I interviewed Ramsey Campbell last year for the SevenStreets Almanac – a short-lived print version of SevenStreets that lasted for about as long as we had the energy and interest to keep ploughing hundreds of hours into something that paid us less than it needed to.
I became aware of Campbell years ago as I’ve always dipped in and out of the wider horror genre, feasting on short stories when younger and buying up Stephen King, James Herbert and Dean Koontz. I’m a particular fan of short stories, being brought up on MR James, Saki and O Henry, and the form lends itself well to science-fiction and horror genres with macabre reveals. That led me to stuff like JG Ballard, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, Clive Barker and Ramsey Campbell.
I saw Campbell speak at a Twisted Tales event in around 2010 and was struck by his knowledge and humour, so I was chuffed when he subsequently started posting comments on SevenStreets – usually talking his favourite Chinese restaurant. I’d long earmarked him for a proper sit-down interview about his relationship with Liverpool so the Halloween edition we did (at the bottom) was a good opportunity.
Ramsey was as hospitable as I expected, with a big, rambling house – little stacks of DVDs and books everywhere – filled with curios. But I liked how he basically sat and talked to me in his slippers. Matt Thomas took a great pic of Ramsey sat on the sofa which we both instantly thought was the image to use. The interview itself is not vintage stuff, which is my fault, but went some way to exploring the idea that a writer’s physical location – and formative experiences in a particular place – can affect their writing, whether consciously or unconsciously.
I included a reading list at the bottom for those interested in reading Ramsey’s Liverpool-flavoured work, but it’s an awesome canon, to which I can’t really do justice. I’m continuing to tick them off – and re-read a few through the lens of a couple of hours with the author. And I continue to look at Liverpool’s buidings, roads and waterways – and ponder what’s behind, beneath and beyond them.
I look on from the bay window onto the front lawn and leafy street in Wallasey.
“Do you neighbours know what you do?”
“Yes, I haven’t been run out of town yet!” replies Ramsey Campbell, a man often referred to as the country’s greatest living horror novelist.
I was pondering what it might be like to have a well-known author as a neighbour, but Ramsey answers the question as if I’d suggested that perhaps a man of his profession should not be allowed to live among other people. His warm greeting, an Escher-print t-shirt and pair of comfy slippers indicate that nothing could be further from the truth. Unless you really dislike Escher.
Campbell, a writer for half a century, started off writing in a fictional universe; namely a Lovecraftian town called Brichester, but as time passes and Campbell moves away from Lovecraft to a more subtle MR James idiom, it becomes more recognisable as Liverpool, before being ditched altogether in favour of the author’s hometown.
By the time of Creatures of the Pool – described by Campbell as his ultimate Liverpool novel and ultimate SevenStreets novel – it’s clear that Liverpool has become as much a character as any of Ramsey’s human, or non-human, cast. In his short stories and novels the city takes on a whole new aspect: a city haunted by shadows, connected with its past, harbouring people and things to be avoided who may or may not be phantoms of fevered minds.
Campbell’s journey to authorship started with a chance encounter with a copy of Weird Tales, a pulpy anthology that was something of a gateway drug to youthful minds attracted to the escapism of science-fiction and horror.
“It was one of those places that sold sweets and books in Southport on Seabank Road, including these American imports with a half-crown sticker on the front. The cover had a birdlike grotesque in the foreground in this black desert, being approached by two monstrous skeletons with huge skulls. If that was the cover what would it be like inside? At seven I was too young for it and my mother wouldn’t let me buy it but the memory of it stayed with me.
“I picked it up a few years later to find that it’s a vulture that’s painted quite badly with two human skeletons in the background. But my mind latched on to the original image and wanted it to be stranger – it invented this even more bizarre image. And I’ve been doing it ever since.”
This is something of a trend in Campbell’s work; stories rooted in the everyday and brought to life through detail where the protagonist gradually realises that something rationally inexplicable is taking place. Whether it’s all in the mind of the narrator or main character is often left for the reader to decide.
“The writing that I enjoy – and the writing that I try to create – is something that makes you look again at something you take for granted. One of my first stories, The Cellars, is essentially a historical document now of Liverpool city centre as the characters walk this route between Bold Street and to Old Hall Street. And I did the walk – I always go and look again, noticing details I’d never seen before that I could use.
In his earlier works Campbell describes a Liverpool not seen for decades; a Liverpool down on its luck – full of blasted landscapes and joblessness. It was fertile ground for a writer who melded the physical landscape with unconscious terrors.
“In those days I would go to cinemas – The Homer in Great Homer Street and another in Kensington. To get to them you would pass these derelict streets; through this wasteland that Liverpool was in the war. This entire new city opened itself out to me as I was discovering Lovecraft, and the two came together.
“A lot of the stories come out of the location. With Mackintosh Willy I was walking in Newsham Park and found these fading footprints in some new cement. And then I noticed on the park shelter was written Mackintosh Willy; when I looked closer I realised it was three guys’ names – Mack, Tosh, Willy – who had graffitied their names on the wall. And that was all I needed to write the story – the idea of Mackintosh Willy.”
Campbell accepts that Liverpool has very much shaped the writer he has become and though it’s tempting to speculate that there is something in the city that has spawned several more renowned genre writers – not least Clive Barker, who has used Liverpool in much of his writing, most obviously in The Forbidden, the story that became Candyman – he seems inclined to regard of it as coincidence, while acknowledging this part in aiding Barker’s rise to the top table of horror. However, another luminary of the genre hints at something more fundamental between Liverpool and the writers it spawns, as Campbell says:
“Stephen King says something in Danse Macabre to the effect that in my first novel, The Doll Who Ate His Mother, Liverpool is the main character; this slumbering beast.”
Can a city – its architecture and race memory and scar tissue – affect the minds of the people who live, write and work there; somehow turn their conscious and unconscious minds into a conduit for things only understood instinctively? Campbell’s work frequently feels like a synthesis of influences – the city of Liverpool speaking through him.
Having digested much of his work over the last 18 months I have begun, as Campbell says, to look again; looking up at the rooftops and facades and down at the flooring and paving, pondering what lies beneath the streets and the rolling Mersey.
Liverpool’s rich, deep, febrile history is evident in its buildings, its road names and peculiar topography: slavers and slaves, rogues, murderers, lunatics – even its own mischievous spirit in Springheel Jack, the fleet-footed gremlin of Everton’s rooftops.
Whitechapel, Princes Avenue and James Street look different to me now with the added context of Campbell’s insidious prose, which lends the suspicion that there is something else at the edge of our perception; something we might glimpse if we were to look again. The creeping suspicion that, somehow, something is vaguely wrong.
Many Ramsey Campbell stories are set in specific Liverpool locations. Here are just seven.
An old shelter in Newsham Park is the setting for a disturbing tale concerning an old tramp, to whom there is more than meets the eye.
A youth is pursued through a fairground in New Brighton by a gang of ne’er-do-wells, taking to a ghost train to escape.
An insomniac is unnerved by an old woman standing underneath a lamppost outside his flat on Princes Avenue and resolves to investigate who she is – and why local pets are disappearing.
The Man In The Underpass
A young girl forms a connection with some unusual graffiti in an underpass off West Derby Road.
Creatures of the Pool
Gavin’s father has gone missing. As he searches for him and begins to piece together Liverpool’s myth and history he starts to realise that the city’s connection with what lies in the ground and the water has formed its present. The book is crammed with real-world historical detail on Liverpool.
The Face That Must Die
A homophobic killer stalks the streets of Aigburth and Toxteth in this bleak, hallucinatory thriller.
A miserable tour of Liverpool lends no respite for a woman who lives on Lark Lane, seemingly haunted by a ghost of Christmas past. Commissioned by the Post, it was initially unused, having been deemed too horrible.
The edition of the Almanac the interview featured in…