attracted by the wine. Most of the writers approach the table for Wilf to serve them too. Slater grabs the red and fills a cup almost to the brim for himself, then sits on the front row as Connie ushers Oates and his publicist onto the sales floor. The author halts at once and jabs an upturned hand at the audience as though testing for rain. "Are they it?"

"I think we may have to blame the fog," says Connie.

"Fog's fault, is it?" he says and stares at Fiona. "Not the publicity by any chance."

"We leafleted everywhere we could think of," Connie assures him.

A murmur passes through the audience, making Wilf nervous for her sake in case anyone mentions the misprint. Perhaps it sounds to Oates as though the audience is supporting her. "Don't I rate a chair?" he growls at Wilf.

As Wilf picks up the solitary unoccupied seat from the front row, Slater comments "You wouldn't expect him to know how to deal with a writer."

Wilf plants the chair behind the table and retreats to hide as much of his embarrassment on the back row as he can while Connie stands next to Oates. When she describes him as the author of one of the year's most talked-about novels he gives her a dissatisfied scowl and himself a second cupful of wine that earns a scowl too. "Are we pissed enough for this yet? Dunno if I am," he says once she has finished, and empties the last of the bottle into his cup. "I hear some of you didn't get my ending."

"Make that all," the rainbow woman says from the front row.

"Well," Connie just about protests at her back, but Oates ignores both of them. He opens a copy of Dressing Up, Dressing Down and then another, and props the latter up in front of him. "Let's test if you've room in your wee heads for this."

Wilf ought to be able to relax while being read to. No doubt Woody is addressing the rest of the afternoon shift, even if that should be Nigel's job. Surely Woody isn't spying on the sales floor from his office, and so Wilf has no reason to feel observed while hearing how a Victorian detective takes his clothes off to reveal he's a jewel thief who removes hers and proves to be an army sergeant, except that beneath her uniform she's a chanteuse who is really a detective or rather, once stripped, simply a naked man at a computer in a room overlooking Edinburgh. He lifts his gaze to his audience—he does, and so does Oates, if there's any difference—and indicates the various costumes. "Your turn now," he says. "Your choice. Try it on."

He feeds himself more wine before Wilf can judge from his expression whether the last phrase is intended as a joke and if so on whom. When the writers start to mutter, Wilf takes them to be sharing his suspicion until the rainbow woman gives them more of a voice. "That's not what it says in the book."

"It is in this one."

She elevates her eyebrows until they resemble quotation marks framing a silent question. As Oates busies himself with uncorking another bottle of red wine, she asks almost loud enough to be heard upstairs "Are you telling us there's more than one ending?"

"Different final pages, aye. The rest of the book won't show you which you've got. It's my belief you shouldn't know where you're bound till you arrive, any more than I did. I expect you agree, being writers."

"Sounds more like you want to make people buy two copies."

"Wouldn't you?"

She's gazing at him as though she doesn't care for either meaning of his query when Slater peers over his shoulder at Wilf. "Which one have you got?"

"I couldn't tell you offhand."

"I'd be interested to hear," Oates says, draining his cup to make room for a refill. "Which is it?"

Wilf feels as though the author is siding with Slater against him. He glances at the last page of the damaged copy and shuts the book. "The one you just read to us."

"I've never seen you read that fast or anything like," Slater objects. "Are you sure you did?"

"Of course he did," says Connie, and turns a puzzled smile to Wilf. "What's this about?"

"Go on, Lowell, you show us. Show us all how you read."

What's making him behave this way? Wilf wouldn't have believed he could at his age. He has a suffocating impression that by reverting Slater is forcing him to return to childhood too. He wills Connie to confront his tormentor, but she only looks bemused. "Nobody's come to hear me," Wilf succeeds in protesting. "I'm not the author."

"Maybe the author would like to hear one of his readers do it," Slater says.

"Now you mention it, I might," says Oates, raising his half-empty cup to encourage Wilf. "Go on, do me the favour. Let's hear what it means to you."

Some of the writers, not to mention the denimed woman and the oilskinned man, are staring at Wilf by now, the rainbow woman hardest of all. It feels exactly like being forced to stand up in class, though he's crouching over the book as though it's a pain in his knotted guts. Are they the source of the unpleasant stagnant taste? As he lowers his eyes to the novel he finds himself praying that it will somehow offer him a refuge. He glares at the last page and tries to free himself from the sight of it by speaking. "I told you," he says, and as clearly as he's able "Your turn now. Your choice. Try it on."

"That isn't the whole page, is it?" When Oates shakes his head so vigorously his jowls have trouble catching up, Slater says "You could have memorised that, Lowell. Give us the rest."

It's only because Wilf can't face the spectators that his gaze is dragged down to the page. The prospect is worse than ever. The paper is strewn with black marks, bunches of symbols that he tells himself are letters without being capable of naming even one. Isn't e the commonest? Perhaps if he spots which mark occurs most often, that will unlock his recognition of the others, the way cryptographers break codes—but he's still counting frantically under his breath when Connie says "I really think I need to know what's going on."

"Let's see," says Slater, and sits next to Wilf before he can think of shutting the book. "Thought as much. Will you tell her, Lowell, or shall I?"

His mouth sags wide as if this is his best joke, and Wilf can think of only one response. "I'm buying this," he informs whoever ought to know as he rips a handful of pages out of the novel and stuffs them in Slater's mouth.

He wishes he'd thought of such a retort years ago, but it's worth having waited to see his enemy's eyes bulge with shock. Either that or Wilf's vehemence sends Slater over backwards. As he and the chair thump the floor Wilf follows him down and kneels on his chest. "Want the rest?" Wilf enquires with a smile he thinks Woody might be proud of. "My pleasure. Swallow this."

He's surrounded by noises—gasps from women, Connie repeating his name increasingly loud and sharp, the men in the armchairs grunting with laughter or approval—but he's mostly aware of a choked sodden mumble, Slater's stopped-up words. He has even less to say for himself now than Wilf used to have in class, which is so satisfying that Wilf doesn't immediately relent when Woody's voice rushes out of the staffroom exit. "Stop that," he shouts more than once on the way to stooping close enough to confront Wilf with saliva glistening within his smile. "Enough," Woody urges. "Enough."

Wilf thinks there might be room for another chapter in Slater's mouth, but there's no doubt he has made his point. He leaves the remains of the novel spread-eagled on Slater's chest and levers himself to his feet by propping his fists on his enemy's shoulders. As Slater lurches off the floor less gracefully than a drunk and flounders about in search of somewhere to eject the contents of his mouth, Woody gives Wilf another close view of his teeth. "Wait in my office."

All at once Wilf's legs feel flabby and unstable, as though whatever drove him has drained away through them, leaving his skull hollow above a stale taste. He reminds himself that Slater's mouth will be flavoured with paper and ink, a notion that helps him walk almost steadily to the exit to the staffroom. As it decides his badge is valid he sees Connie pass Slater the Frugo bag that contained the wine. Some of the women emit maternal noises while he spits extravagantly into the bag, and some cast Wilf out with their eyes until the door shuts behind him….

 

 

 

Monday, February 26, 2018

The Kind Folk by Ramsey Campbell (2012)






The Kind Folk

By Ramsey Campbell (2012)






Stand-up comedian Luke Arnold learns on national TV that he is not the offspring of the Mom and Dad who raised him.  Which also comes as a shock to his parents.  Luke is thirty, living with musician Sophie, and they are about to have their first child.


Luke's Uncle Terence appears to know more about the mystery than he lets on, but dies before he can reveal anything.  Luke hunts through Terence's diary for clues.  He then uses his comedy tour schedule to follow up on people and locations mentioned.  Most of the locations have some association with fairies and fey lore.  Which brings back a multitude of half-forgotten childhood memories for Luke.




….Sophie folds the newspaper as small and thin as a book and lets the lid clap shut on it. "Do you remember what you were dreaming?"


"What, when I was six?" He's surprised to be able to say "It was the same thing for however long it lasted. Somebody was watching me and I don't think I wanted to see them."


"Did you, though?"


"They used to be at the window." He's disconcerted by how vivid the memory is growing. "Sometimes they were looking in upside down, more than one of them. And sometimes I thought their necks must be as long as a giraffe's if they were the right way up, or they could stretch that far."


"I'm not surprised you made a noise."


"That wasn't all," Luke says, though he's beginning to wish it had been. "If I didn't they would come in even though the window wasn't open and stand at the foot of the bed."


"They weren't as stretched as you thought, then."


"They could take all sorts of shapes," Luke says, and another memory lights up like a tableau in a ghost train: how the figures silhouetted in the moonlit dimness would lay their hands on the bedrail. They would grasp it as though they were establishing some form of ownership, and then all their hands would adopt another shape. It seems to him now that it resembled a symbol more than any hand ought to be able to do. "I've forgotten how they looked," he says, "before you ask."


"Did you tell anyone at the time?"


"I had to. Freda, Maurice, the doctor, the psychiatrist. Just that I kept dreaming somebody was at the window or in the room."


Sophie lowers herself onto one of the quartet of rickety chairs that loiter around the stained table. "What did they say?"


"Not a word I can remember. Sometimes I thought they hadn't got around to having mouths," Luke says and laughs, though not much. "You're asking me about the people I told, aren't you? The psychiatrist said it was nothing to worry about, so we didn't."


"There must have been more to it, Luke."


"She was the kind even the Arnolds liked. I'd say she thought psychiatry was her last resource after she'd tried everything else, certainly for somebody my age. She said I was highly imaginative and oughtn't to spend so much time on my own, and not to feed me close to bedtime, and keep an eye on what I read and watched. They'd have recommended her to their friends if they hadn't been so embarrassed about taking me to see her. But they did everything she said, and made sure I brought friends home from school, and I stopped waking Freda up."


"So the psychiatrist was all you needed."


"I'm not sure she cured me."


Sophie clasps her hands on her midriff as though she's protecting their child. "Why not, Luke?"


"I think I cured myself." He waits until she parts her hands. "I told you the Arnolds were embarrassed," he says. "I really think that made me feel worse than the dreams or disturbing Freda. I thought I wasn't the kind of son they'd hoped for, and so I did my best to be."


Sophie turns her hands up towards him, and he's put in mind of an opening flower. "What did you do?"


"Whenever the figures showed up I kept my eyes shut, even if they came into the room, and pretty soon they went away for good."


"You managed that when you were six years old, Luke?"


She's expressing admiration, not disbelief, but for an uneasy moment he feels she's implying that he couldn't have overcome his condition—that it's lying low inside him. "I hope they knew how brave you were," she says.


"Nobody needed to know."


"Well, I'm glad I do. They were proud of you, anyway, and they still are…."








The Kind Folk is an intimate novel of great poignancy.  Campbell builds up our anxiety and tension with a number of carefully wrought set-pieces.  As the birth of Luke and Sophie's son approaches, the couple are subjected to increasing emotional and physical pressures.


Campbell gives nods to a couple of villains in previous novels I just finished: Nathaniel Selcouth of The Darkest Part of the Woods and John Strong of The Doll who At His Mother. (Readers of those books know these wizards inflicted their greatest evils on pregnant women.)


The novel is written in the third person present-tense, of which I am not a fan.  But after finishing The Kind Folk, I can see some of its advantages.  It allows Campbell to convey a real sense of immediacy and subjective disorientation, perfectly reflecting Luke Arnold's nightmarish progress investigating the mystery of his own past.


Jay

26 February 2018









Some buried wizard: The Doll Who Ate His Mother By Ramsey Campbell (1976)






The Doll Who Ate His Mother
By Ramsey Campbell (1976)


The Doll Who Ate Ate His Mother is an atmospheric, uncluttered, and exciting mystery novel with supernatural undertones.

Teacher Clare Frayn got her brother killed in a car accident. She struggles to understand what happened to him after he died at the scene.

Theater manager George Pugh's elderly mother died of a heart attack after startling an intruder in her house. What the intruder was doing to her dog at the time would kill anyone.

Edmund Hall writers salacious books about homicidal maniacs. He asks Clare and George for help tracking down the ghoulish perpetrator, whom Edmund says he knew when they were both school children.

The manhunt brings long-dead Liverpool wizard John Strong to the investigators' attention. His house in Amberly Street, now inhabited by drug-addict squatters, has a few secrets. As does Strong's book  
Glimpses of Absolute Power:



...."There's one down in Picton. It's restricted, not on public access. But they'll give it to you if you ask."

She scribbled on a piece of paper. "Just fill in these details on one of their forms and you'll have it in no time."

133.0924 Strong: Glimpses of Absolute Power. "He used to come in here, you know," the librarian said.

"What was he like?" Clare said eagerly.

"Well, I wasn't here myself. Mr. Carrick is off today; he was here then. If you come in again you could ask him what he remembers, if you're interested."

"Yes, I might. What sort of thing, do you know?"

"Well—the trouble is, there's no photograph of him on the book, and it sounds silly when you say it, but people used to say he had a horribly beautiful face. As if someone had put eyes inside a statue. Mr. Carrick does say he had the most perfect complexion he's ever seen, and he never seemed to look any older. Of course he was getting older really; they could see him slowing down the last few times he came in here. But that thing about being horribly beautiful—there were people on the staff who couldn't bear to look at him, really, couldn't bear to be alone at the counter if he was here, even on a day like this. One girl used to say seeing him in daylight made it worse. As if someone had made a statue walk about and pretend to be alive. And yet his clothes were rags, more or less, as if they didn't matter. I wish there were a photograph, don't you?"

A man walked by outside the window. On the fifth floor—but he was an overalled workman on scaffolding. "I'll tell you what Mr. Carrick told me," the librarian said. "John Strong always used to talk to you at the counter, unless you got away. It was all rubbish—nobody could understand it, like his book. But Mr. Carrick used to have a feeling that the words didn't matter; it was the way he said it, the sound of his voice, the cadences. Like a song hidden under the words. I remember, he said it reminded him of the music a snake-charmer plays. He always used to get rid of John Strong as soon as he could, and call away anyone who was listening. Sometimes Strong would talk to readers in the library and they'd go out with him. I expect they were friends of his, don't you?"

All Clare thought, not quite soberly, was that he sounded even less like a John Strong. She hurried back to call the lift. A stringy man emerged from it. "Book lift," he snapped.

"Pardon?"

"Book lift, book lift." He rapped the words on the closing door with his knuckles: BOOK LIFT ONLY.

He was carrying no books. Nevertheless, she used the stairs, green stone speckled with darker green and white, like a pointillist painting. The Picton Reading Room was two floors down; at the top of the dome a round window spilled dazzling sunlight over the stone rim. Clare found a wad of forms in a pigeonhole among the catalogues that walled the curve. At the counter, a girl handed Clare's completed form to a younger girl, who went away swinging a key to let out the book from the Henry Millers.

"I should watch out if I were you," said an invisible man beside her.

It took her a while to locate him: whispering to a young librarian, a hundred feet away across the diameter. The dome was full of acoustic tricks. She gave in her tally for the book and carried it out beneath the dome; the echoes of her footsteps on the green carpet thumped distantly, like a heart.

She opened the book on one of the tables. The clack of its cover fluttered high in the dome; readers glanced up reprovingly—some of them did little else, glaring at the shrill of a telephone, frowning at the clank of footsteps on iron balconies around the dome, full of bookcases. They should sit elsewhere, Clare thought.

John Strong had published the book himself. Half the print was askew in the frame of the pages. The ink looked thick as paint; the p's and d's and others were stoppered with ink, as if the print were breaking out in crotchets. The gray paper was full of splinters. The book had been a fat pamphlet, bound later by the library. Glimpses of Absolute Power, set down and published by John Strong. Clare turned the page.

"I have undertaken this work late in life, for it was no part of my design. The truly great man confides his wisdom to a single pupil and companion, rather than publish it to the paws of the mass.

"But the truly great man is always at bay. Perhaps the mass may claim a petty victory in robbing me of my intended pupil; though it shall come to pass that my power rescinds that theft. Yet I shall set my knowledge down, in the certainty that it speaks to none save him who will dare to test it. Perhaps, among the mass that fumble over these pages, one may read who, glimpsing my way dimly, will set himself to follow.

"My age spans many generations. The loud incredulity of my beholders cannot shout down that calm truth. Of my birth I shall say nothing. Does a man reminisce fondly of the dung-smeared apes that were his forebears?"

God, was it all like this? Clare turned pages impatiently. To think he'd written this in the 1950's. Incredible. Artistic skills come readily to the man whose aim is absolute power. She flipped through occult terms. The true relation of all things in the Universe— That caught her eye, but its context read like gabble. Sometimes, in its evolution, the Universe bears a mind that will grasp and wield its unity; such a mind is mine. Clare clucked her tongue. Tut tut tut, the dome said. Pages later, her gaze snagged on what looked like narrative.

"Once, on a whim, I allowed a few of them to pit themselves against my power. I displayed myself to them, engorged thick and stiffly raised as a club, and challenged them to move me. Some turned their eyes timidly aside, and shrank back when I granted them permission to touch me. Yet at the last all had worked upon me, upon themselves and upon each other, and lay exhausted while I stood laughing and unmoved. Some seemed cast down, and perhaps they glimpsed themselves as I had seen them, grovelling upon the earth in their eagerness to please me. All understood my meaning well when I spoke of the wand of my power."

So that was what it was all about; oh dear. Clare couldn't see how his fantasies—surely they were only that—related to Christopher Kelly. There was no terror here; the book was just dull and repulsive. A cough reverberated under the dome, sharp as a blow.

"Before snuffing out the life she carried—"

That image plucked at Clare; she turned back. The paper rustled loudly, dryly, like an insect; its echoes rustled as she tried to hush it; it rustled.

"Before snuffing out the life she carried, it occurred to me to see her dance. I am sure even her fellows must have been amused, in their dull way. With her swollen belly she looked like nothing so much as a boil essaying the waltz."

Clare stared about, to free herself of the book. The library looked distant, unnaturally bright; it offered her no support at all. Whispers drifted close around her; a cough clapped together like hands. Sounds nagged at her, insistent and intolerably sharp, as if she had fever. If what she'd just read was a fantasy, he had infected others with it; Dr. Miller had told it to George. The man had had the power to impose his nastiness on others, after all.

She riffled the pages, glancing warily. They fluttered dryly, rustling. She was searching only for references to Kelly. But images rose from the thick style as if swelling up from a marsh, dragging down her gaze.

"At first she pressed her lips together, and choked and sobbed. But shortly she was imitating her doll perfectly, and enjoying the sweetmeat as if it were drugged. One of her fellows puked and gazed at me in fear, knowing that her response had singled her out to be next."

The words clung oppressively to her, like feverish heat. She made to turn to the previous page, to discover what the passage was about, then she shuddered and riffled on. Iron clanked, footsteps thumped softly, whispers sibilated.

"But she knew that nothing could take back her promise, not even death."

Clare started. She was back in the flickering orange room; Mrs. Kelly was speaking almost the same words. Her heart thudded in her ears, cut off from the echoes. Get it over with. She read.

"—not even death. She knew that should she take her own life she would feel, beneath the ebbing of her spirit, the movements of the promised child within her, preparing to cheat her cheating and make its way to me."

Clare glared before her. Bright sunlight and echoes. She could see the dying woman in the cave, could feel her engulfing terror as she remembered John Strong's words. In a world where a man could believe he was achieving such horror, anything was possible. She could see the woman gazing down at herself in feeble helpless incredulity.

Abruptly she pushed back her chair. A suite of them clattered under the dome. She strode across the carpet, filling the dome with footsteps, and threw the book on the counter. "You should burn that," she said. On the green stairs she had to close her eyes for a while, for the flecks of colour were crawling on the stone.

The porter gave back her bag in exchange for the plastic tab, but she'd left her tally in the Picton. "You can't leave without handing in your tally," he said.

"You just watch me."





The motifs of a dead wizard and things hidden underground particularly delighted me in The Doll Who Ate His Mother because I relished them in another just-completed Campbell read: The Darkest Part of  the Woods.


The Doll Who Ate Its Mother is a solid novel about amatuer detectives,  wonderfully drawn characters from fully imagined backgrounds who struggle to work together. As they interview people who might know their suspect, horror and comedy are richly and darkly mixed.

Jay
26 February 2018