Cover Image: Exploring Dark Short Fiction #6: A Primer to Ramsey Campbell

Exploring Dark Short Fiction #6: A Primer to Ramsey Campbell

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Since arriving on the worldwide horror stage over fifty years ago, Ramsey Campbell has become a pivotal figure of the genre and his literary shadow of influence can be seen in the significant body of authors who have both followed and been inspired by him. In recent years, academic studies of his work have begun to appear and his reputation has spread beyond being known as a simple ‘genre’ writer and in this most recent example, A Primer to Ramsey Campbell, six short stories are featured and analysed. This is a very nice gentle introduction to Campbell; avid fans are unlikely to discover that much which is new, but the stories chosen by Eric Guignard are clever selections and illustrate the full range of the strangeness, subtleties, and originality in Campbell’s short fiction, rather than horror of the bloodier type. Simply put, Ramsey Campbell is an absolute master of the short story and to simply label him ‘genre fiction’ is a great injustice and this book illustrates that he is much, much more. 

"Britain's most respected living horror writer," is a quote from the literary bible The Oxford Companion to English Literature, which is frequently used when describing Campbell. It is also bang on 100% true. His extensive and formidable back-catalogue is awe inspiring and although I have read many of his novels, I still enjoy discovering the many gems I might have missed. Thankfully Campbell is still going strong and his run of recent fiction for Flame Tree Press has been of exceptionally high quality and if you are new to his work, that is also a fine place to start.

This particular primer also caught my attention because I am also a fan of the editor Eric Guignard, himself a very skilled author, and if you have never sampled him, Last Case at a Baggage Auction is an absolute beauty and was one of my favourite novellas of 2020. The primer follows a set pattern in which each story is presented and then followed by a critical piece by author and academic Michael Arnzen. I found these pieces to be thoughtful, nicely balanced reads, and although aimed at non-academic readers,  are also littered with clever observations. Arnzen’s appreciation and admiration for Campbell shines through and on several occasions he makes pointers on things I had missed or had to revisit for a second look. These essays are not turgid dry academic studies and it is lovely to see horror fiction being treated with such respect and thought. 

I am not a particular fan of up-and-coming or unestablished authors publishing collections at early stages in their careers, instead believing they should be saved for when there is a large enough body of work to select the prime cuts from. However, for Guignard, the shoe was on the other foot: How on earth do you limit Ramsey Campbell to six stories? Where do you start? Most definitely an impossible task, but he picks some beauties, including The Companion, which takes the reader around a near-deserted fairground, and The Alternative, a mind-bending tale of guilt about living a double life. In his commentary, Arnzen suggests that some of these stories are so clever they get better with a second reading. This is most certainly the case with The Alternate, which needs to be read very closely. 

The Bill is another odd but strangely moving tale of guilt with a man spending his adult life guiltily atoning for something which impacted his childhood. The story is framed around his day job as an optician, his customers, and the numerous homeless people he sees on his way to work. Things take an even odder turn when he is given a very strange, almost threatening, flier. The Place of Revelation blends horror with fantasy in an unsettling tale within a story, with little boy Colin telling his uncle a very late and peculiar bedtime story. 

One Copy Only is one of my personal favourites. A man discovers a rare book shop which seemingly has the only copy in existence of certain books, none of which can be bought and only browsed in an upstairs reading room. Regular readers of Campbell will realise fusty old bookshops are a favourite location of his and it took me back to his excellent novella, The Booking. Recently Used is a Kafkaesque journey through a hospital labyrinth with a man seeking his wife who has recently been admitted there, only to find out that things are not quite as straight forward as they might seem.  Combined, the stories give an enticing look at the short fiction of Campbell and those who do use this book as an introduction to his work will surely feel the urge to dive deeper into his literary pool of novels, novellas and astonishing range of short stories of which these six barely scratch the surface. 

Also included in the primer is the excellent essay Why Ramsey Campbell Matters, which evaluates Campbell’s place as the modern master of psychological horror whilst reflecting upon his deep respect for those who went before; Lovecraft and Robert Bloch to name a couple. Has anybody built upon the traditions of the Gothic, the Pulps and the Weird better than Campbell? Michael Arnzen does not believe so. Further features include an extensive bibliography, which is slightly redundant, as so many similar lists are available online. 

My Roots Exhumed: an Essay (by Ramsey himself) is also an entertaining read in which we are taken back to his childhood years and those early scares which shaped him, leading to him devouring Lovecraft aged fourteen and other key moments in his early literary development.

Finally, there is an enlightening interview led by Eric J Guignard which covers much ground, discussing the selected stories, other collections, Lovecraft, film adaptions of his work and the ups and downs of the horror genre down the years. Campbell does a lot of interviews and is very generous with his time, so you will undoubtedly have seen some of this material covered elsewhere. I was once delighted to interview Ramsey for another website and fellow reviewer Stuart Monroe interviewed him here in 2020 for Horror DNA.

Exploring Dark Short Fiction #6: A Primer to Ramsey Campbell covers a lot of ground and is an entertaining read, even if I am not 100% sure who the target audience is. However, this outstanding author is always worth spending time with and the editors do a fine job in covering the key areas of his short fiction. Considering his status in the horror world, I am amazed how welcoming and accessible he is to his fans and really enjoy his frequent comments on the popular Facebook page, Books of Horror, where newbies to the page might think “Hang on a minute, is this the REAL Ramsey Campbell recommending books!?!” It certainly is. 

Tony Jones
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The book is an excellent introduction to Ramsey Campbell writings of the supernatural, the weird, the dark and more.  Campbell is an amazing author (at least I think so).  He has won many awards.  The book includes a biography of him and includes a bibliography of his works.  There’s an author interview which I found to be quite interesting.  There are six short stories with commentary after then. There is an article written about why Campbell’s works matter.  Illustrations are perfect for the book.  I truly enjoyed the stories and learning more about Campbell.  It’s a book that should not be missed!
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Exploring Dark Short Fiction #6: A Primer to Ramsey Campbell

[Blurb goes here]

Even if you're not already a Ramsey Campbell fan, you should not let this anthology pass you by. It's that good.

Thank you for the free copy!
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As someone who has long admired Ramsey Campbell's work I jumped on the chance to read and review this when I saw it on NetGalley. 
The way in which this series is set out with short stories, some previously published and at least one original, plus commentaries by Michael Arnzen to accompany them is great. As well as incredible fiction you also get a chance to discover more about the author's background, accomplishments, and also an insight into what makes them tick. 
The autobiographical account at the beginning reinforced my view of Ramsey as someone who is humble and generous in spirit, someone who is willing to share the self-professed foibles that occur during the learning process of becoming a true great, which he is.
Listen, I love reading the work of authors I feel I can learn from and Ramsey Campbell is one such author. Every single story is strong, therefore I struggled to determine a favourite. I found I connected to them on many levels, both from a writer's POV and as a reader. 
First up is The Place of Revelation, an excellent starter story that explores childhood fears, then comes The Companion, which has a dream-like quality and is far deeper than one first realizes. The third story, The Alternative, is highly emotive and thought-provoking. I loved reading the next one, One Copy Only. It brought back memories of trips to Hay-on-Wye - a book lover's paradise on the border between Wales and England - where I've spent many an hour. The sense of place is extremely strong in this one, the impoverished part of the neighbourhood, but also the inside of the mysterious old book shop which is portrayed in such a multi-sensory way I could smell and hear it as well as visualize it. A little whimsical, this again is a story that demands not only a second reading but also for the layers to be pulled back in order to reveal its true meaning. If you write yourself and live with the fear of dying before your ideas get chance to come to fruition this is a must-read. That aspect certainly hit a nerve as far as I'm concerned.
The short story, Recently Used, laid bare my greatest fear: that of losing my husband. I felt the  strength of this couple's relationship without it needing to be said. I've had nightmares of being in a similar situation to the protagonist, so this story came close to initiating a panic attack. So well written! I made copious notes on this one because it struck so many nerves and left me bereft.
The final story, The Bill, uses horror to deliver a tale of social justice and cleverly utilizes the setting of an optometrist shop in order to do so. Loved it! It even inspired a story idea of my own.
The commentator Michael Arnzen concludes the stories with an essay called Why Ramsey Campbell Matters in which he states: "He's (Campbell) literary the way all genre writing is when an author is aware of predecessors, when an author is exceedingly well-read and in love with books, and when an author is exceptionally thoughtful about the shape of the written word." I wholeheartedly agree. 
This is followed by an interesting interview between Ramsey Campbell and the editor Eric Guignard and more or less concludes with an essay which explores Campbell's roots.
To conclude then, I highly recommend this Primer and look forward to reading more from the series.
I would like to thank the publisher for providing a free copy of the book via NetGalley in exchange for a fair and honest review.
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This was a good sampling of a few short stories from this prolific write.  A sampling which highlights a variety of his themes.  I only wish it would have included more short stories than it did.
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Book lovers are universally prone to binge reading. Once a reader finds an author they connect with, they’re likely to seek out everything that writer has ever published. But some bookaholics will go even further, sifting through pages of Google results for interviews, collaborations, and book signings where possible. Editor Eric J. Guignard understands this obsession, and as the owner and operator of Dark Moon Books, he has created a series of primers guaranteed to delight fiction completists. 

The sixth book in the Exploring Dark Short Fiction series, A Primer to Ramsey Campbell, collects six short stories by the legendary horror writer Ramsey Campbell alongside academic commentary from Michael Arnzen, essays from Aenzen and Campbell, a bibliography, and an author interview.

Longtime horror readers will be familiar with the name Ramsey Campbell. The British master of the macabre has been publishing fiction since the mid-seventies and bending minds for just as long. But even those that have set up permanent residence between the shelves of their local bookstore are in for a treat when they pick up Dark Moon Books’ A Primer to Ramsey Campbell. 

Campbell’s unique ability to craft a tale filled with perplexing images and unsettling interactions is on full display here. Fans of the author will be pleased to have the chance to reread weird stories like “The Place of Revelation” and “The Alternative” with new scholarly context provided by Arnzen. Mr. Campbell has also provided a new piece entitled “The Bill,” the plot of which will stalk readers’ minds long after they have turned the page.

But while Campbell’s fiction might lure readers to A Primer to Ramsey Campbell, it’s the nonfiction portion of the collection that will keep the book glued to their hands. Campbell’s essay on his journey as a writer is particularly engaging, as it opens a portal into the influences that inspired his work in an easy, conversational style.

Exploring Dark Short Fiction is a wonderful endeavor that is bound to introduce a whole new generation of readers to the best the genre has to offer. Fans of Ramsey Cambell should mark their calendars for the release of A Primer to Ramsey Campbell. Your bookshelves will be incomplete without it.
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Great dark and disturbing short stories, Horror is better in short form, and Campbell is a true master!
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I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I started reading A Primer to Ramsey Campbell, but I knew I had to learn more about such a big name in the horror community. The meat of the book consists of six of Campbell’s short stories plus commentary for each story by Dr. Michael Arnzen (a 4-time Bram Stoker Award winner).

Campbell’s style of writing often means long paragraphs of exposition. His writing SHOULD be boring, but it’s captivating, and I got totally drawn into his story worlds. Arnzen, someone who knows what’s what, explains why Campbell’s style works (and why it doesn’t work for other writers). I found Arnzen’s commentary just as interesting as Campbell’s stories are entertaining.

My favorite commentary is for “The Companion.” Stepping back from the story, it seems it shouldn’t be so frightening, but it’s the scariest story in the book (for me). Arnzen explains down to the sentence level why Campbell’s story sent shivers up my spine.

But my favorite short story was actually “Recently Used” because it takes place in a hospital, and Campbell accurately captures the FREAK-OUT feeling of getting lost in a huge hospital.

Now that I’ve finished this Primer, I want to upend my to-read list and replace it with a stack of Campbell’s novels. (There’s a suggested Campbell reading list to help me out.) Five big stars.

I received an advanced reader copy of this book through NetGalley, and I’m happy to share my thoughts.
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