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

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

Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Reading Ramsey Campbell: 1981

….muttering about tomb-robbers not daring to touch this tomb.

Wrapped Up (1981)

"Wrapped Up" is a shocker about the wages of tomb-robbing. Campbell's three raiders find themselves in Egypt, and set their sights on a nearby dig. They get an archaeologist drunk, and he spills the beans as the trio drive him back to his camp:

     "We aren't worried about the workers pilfering," he'd said. 

     "I told them the mummies were those of magicians." 

     "That was clever," Twill had said. 

     "True, as well. The people who made this tomb for themselves blasphemed the whole Egyptian concept of life after death."

As the camp sleeps, the thieves raid.

     "Whoever they were, they must have impressed the people of their day," Twill whispered. "Notice there are no false doors, no pitfalls. They were sure nobody would dare to venture in. Still, it must have been easy enough to frighten people then...."

     He was expecting walls crowded with bright figures, the looming lustre of golden coffins. Instead, his abashed torch revealed only rough limestone coffins with cracked lids, eight in all. The walls, when he turned to them, were muddily plastered but otherwise almost bare. In the corners, or what passed for such in the crudely-hollowed room, stood dark vague shapes like half-opened buds. Drabney wavered, disappointed and bewildered. It seemed less like a tomb than a cave-lair....

     Drabney realised why he'd thought of a lair. The hot, unpleasantly musty air which hung in the tomb reminded him of a zoo. The air, and something else. There was a faint creaking rustle in the depths of the room, beyond the dim edge of the light, as of something crawling torpidly in its lair....

     Perhaps they'd tried to make it look taller than it was. Or perhaps it hadn't been wrapped properly, and had partially decayed. Whatever the cause, the bald yellowed head within was barely half the size of its wrappings. It must be decay, Drabney thought, because the face looked sucked into itself, its features half-absorbed into the skull. Their lights wavered over the face, disturbing its shadows.

     The face was moving. It wasn't the shadows at all. The head was shrinking, the eyes were collapsing into the skull. The head withdrew into the shoulders of the wrappings, and as it sank it fell back for a moment, as if with a soundless jagged-tooth laugh. It was the exposure to air, Drabney thought, the mummy was hurriedly decaying. Yet he felt uneasily that it was less like decay than like something else he'd once seen.

     "Whoever they were, they must have impressed the people of their day," Twill whispered. "Notice there are no false doors, no pitfalls. They were sure nobody would dare to venture in. Still, it must have been easy enough to frighten people then."

Stories about reanimated tomb guardians always struck me as a UK literary preoccupation, perhaps a popular art expression of actual secong-guessed colonial thievery. Conan Doyle's "Lot No. 249" is a fine example. The most satisfying contemporary tale, which does not take place in Egypt, is John Langan's fine "On Skua Island." (2001) 

The title "Wrapped Up"  is of course a toying with words. The dead are wrapped in fabric and gold and discovered in their tomb. The tomb-raiders break in and unwrap and bag their loot, wrapping-up their operation by sunrise. And the guardian mummy?

     [Drabney] was still scrabbling at the ignition when the shrunken glaring wide-mouthed head pressed itself against the windscreen, smearing the glass as it clambered over and enfolded them all beneath its wings.

They're all tidily wrapped.

* * *

"I see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot."

The Burning (1981)

....Once he strayed onto what felt like a path—his eyes were still dazzled by the flames—where he almost stumbled into a small unlit bonfire. Around it several dim figures seemed to be awaiting a signal. He hurried to rejoin the crowds. 

     They weren't entirely reassuring....

Putting a foot wrong on our route during an ordinary day is typically beneath conscious notice. Many of Ramsey Campbell's short stories begin with such a misstep. Consequences for the stepper do not go unnoticed for long.

"The Burning" takes place on Guy Fawkes Night, an occasion that seems to imbricate seasonal, festive, and political customs. Campbell's protagonist Blake (!) realizes he is just in the mood.

Why had he come? Because it was Guy Fawkes Night, because he'd lost his job, because he had wanted to get out of the house—but those weren't answers to the question. He was here for the same reason as the rest of them: to watch a man burned to ashes....

....People hadn't changed. The crowd that had waited to watch Guy Fawkes hung, drawn and quartered must have looked as mindlessly eager—but why was this crowd so eager now, as men bearing flames converged on the bonfire? Bonfires had been for burning heretics, and also for public rejoicing; how had the two become combined? It was as though tonight's ceremony was so ancient that nobody could recall what it invoked.

Before Blake is nearly engulfed in fire,  he  reflects on what the day seems to demand:

Perhaps Blake was just depressed, yet it seemed to him that while Halloween was supposed to be the feast of the macabre, tonight was altogether grimmer....

Blake had been thinking about death recently, since it seemed he was no use to anyone. Perhaps death was a kind of sleep—but what if you were jarred awake each year for further torments? The intervals between would seem less and less like sleep....

In novels, Campbell explores family and work/career life. In shorter works, point of view is tightened to a shard or two of action or anecdote. Blake seems typical of characters in this vein of story: alone, socially tenuous, economically marginalized, fearful of the outside world.

....Had children sounded so excited on the way home from public executions?

* * *

....black and smudged as a soaked drawing.

The Next Sideshow (1981)

I first heard about Ramsey Campbell in April 1981. That month, in the inaugural issue of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone Magazine, I also read my first Campbell story, "The Next Sideshow." I was fifteen years old.

"The Next Sideshow" is archetypal Campbell: a man locked out of his apartment needs to kill time after work; he seeks shelter from a downpour in a local park.

....At least the hectic glistening made the paths more visible. The rest of the park was black and smudged as a soaked drawing. Clouds massed overhead, darkening the night; they looked close and thick as foliage. Once he glimpsed the lights of the park road he would have his bearings.

The park hosts a group of campers and tents set up for an attraction.

....he heard rain scuttling on metal. The dark shape was a caravan.

     There were several, huddled like beasts beneath the trees. Raindrops traced veins through the dirt on their dim windows. Had the caravans any right to be there? They were robbing him of shelter. As he trudged past they rattled like maracas.

     One pair of curtains was untidily parted. Beneath it, light slumped on the drowned twitching grass, and illuminated a section of a notice. Gray made out a few words: MAZE, FREAK SHOW, WELCOME. The letters squirmed under trickles of rain. Had the notice been laid there for passersby to read? It looked more as though it had fallen into the mud. If the sideshows were open, perhaps he should take refuge there—but he'd never seen a freak show, and didn't intend to start now. He knew deformity existed; that was no reason to become involved in its exploitation.

     As he picked his way along the squelching path, he started. Why? It had only been a glimpse of a face peering between curtains. He hadn't had time to distinguish it properly. It must have been his thoughts of freaks that had made the impression seem so unnatural. The curtains had drooped shut now. Next to their caravan stood a low construction without wheels. Was it the freak show? No, he could just make out the sign that dangled slightly askew in the entrance: MIRROR MAZE.

     The entrance was unlit. Within it, to the left, the cramped barred aperture of the paybox yawned, a cowl full of darkness. Sagging tendrils of his hair trained rain down his neck; his clothes and his eyebrows were sodden. He heard a new onslaught of rain rushing across the lake. Shivering, he dodged into the entrance.

     Beside him a voice said, "Nowhere to go?"

In his study The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror (2006) John Clute gives us the term "appointment in Samarra," which I find useful in appreciating "The Next Sideshow" and Campbell's overall work.


....The appointment is honoured in horror when a protagonist attempts to run away from (or as in Robert Aickman's work refuses to face) that which is most terrifying to encounter: a mirror; a DOUBLE.... the faster you run, or the more intricate your ATTEMPTED RESCUE becomes as you age, all the more surely must you approach checkmate.

....The appointment in Samarra is an appointment with the true nature of things, as they are finally unveiled. In this most general sense, the motif underlies the entire literature.

Gray enters the tent:

....His dusty face came nodding forward at him. It was almost as tall as he was, and squashed his body to ankle-height. This was fascinating. If the mirrors had been cleaner—if the huge bobbing face had been less blurred—he wouldn't have felt uneasy at all.

     The only exit from this passage was to the left. He must be near the end now; there couldn't be much more of the maze packed into the building. Again he had to turn several times, always left. His skin felt hot, and grubby as the mirrors. The closeness of distorted flesh oppressed him.

     Ah, here was a longer passage. Dim flesh squirmed at the far end; perhaps that mirror concealed the exit. He hurried toward it, glancing aside at the riot of distortions that filled the walls. When he peered ahead again, the glass at the end of the passage was blank.

     The mirror must reflect only beyond a certain distance. Perhaps it was a final attempt to confuse victims of the maze. He strode at the mirror, ready to push it aside. Then he faltered. Dusty though it was, there was no doubt that it was a sheet of plain glass.

     What had he seen beyond it, peering through? Nobody could look like that. Of course, there must be mirrors beyond; he'd seen a distant reflection of himself. Where was the exit? Irritably mopping his forehead, he turned left.

     "You've never been in a maze like this."

     He whirled. Flesh unfurled fatly around him. The voice was behind one or other of the mirrors; somehow the proprietor, or whoever had been in the paybox, had crept close to him. Gray kept his lips tight, though a pulse was leaping in his throat. He refused to admit he'd been startled.

     "Not quite what you expected, is it? It's the same in all the sideshows. Never judge too hastily."

After a series of accidental and inadvertent decisions, wrong-turnings, and perceptual confusions, Gray comes face to face with what Clute calls "the malice of the universe." 

The sense of "rightness" to Gray's fate testifies to the masterful strange-making power of Campbell's craft.

* * *

It seemed that any nonsense could find believers these days.

Hearing Is Believing (1981)

     Suddenly he wasn't on the bus home after a frustrating day at work, but in Greece, in a taverna by the sea. The sky was a block of solid blue; over the plucking of bouzoukis he heard people smashing their empty glasses. Now sunset was turning the sea into lava, and someone like Anthony Quinn was dancing, arms outstretched, at the edge of the taverna, where waves lapped the stones. 

     Wells emerged from the daydream several streets nearer home....

It's a crafty opening gambit. Immediately the reader gets a slingshot into sublime Greek landscape, then gets shot back into rainy, cold, and winter streets.

Wells works in an unemployment office and lives in his late father's house, which stands on a ruined urban borderland.

....At the top of the hill, rain scrambled over the ruin of the factory. Last week he'd seen the hundred-foot chimney standing for an instant on an explosion of dust before buckling, keeling over, taking with it two hundred jobs.

Wells's world is an austere early 1980s UK:  unemployment, government austerity, and privatization.

One of his colleagues was reading a novel about an African state where all the workers were zombies. "That's what we need here," he grumbled. "No more strikes, no more unemployment, no more inflation." 

     "I hope you're joking," Wells said. 

     "Not at all. It sounds like paradise compared to this country. If someone took charge now I wouldn't care who it was."

Wells finds distraction in his high-end stereo, "the most expensive item in the house." 

....Wells got up and fiddled with the dial. Here was a police call, here was a burst of Chinese, here was a message from a ship out on the Irish Sea. And here was someone whispering beside him, so close that he started back, and the rain came pouring in through the roof.

    The voice had a background of rain, that was all. There were two voices, speaking just loudly enough to be heard over the downpour. He couldn't understand what they were saying; even the sound of the language was unfamiliar—not Eastern European, not an Oriental language. Yet he was so impressed by the vividness of the stereo that he sat down to listen.

     The two men were in a street, for he could hear the gurgle of roadside drains. It must be dark, for the men were picking their way very hesitantly. Sometimes they slipped—rubble clinked underfoot—and he didn't need to understand the language to know they were cursing.

     For a while he listened to the street sounds: the shrill incessant hiss of rain on stone, rain splashing jerkily from broken gutters, dripping on fragments of windows in the houses which loomed close on both sides. It was better than sitting before the fire and listening to a storm outside—or at least it would have been, except that he wished he knew why the men were afraid.

Evening sedation with liquor does not help Wells at work.

     Many of the waiting faces were depressingly familiar. Those who meant to plead more social security out of him were far easier to cope with than the growing number of young people who were sure he could find them a job. He hadn't grown used to seeing hope die in their eyes.

     One of them was reading "the novel that proves there is life after death." Perhaps she'd grown so hopeless that she would believe anything that seemed to offer hope. He'd heard his colleagues seriously wondering whether God had been an astronaut, he'd seen them gasping at books "more hideously frightening than The Exorcist because everything actually happened." It seemed that any nonsense could find believers these days.

     The bus home was full of tobacco smoke, another stale solution. The faces of the riders looked dispirited, apathetic, tired of working to keep up with inflation and taxes. A Jewish shop daubed with a swastika sailed by; the bus was plastered with National Front slogans, no doubt by the same people responsible for the swastika. If that could seem acceptable to some people, what solutions could be found in a worse world?

Wells finds the radio station filled with sounds of rain and frightened voices more insistent each night; turning off the stereo does not change this. Neither, ultimately, does unplugging it.

Soon cold and damp are not just properties of the outside world: the house interior grows more inhospitable.

     No doubt the cold and the damp would get worse until he attended to them. In bed his introverted warmth lulled him. A slide show of Greek landscapes played in his head. Starts of sleep interrupted the slides.

     When uninterrupted sleep came it was darker, so that he couldn't see his way on the street along which he was creeping. At least the rain had stopped, and there was silence except for the muffled drumming of his heart. When his feet slipped on rubble, the shrill clatter sounded vindictively loud. His panic had made him forget what he mustn't do. There was a car a few yards ahead of him, a vague hump in the darkness; if he crouched behind that he might be safe. But he lost his balance as he reached it, and tried to support himself against its blubbery side. No, it wasn't a car, for something like a head rose out of it at once, panting thickly.


Is the house becoming a portal or cloaca accessible to another reality because of the weird stereo frequency? Because of the death of Wells's father? Or because local factories, jobs, and workers' lives are being blown-up? Or simply because a man dreamed of vacationing in Greece?

Just how easy is it for a blameless person to end up hiding in rubbing while something feels for him?

* * *

Perhaps it was the perfume that attracted the flies to her.

Again (1981)

"Again!" is a command most parents will recognize: common among delighted children demanding repetition.

Bryant, the protagonist in Campbell's story, hears the command in an entirely different context. The word is the last one in the story, and the grotesque farrago of slapstick that gets Bryant to that point is testimony to the author's inventiveness and skill.

"Again" begins at a real place, the Wirral Way. Bryant is there for a nature walk, and quickly realizes nature is an awful ordeal. So he departs, taking what he assumes is a cross-country shortcut.

     By the time he realised that the path led nowhere in particular, he had already crossed three fields. It seemed best to go on, even though the sound he'd taken for lorries proved, now that he was in the open, to be distant tractors. He didn't think he could find his way back even if he wanted to. Surely he would reach a road eventually.

     Once he'd trudged around several more fields he wasn't so sure. He felt sticky, hemmed in by buzzing and green—a fly in a fly-trap. There was nothing else beneath the unrelenting cloudless sky except a bungalow three fields and a copse away to his left. Perhaps he could get a drink there while asking the way to the road.

The bungalow is, in fact, a trap for the unwary. An old woman in the overgrown yard pretends distress. She encourages Bryant to enter the locked house, which he does through a kitchen window. She follows his progress from outside as he hunts keys to let himself out and her in.

....Opening the door had lightened the hall, so that he could see the photographs. They were wedding photographs, all seven of them. Though the bridegrooms were different—here an airman with a thin moustache, there a portly man who could have been a tycoon or a chef—the bride was the same in every one. It was the woman who owned the house, growing older as the photographs progressed, until in the most recent, where she was holding on to a man with a large nose and a fierce beard, she looked almost as old as she was now.

....He hurried to the dressing-table and began to sort through the jewellery, but as soon as he saw the photographs his fingers grew shaky and awkward. It wasn't simply that the photographs were so sexually explicit—it was that in all of them she was very little younger, if at all, than she was now. Apparently she and her bearded husband both liked to be tied up, and that was only the mildest of their practises. Where was her husband now? Had his predecessors found her too much for them? 

The bungalow turns out to be a house of horrors. Each room Bryant searches only underlines this conclusion.

....Bryant saw the broken key in the mortise lock. Had someone else—perhaps the bearded man—broken it while trying to escape? It didn't matter, he mustn't start thinking of escapes that had failed. But it looked as if he would have to, for he could see at once that he couldn't reach the transom.

     He tried once, desperately, to be sure. The table was too low, the narrow sill was too high. Though he could wedge one foot on the sill, the angle was wrong for him to squeeze his shoulders through the window. He would certainly be stuck when she came to find him. Perhaps if he dragged a chair through from the living room—but he had only just stepped down, almost falling to his knees, when he heard her opening the front door with the key she had had all the time.

     His fury at being trapped was so intense that it nearly blotted out his panic. She had only wanted to trick him into the house. By God, he'd fight her for the key if he had to, especially now that she was relocking the front door. All at once he was stumbling wildly towards the hall, for he was terrified that she would unbolt the bedroom and let out the thing in the bed. But when he threw open the kitchen door, what confronted him was far worse.

     She stood in the living room doorway, waiting for him. Her caftan lay crumpled on the hall floor. She was naked, and at last he could see how grey and shrivelled she was—just like the bearded man. She was no longer troubling to brush off the flies, a couple of which were crawling in and out of her mouth. At last, too late, he realised that her perfume had not been attracting the flies at all. It had been meant to conceal the smell that was attracting them—the smell of death.

Campbell's oeuvre has many stories of revenants; his ill-starred characters run into them at every turn: in country houses, abandoned projects, dilapidated movie theaters. "Again" is the first story I recall where the revenant uses a prolonged masquerade to "get off" on the protagonist's ordeal. Bryant seems to be headed to safety as the story ends, but like Hammett's Flitcraft, it will take time for him to reacquire his complacency.

So, readers, stay on the path when walking the Wirral Way.

* * *

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