Ramsey Campbell's poignant novella "The Pretence" (2013) begins on the night a cult called The Finalists has proclaimed the world will end. Slater, flying home to his family, wakes to in-flight turbulence at midnight. At the same time, his family at home are awakened by what they think is an earthquake.
This being a Ramsey Campbell story, we will not be told passively how the world changes over the following days, how daily life seems to be unfolding in a faded police state. The genius of Campbell's style is in the way situations are defamiliarized: perceptions are warped and made indeterminate. It is a style that seeks to impose its reality on the reader through aesthetic fun-house strategies: settings, characters, events, and durations become phantasmagoric.
Campbell's depiction of dazed and ghastly bafflement is epitomized in an early scene where the Slaters sit down to rewatch a musical, Disney's "Fantasia."
As Slater passed Melanie items to put in the dishwasher he couldn't hear the television in the next room. When he and Melanie left the kitchen he heard sounds too rapid to identify, and the flat screen in the living-room met him with a series of random images like frames in a chaotic film. Tom was switching channels, only to complain "There's nothing on."
"It looks as if there's far too much," Melanie said.
"Let's have the control, please," Slater said.
He lingered on some of the channels long enough to be sure what they were offering, but in no case was it much. The fragments of news seemed bland and overly familiar—predictions of prosperity, forecasts of employment, prognoses of technological developments, assurances of better times in store. Slater hoped all this would come true for Tom and Amy, but he saw it wasn't reaching them just now. Otherwise there were cartoons—"Seen it," Tom and then Amy announced—and quiz shows—"Seen it," the children chorused—and episodes of comedies— "Seen it" in every case. "Well then," Melanie said with impatience that Slater thought wasn't too far from nervousness, "what do you want to see?
"The film with all the music in," Tom said, very nearly at once.
"The one that's made of music," Amy seemed to deduce he had in mind.
"I'm sure you know which that is, Paul."
He could have thought the family was imitating one of the quiz shows. If Melanie knew the title, why couldn't she say? It must be quite a few years since they'd all seen the film. No wonder the children couldn't put a name to it, and as the title came to mind at last he saw the disc where it should be, under F on the shelf. ''Fantasia," he said for anyone who needed to know. Thumbing the disc out of its case, he slipped it into the player.
The screen grew blank, unless it had already been, as the player engaged with the monitor. In a few moments a star described an arc like the skeleton of a rainbow on the screen. While the image was familiar— the Disney logo—Just now it seemed more like an omen of unnatural light. At least the disc menu lent Slater some control, and he started the film.
He remembered it well enough, and he saw that the family did. A master of ceremonies introduced the conductor and the orchestra, whose instruments began to glow as they performed a reworking of Bach. As Slater recalled, the children had been captivated, but now the transformation of the music into an extra sense unsettled him, especially once the orchestra was reduced to abstract patterns that were supposed to represent the music. They reminded him how it was composed of electronic impulses translated by the system, and how his perception of it consisted of electronic disturbances in his brain; all his perceptions did—even the thought itself, not to mention the self that was having it. Although music often sent him into a reverie, he didn't care much for this one. Since trying to make his mind blank offered no reassurance, he did his best to confine his awareness to the patterns on the screen and in his head.
Next came Tchaikovsky, and the children still giggled at the balletic vegetation. Slater could have thought their amusement was a little nervous, and the sight of flowers and mushrooms dancing as though they had faces and brains had lost its appeal for him. It seemed to suggest that music could bring the mindless to some kind of life—that other forms of electronic activity might as well. The music that followed took the shape of a mouse but also formed itself into a broom that executed a prancing march and multiplied into countless replicas of itself, enough to people a world. Slater might have imagined the world had collapsed from the artificiality of the situation, because now the images turned primordial, depicting chaos before they showed the birth and death of all life—no, just the prehistoric kind, too distant to be remembered. Why couldn't he stop thinking? What would happen if he did? The thought felt even more unwelcome, not least because it appeared to turn the monitor blank. The film had reached the intermission. "Have we had enough?" he said.
The children only stared at him. but Melanie said "Why, have you?"
Or was she asking why? Slater couldn't own up to the truth when he didn't know what it was. "Not unless you have," he said.
He wasn't even sure if this was a plea. As he reached for the control Melanie said "It's something we're doing together."
The orchestra returned before he would have been able to head them off, and then the master of ceremonies coaxed the soundtrack onstage. The sight of the unstable line creeping out of the side of the screen to cavort in time with various instruments roused all Slater's unwelcome thoughts. Eventually Beethoven drove it back into hiding, but the symphony felt like a recent memory Slater was trying to recapture, and not too accurately either. In the past he and Melanie might have exchanged winces at all the inappropriate portamento and pointed out the conductor's eccentricities to the children, but now the slithering of the violins from note to note seemed inseparable from the sinuous movements of the mythical creatures onscreen. They weren't memories, even ancient ones, but concepts that had never really existed, a thought that he found less than reassuring. A thunderstorm flung down by Zeus was sent packing by the sun, but soon the night was drawn over the land, an event rather too reminiscent of the sky outside the window, where the featureless expanse had turned black at some point Slater couldn't recall. Now what point was the film making about time? Hours didn't dance, and they certainly didn't take the form of ostriches or hippopotami. He felt as if the spectacle was undermining his grasp of the nature of time, but closing his eyes only made him nervous of what he might see when he opened them. Suppose there was nothing to see? He had to make himself hear the music in his head, and once he recalled what shapes it would be taking now—elephants and alligators—he was able to look. Another night was still to come, bringing a gigantic demon that reached down from a mountain to toy with its resurrected victims. Slater wanted to remember that it was conquered by daylight, but that didn't happen; a procession of vague figures carried feeble lights across an uncertain terrain where even the trees were indistinct, and at last the procession merged with an obscure pale radiance. "Well," Slater said and was anxious to find more to say. "I hope that lived up to our memories."
"It was a bit different," Tom said.
Since nobody else spoke, Slater couldn't avoid asking "How?"
Tom seemed to wish he'd kept quiet, and glanced at his mother and sister as though for some kind of support. It was Amy who said "I thought the sun came back at the end."
"Don't you think it does?" Melanie said, less like a question than a bid for reassurance.
"That isn't the sun," Tom objected.
"Maybe it was better," Slater tried suggesting while he wondered if they were talking just about the film. "I tell you what," he said. "If we don't see the sun tomorrow we'll go and try and find it at the weekend."
Melanie pressed her lips together as if she might have liked him to have kept the notion to himself. "Why won't we see it tomorrow?" Tom protested.
"I'm not saying we won't. There aren't any prophets here. I only meant if it carries on like this."
Tom glanced at the window, where the gap between the curtains was apparently too thin to admit even a hint of light from the street. "For ever?"
"Of course not for ever. Nothing lasts that long." Once again Slater thought he'd said too much, and now not enough. "Apart from us," he felt compelled to add.
Amy seemed not to know where to look. "Just us?"
"Now I said I'm not a prophet. They've all gone away till next time."
"Which time, dad?"
That was Tom, but Slater suspected the boy wasn't alone in wondering. "Whenever some other crowd thinks we're all due to come to an end," he said and saw this didn't appeal much to anyone. "But there are more like us who don't, aren't there? And we won."
"How did we?" Amy said.
He might have liked them simply to accept the notion, but perhaps he could hold it together. "By believing," he said and felt unexpectedly inspired. "That's all we have to do, and that answers your other question as well. Believe in whatever matters to you and it'll stay with you for ever."
He hoped that made sense or at least felt as if it should, but he didn't need any more questions. "Now I'm for an early night," he said as he shut the system down, having extracted the disc, "and I shouldn't think it would do the rest of us any harm."
The world of "The Pretence" is losing color, clarity, and cohesion; the protagonists must strain every moment to bring the faces of loved ones into focus. We get the impression that surroundings have staled and are soon to be swept away.
Whatever has happened to their world, whether the Finalists have been vindicated or not, Slater and his family fight for their connection to one another.
And Campbell asks, "Is that enough?"
5 January 2022