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Dark Mechanicus JSG
- Published on Amazon.com
What scares you?
Now: we're talking frankly. It's late. The bar is clearing out; the last call was heard an hour ago. You've drained your cup; the barge horn sounds, far away, on the river: it makes you lonely, makes you think of love lost, of options squandered. Now we're getting there, aren't we?
What scares you?
Let's walk down here by the river, let's talk in the damp and the fog. Let's talk about what the late, unlamented 20th century served up well-done and 24/7: alienation, doubt, fear, horror, and self-loathing.
That's what Ramsey Campbell writes about---or maybe "writes about" doesn't quite cut it, when we're talking about Campbell. Perhaps `conjures up' works better.
Terrorism, uncontrolled immigration, the neighborhood falling apart, your children stumbling in at 3 in the morning stranger and quieter with every furtive homecoming, basic civility torn to shreds, kids in hoodies whooping war-cries in the tube station while you keep your head down, hunker low, just trying to get home to save your strength for the next futile day.
Ramsey Campbell is a skald for this Age, with its vast slabs of ferro-concrete and cloned subdivisions and mass graves and ethnic cleansing and soul-numbing depersonalization.
He writes what he knows, and what he knows is 30 years of tilting back at stories that dug deep into the guts, the gruesome marrow, the bloody viscera, of a world bled white, drained of identity, stripped clean, standardized, strip-malled, paved, parking-lotted over.
And, oh yes, haunted.
Like "The Voice of the Beach", the story in which a writer's twitchy, nervous, newly divorced friend comes up to the beachside bungalow for a weekend, only to unleash a slumbering horror that threatens the writer's sanity---and has designs on the world. Or "The Show goes On" where a lonely shop-keeper discovers there are worse things than drunken derelicts in the decrepit theater next door. Or "Baby", where a vagrant finds the harmless little old beggar lady isn't so harmless at all, and what is that she's got in the pram?
"Alone with the Horrors" is, as much as a compendium of short, juicy, saucy, nasty horror tales can be. In short: Campbell is a kind of late 20th Century M.R. James, stripped of James's avuncular, scholarly coziness.
That in itself is not so surprising: James wrote in an England still at the height of Empire, whereas Campbell's Britain has been shorn of its global majesty and scalped of its illusions.
The result is this little, delicious, noxious compendium of 37 tales penned by a master of understated terror from 1961 through 1991. Campbell is a chronicler, without rival, of the creepingly atrocious, and his rare arts are on display front and center in this tasty collection.
Let's talk about that, for a bit: let's talk about the way Ramsey writes. The vile, diabolic witchery in his pen. The amazing thing about Campbell's stories is the way the narrative plays a nasty little game of hide-and-seek with the subtext, the effect of which is to leave the reader feeling a little drunk, addled, kept off balance.
There are key themes in Campbell's stories that keep cropping up: in his earlier works, there is the theme of the sleeping, ancient Horror stirred up by the adventurous, the power-hungry, or the merely unlucky.
Then there are the monster stories, the spook tales: our hero, through curiosity, avarice, or thuggery, stumbles upon the spectral or monstrous, and is either hunted down or trapped, with nasty results. Revenants are frequent callers in Campbell's tales, and vengeance comes calling often, whether in the high mist-haunted fells of "Above the World", the playing fields of a boys school in "In the Bag", or---best of all!--up from a dark, bloody basement in "Heading Home."
And finally, as Ramsey grew into his craft, there are, increasingly, tales of interior horror, born of diseased minds and fostered in an England blighted by twisted modernity and rotting from within. "Boiled Alive" and "The Depths" are tales in which the central horrors are fueled by alienation, urban blight, and loneliness.
Things are happening in the dark, in the shadows, literally between the lines: reading a Campbell story is a peculiar, almost schizoid thing, where the lunatic darkness behind the story gibbers and capers and stalks the story, like some shrunken think lurking behind the hedgerows and waiting for the light to fad before it makes its mood.
Oh yes: Campbell is all about dark, twisted, malformed things waiting for the cover of night, or anonymity, to make their move. Campbell's stories are juicy little nuggets of pure, shrill terror, all the better in that each works like a nasty trap.
The horrors never come head-on, but move at an angle and often---very often---under cover of loneliness, paranoia, and alienation. By the time our subject realizes the horror is upon him, the jaws of the trap have snapped shut.
"Alone with the Horrors" is like finding a cave filled with pirate treasure, loot and plunder and doubloons, perfumes and spices and intricate carpets from the East---and just as you're about to dig into your hard-won booty, realizing something that stinks of death and pain, something fish-belly pale that flaps and crawls and whines, is very close to your face.
Speaking of which, now that we're down here beneath the bridge, with the damp river fog---I've got something to show you. Something sharp, and bright. No, don't be afraid---after the first sting it won't hurt a bit.