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Further Conversations: an Interview with Ramsey Campbell

Interview by Adam Scovell.

With the weather turning crisp, the nights darkening with more haste and bumps in the night abounding, autumn is forever the time of year for revisiting the work of Edwardian ghost story writer, M.R. James.  Defining the form in many ways and influencing a whole host of media after his death, the writer’s work has never had such a strong pull on the imagination and is always ripe for discussion, as suggested last year when his multimedia influence was discussed with John Reppion and Leah MooreRamsey Campbell, one of the foremost horror writers currently working worldwide today, is a huge admirer of James’ work.  Aside from this, he is considered to be one of the preeminent experts on horror writing and horror film.  Regularly citing James as an influence, even going so far as to dramatise him in his story, The Guide, I spoke to Ramsey in regards to James’ legacy as a master of the English ghost story and his influence upon him and the world of horror.

3:AM: What was your first encounter with M.R. James’ work?

RC: It was actually when I was six years old because I was hideously precocious.  From the public library in Childwall, I borrowed a book called 50 Years Of Ghost Stories which is actually a cut down of A Century Of Ghost Stories, one of those huge Hutchinson volumes from the 1930s.  I read it and was deeply terrified by a number of stories in there including not least The Man With The Roller by E.G. Swain, a slightly Jamesian story anyway.  I wasn’t aware that I had read James but images stayed with me from there.  It wasn’t until I got the collected ghost stories of James that I remembered where the two images that had given me bad nights for weeks had come from.  One was a chest of drawers where a pink hand comes groping out of the linen and the other is somebody going into a dark room and feeling insectoid feelers groping over their body.  Of course it’s The Residence At Whitminster.  It’s an unusual selection for an anthology but it already confronted me with the genius of James’ ability at creating uncanny images.  Funnily enough, I certainly would have read A Warning To The Curious too which is the other story in that anthology but I didn’t remember it in any detail even though it has many brilliant images.

3:AM: It’s interesting that the thing you’ve picked up from him instantly is the sense of touch in his work, or the horror of touch, as there’s a clichéd image of James’ ghosts being ephemeral things that linger at the corner of the eye.  He definitely has that but I think the texture of his things when they do eventually appear is what finalises his stories.

RC: Definitely.  I don’t think it is the thing you see at the corner of your eye but the thing that is touched ultimately.  H.P. Lovecraft says in Supernatural Horror In Literature, that James’ ghosts are usually touched before they are actually seen.  They do manifest themselves through their sense of being tactile.  One crucial predecessor is F. Marion Crawford’s The Upper Berth which James greatly admired, where the drowned spectre is incredibly physical and the narrator feels it before seeing it.

3:AM: With the mention of earlier writers, how would you say his work compared to other horror literature you encountered?

RC: That was the first book I probably read so this was really the first horror I encountered as well.  But, and this wasn’t a connection I immediately made, the one book that had got to me with similar prose was The Princess And The Goblin by George MacDonald, the Victorian children’s book.  It has a couple of passages in it where creatures have mutated from years of being in the goblin mines, spilling out into the everyday, and they’re described in very much the way that James operates; there’s just enough to suggest something much worse.  I assume he was trying to be reticent in order to not frighten his young audience but it had the opposite effect on me.  Because he said so little, my imagination immediately filled in far worse.  The illustrations by Arthur Hughes were equally monstrous. The method was very much that of James’ and he did cite MacDonald as being a favourite writer though that was in reference to his adult work.

3:AM: So where did you go from there in terms of James?

RC: It was the Pan paperbacks of Ghost Stories Of An Antiquary and More Ghost Stories Of An Antiquary for two shillings in WH Smith.  I seized these as I did anything in the genre.  I was then able to terrify myself with The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, Canon Alberic’s Scrapbook and Lost Hearts.  It was particularly Thomas that did it for me though.  I still have bad nights because of it but it’s a pleasurable fear.

3:AM: Revisiting is one of the basic pleasures of horror I think; revisiting the scares to see if the effect has grown or diminished.  Either way it always seems to be a pleasure.

RC: It was that ghastly line “And put its arms around my neck” that stayed with me in the night for a long time.  As did the unfortunate chap in Casting The Runes who puts his hand under his pillow and finds an open mouth waiting for him.  There’s a surreal sense of dislocation, of things being where they should not be or objects behaving in ways in which they shouldn’t.  I think James was very forward thinking in that sense.

3:AM: Would you say that they were the images that really got to you in your later reading of James too?

RC: It’s his genius for the phrase or sentence that epitomises so much dread and the uncanny that most of us struggle to achieve in a page.  There’s an astonishing succinctness and brevity of statement.  There was a recent edition of James which reparagraphs all of the stories and breaks the longer paragraphs into shorter ones.  So that paragraph in Casting The Runes about that moment with the mouth and the pillow is now several paragraphs which is utterly ruinous.  For me part of the effect of James is exactly that these effects are buried in the middle of the paragraph, it’s part of the timing.  To take that apart seems to me to be quite wrong.

3:AM: I find it surprising that they would do that.  It’s about that process of embedding, and those longer paragraphs work for me because they seem to resemble an academic style of writing, making it more believable like an extension of James’ nonfiction.  Do you think they’ve allowed that because he’s a genre writer? I can’t imagine them daring to do that with someone like Dickens for example.

RC: I think it’s because they want to make it accessible to the modern reader who is supposedly in such haste.  My general thoughts on that are probably unprintable though (laughs).

3:AM: Even in this reedited form, he’s still being printed widely.  What do you think James’ legacy is in both the short form generally and horror shorts? I instantly think of a huge number of writers from Shirley Jackson to Susan Hill who seem to have been variously haunted by a number of his techniques.

RC: There’s the antiquarian tale of the supernatural, but for me, the most significant Jamesian writers take his sense of the supernatural and his techniques and develop them in more contemporary settings.  L.T.C. Rolt uses industrial landscapes for instance, very much in the James tradition of landscape but simply in a more modern setting.  Fritz Lieber uses the contemporary US landscape of Chicago and San Francisco, in Smoke Ghost for example.  Kingsley Amis in The Green Man too, uses Jamesian techniques, that accretion of suggestive detail to convey and unnerve.  But, ultimately, the key writers learn that terseness of statement and his sense of the crystallised uncanny.

3:AM: Moving on from that, a lot of people first came to James through watching rather than reading him; on television and also in Jacques Tourneur’s Night Of The Demon.  I was wondering why you think there have been so many TV adaptations as opposed to feature films and what your thoughts were on the adaptations?

RC: In a sense there’s not that much narrative in James to generate a feature film.  The TV format is ideal so you don’t depart too much from the original narrative.  Something like Lawrence Gordon Clark’s Lost Hearts is a literal filming of what James wrote and it works incredibly well.  Jonathan Miller’s Whistle And I’ll Come To You I still like very much too.  It’s a very personal reading of the text and it certainly works for me.  Even if Miller is not a believer (and James may not have been either, of course), it still conveys a real sense of the wrongness of the uncanny and I would never explain his adaptation away purely as a psychological study.  The use of landscape in those films is crucial and it did become a tradition very much like James’ storytelling did.  Something like The Stone Tape too is an extension of that influence.  James is one of the few writers Nigel Kneale would admit to being influenced by and it’s a great melding of Jamesian ideas with new technology.  Night of the Demon is probably my favourite horror film of all time though.  It does depart from James but does so magnificently.  I like the demon as well even if it’s debatable if we’re meant to have seen it or not…

3:AM: I love the demon too.  I found that its design really helps convey it as being a part of the natural landscape.  It sort of blends in until the last minute when its grin becomes apparent.  I like the naturalness of that idea, that ghosts are another natural phenomena coming from the landscape, similarly in your work.  In terms of your work then, how has James found his way into it?

RC: I think that attempt at Jamesian succinctness and suggestion is definitely there.  James tends to use neutral adjectives to convey horror.  Whereas pulp writers would say something like “slimy,” James would say “wet” or “moist” and it seems to have had more of an effect.  So restraint is what I’ve learned from his work.  I also find myself thinking in Jamesian imagery, especially in The Guide which was my attempt at implying that James was followed by a figure of some kind while writing his book on Suffolk and Norfolk.  That was my attempt to bring James back to life.

3:AM: You clearly rate James highly so where would you put him in the general history of horror writers?

RC: Oh he’s absolutely crucial, one of the pivotal figures in the twentieth-century form.  Just as Edgar Allan Poe refined the gothic novel, as did Sheridan Le Fanu which also leads to James, he refined the supernatural story in terms of reticence, wit and dark humour too; condensing it to a greater intensity.  He influenced H.P. Lovecraft most definitely, who takes images and techniques directly from him.  You then lead on to all sorts of people like T.E.D Klein and Kingsley Amis up to Adam Nevill and Reggie Oliver so I think he’s easily as crucial as Poe, Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen.

Adam Scovell is a writer and filmmaker currently based in London.  He is studying for a PhD in film music and transcendental aesthetics at Goldsmiths, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.  He has produced film and art criticism for over 20 digital and print publications including The Times, BFI, Caught By The River and The Guardian.  He runs the Blog North Awards nominated website, Celluloid Wicker Man, and has had film work screened at FACT, The Everyman Playhouse, Hackney Picturehouse, The British Museum, Oxford University’s Romantic Society and Manchester Art Gallery.  In 2015, he worked with Robert Macfarlane on an adaptation of his Sunday Times best-seller, Holloway.  He has since worked on films with such diverse figures as Stanley Donwood, Iain Sinclair, Richard Skelton and Laura Cannell.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, October 9th, 2017.