"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Friday, February 10, 2017

Ramsey Campbell’s story “The Faces at Pine Dunes”

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.  
    They may not mean to, but they do.  
They fill you with the faults they had
    And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
    By fools in old-style hats and coats,  
Who half the time were soppy-stern
    And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
    It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
    And don’t have any kids yourself.

"This Be The Verse" by Philip Larkin

All of them witches

Ramsey Campbell’s story “The Faces at Pine Dunes” was originally published in the 1980 Arkham House anthology New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos.  That anthology was also edited by Campbell, and premiered several other classics, including “Black Man with a Horn” by T.E.D. Klein, and “Crouch End” by Stephen King.

“Pine Dunes” epitomizes Campbell’s fiction.  Mike, who has just reached adulthood, has spent his life travelling around the UK with his parents.  He is troubled by unremembered dreams, and swings between a desire to rebel against his oppressive father and fit. He sets out to find a job at the town near the campground where they have just parked their caravan: Pine Dunes.

Mike gets a job as a trainee bartender, and meets June.  His attraction to June awakens his desire to understand his surroundings and his parents’ odd behavior; to piece together their secret story. Lately his father has grown hugely fat, and the oppression of the family camper has taken on a crushing physical dimension.
Mike’s exploration of the nearby woods is vintage Campbell:

The path led him on. The pines were shouldered out by stouter trees, which reached overhead, tangling. Beyond the tangle the blue of the sky grey deeper; a crescent moon slid from branch to branch. Bushes massed among the trunks; they grew higher and closer as he pushed through. The curve of the path would take him back towards the road.
    The ground was turning softer underfoot. It sucked his feet in the dark. The shrubs had closed over him now; he could hardly see. He struggled between them, pursuing the curve. Leaves rubbed together rustling at his ear, like desiccated lips; their dry dead tongues rattled. All at once the roof of the wooden tunnel dropped sharply. To go farther he would have to crawl.
    He turned with difficulty. On both sides thorns caught his sleeves; his dark was hemmed in by two ranks of dim captors. It was as though midnight had already fallen here, beneath the tangled arches; but the dark was solid and clawed. Overhead, netted fragments of night sky illuminated the tunnel hardly at all.
    He managed to extricate himself, and hurried back. But he had taken only a few steps when his way was blocked by hulking spiky darkness. He dodged to the left of the shrub, then to the right, trying irritably to
calm his heart. But there was no path. He had lost his way in the dark. Around him dimness rustled, chattering.
    He began to curse himself. What had possessed him to come in here? Why on earth had he chosen to explore so late in the day? How could the woods be so interminable? He groped for openings between masses of thorns. Sometimes he found them, though often they would not admit his body. The darkness was a maze of false paths.
    Eventually he had to return to the mouth of the tunnel and crawl. Unseen moisture welled up from the ground, between his fingers. Shrubs leaned closer as he advanced, poking him with thorns. His skin felt fragile, and nervously unstable; he burned, but his heat often seemed to break, flooding him with the chill of the night.
    There was something even less pleasant. As he crawled, the leaning darkness - or part of it - seemed to move beside him. It was as though someone were pacing him, perhaps on all fours, outside the tunnel. When he halted, so did the pacing. It would reach the end of the tunnel just as he did.

And soon after, at night:

    He stood outside the trailer. A wind was rising; a loud whisper passed through the forest, unlit trailers rocked and creaked a little at their moorings; behind everything, vast and constant, the sea rushed vaguely. Scraps of cloud slid over the filling moon; light caught at them, but they slipped away. His parents hadn't taken the car. Where had they gone? Irrationally, he felt he knew, if only he could remember. Why did they go out at night so much?

As a token of her affection, June presents Mike with a paperback on witchcraft in England.

He picked up Witchcraft in England. It looked dull enough to help him sleep. And it was June's.
    Naked witches danced about on the cover, and on many of the pages. They danced obscenely. They danced lewdly. They chanted obscenely. And so on. They used poisonous drugs, such as belladonna. No doubt that had interested June. He leafed idly onward; his gaze flickered impatiently.
    Suddenly he halted, at a name: Severnford. Now that was interesting. We can imagine, the book insisted, the witches rowing out to the island in the middle of the dark river, and committing unspeakable acts before the pallid stone in the moonlight; but Michael couldn't imagine anything of the kind, nor did he intend to try. Witches are still reputed to visit the island, the book told him before he interrupted it and riffled on. But a few pages later his gaze was caught again.
    He stared at this new name. Then reluctantly he turned to the index. At once words stood out from the columns, eager to be seen. They slipped into his mind as if their slots had been ready for years. Exham. Whitminster. The Old Horns. Holihavan. Dilham. Severnford. His father had halted the trailer at all of them, and his parents had gone out at night.

It all comes together for Mike.

   As the four ate dinner, their constraint grew. Michael and June made most of the conversation; his parents replied shortly when at all, and watched. His mother observed June uneasily; he read dislike in her eyes, or pity. He felt irritably resentful, her uneasiness made his skin nervous. Night edged closer to the windows, blank-faced.

He explores the background of Pine Dunes at a library in Liverpool.

Over the centuries, witches had been rumoured to gather in the Pine Dunes forest. Was that surprising? Wouldn't they naturally have done so, for concealment? Besides, these were only rumours; few people would have bothered struggling through the undergrowth. He opened Ghostly Lancashire, expecting irrelevances. But the index showed that Pine Dunes covered several pages.
    The author had interviewed a group the other books ignored: the travellers. Their stories were unreliable, he warned, but fascinating. Few travellers would walk the Pine Dunes road after dark; they kept their children out of the woods even by day. A superstitious people, the author pointed out. The book had been written thirty years ago, Michael reminded himself. And the travellers gave no reason for their nervousness except vague tales of something unpleasantly large glimpsed moving beyond the most distant trees. But surely distance must have formed the trees into a solid wall; how could anyone have seen beyond?
    One traveller, senile and often incoherent, told a story. A long time ago he, or someone else - the author couldn't tell - had wandered back to the travellers' camp, very drunk. The author didn't believe the story, but included it because it was vivid and unusual. Straying from the road, the man had become lost in the forest. Blinded by angry panic, he'd fought his way
towards an open space. But it wasn't the camp, as he'd thought. He had lost his footing on the slippery earth and had gone skidding into a pit.
    Had it been a pit, or the mouth of a tunnel? As he'd scrabbled, bruised but otherwise unhurt, for a foothold on the mud at the bottom, he'd seen an opening that led deeper into darkness. But the darkness had been moving slowly and enormously towards him, with a sound like that of a huge shifting beneath mud. The darkness had parted loudly, resolving itself into several sluggish forms that glistened dimly as they advanced to surround him. Terror had hurled him in a leap halfway up the pit; his hands had clamped on rock, and he'd wrenched himself up the rest of the way. He'd run blindly. In the morning he'd found himself full of thorns on a sprung bed of undergrowth.

The author


He remembered that sound. He'd heard it when he was quite young, and his mother's voice, pleading: 'Let him at least have a normal childhood.' After a moment he'd heard the box closed again. 'All right. He'll find out when it's time,' he'd heard his father say.

When Mike tells June about the family secret, she is delighted. For a moment it seems like the young couple will turn out to be stereotypically plucky English heroes. But then we remember we are reading a Ramsey Campbell story.

    'I'll come back with you. We can talk on the way. I'll help you look after them.' She caught at his shoulder
as he tried to run upstairs. 'Please, Mike. I'll feel bad if you just leave me. We can catch the last bus in five minutes if we run. It'll be quicker than your bike.'
     God! She was worse than his father! 'Listen,' he snarled, having clambered to street level. 'It isn't ill, they aren't ill,' he said, letting words tumble wildly as he tried to flee. 'I've found out what they do at night. They're witches.'
'Oh, no!' She sounded shocked but delighted.
     'My mother's terrified. My father's been drugging her.' Now that he was able to say so, his urgency diminished a little; he wanted to release all he knew. 'Something's going to happen tonight,' he said.
    'Are you going to try and stop it? Let me come too. I know about it. I showed you my book.' When he looked doubtful she said, 'They'll have to stop when they see me.'

Campbell is a master of the synecdoche, the finest since Nabokov.  The climax of the story is by turns walloping and elliptical.

    The pines gave out, but other trees meshed thickly overhead. The glimpses of fiat whitish sky, smoldering with darker cloud, dwindled. In the forest everything was black or blanched, and looked chill, although the night was unseasonably mild. Webs of shadow lay on the path, tangling Michael's feet; tough grass seized him. Bushes massed around him, towering, choking the gaps between trees. The glimpses of sky were fewer and smaller. 'What's that?' June said uneasily.
    For a moment he thought it was the sound of someone's foot, unplugging itself from the soft ground: it sounded like a loud slow gulp of mud. But no, it wasn't that. Someone coughing? It didn't sound much like a human cough. Moreover, it sounded as though it were straining to produce a sound, a single sound; and he felt inexplicably that he ought to know what that was.

…. But there was another sound, ahead in the tangled creaking dark. It was the gurgling of mud, perhaps of a muddy stream gargling ceaselessly into the earth. No: it was growing louder, more violent, as though the mud were straining to spew out an obstruction. The sound was repeated, again and again, becoming gradually clearer: a single syllable. All at once he knew what it was. Somewhere ahead in the close dark maze, a thick muddy voice was struggling to shout his name.
…. Suddenly, ahead of him, he heard his father's voice; then, after a long silence, his mother's. Both were oddly strained and muffled. As though this were a game of hide-and-seek, each had called his name.

…. Moonlight and shadows raced nervously over the pit. As he stared at the dark mouth he felt full of awe, yet calm. Now he must wait until it was time to come back here, to go into the earth and join the others. He remembered that now; he had always known, deep in himself, that this was home. One day he and June would return. He gazed at her unconscious body, smiling. Perhaps she had been right; they might take LSD together, when it was time. It might help them to become one.

It’s a superb story, grounded by the relationship of Mike and June, and so reassuring the reader we have not dropped down to solipsistic Campbellian rabbit hole.



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