A life in horror - Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey Campbell
Opinion - Books Wednesday, 31 October 2018

The writer reflects on five decades at the top of his genre


I've been pretty lucky throughout most of my career. It's common for writers to feel undervalued, but whenever I do I recall HP Lovecraft, who never had a book to his name in his lifetime, or John Kennedy Toole, who committed suicide before his novel A Confederacy of Dunces could find a publisher and win the Pulitzer. I'd like to look at my experience over more than half a century as a horror writer.

My first book was in the right place at the right time. It was a collection of stories imitating HP Lovecraft, which I sent to August Derleth, Lovecraft's main publisher up to that date. Arkham House was Derleth's small press. He had been writing Lovecraftian stories, but felt he'd done enough, and I believe he elected me to take his place in this area. In those days Arkham and small publishers that had followed its example were crucial to keeping fantasy and horror alive.

Ten years later horror boomed, set off by Stephen King in America and James Herbert in Britain. I was one of those who benefited from the fallout. My first book from a major mainstream publisher appeared in 1975, to bad reviews and miserable sales. Horror wasn't then a publishing category or a bookshop tag, and this book - The Doll Who Ate His Mother - bore the slogan "A Novel of Modern Terror", while my next novel from Macmillan USA (The Parasite) was described as the work of "a modern master of occult fiction". I don't believe any of this was an attempt to hide the fact that they were horror books - rather that this wasn't seen as important to selling them. As late as 1983, Macmillan's edition of my novel Incarnate was described on the cover as "a novel of terror", and in 1985 Obsession was simply "a novel by the author of Incarnate".

These were the hardcovers. The British paperbacks were more luridly packaged - more open in their supposed appeal, if you like, though sometimes the gruesomeness of the covers exceeded that of the contents. In the early eighties Tor Books took me on, first in paperback and later in hardcover as well. They categorised Incarnate as general fiction, but by 1985 Tor had a horror line, though this was signified more by the category logo than the cover images - for instance, Obsession was characterised by a painting of an envelope with a tasteful trickle of blood seeping from under the flap.

By the nineties most publishers on both sides of the Atlantic had horror lines, and the genre entered many languages elsewhere. Grady Hendrix's hugely entertaining study of the period Paperbacks from Hell tells the English-language tale and reproduces many of the covers. Perhaps inevitably, the field eventually collapsed beneath the weight of material, too much of which was second-rate, written by hacks simply to satisfy the fashion. The public lost its appetite and perhaps its patience, and by the mid-nineties the mass market no longer welcomed horror. The collapse took down not just the opportunist writers but most of those committed to the genre, and only the bestsellers survived without changing their tack. I still recall being told my kind of thing no longer sold and having to disguise it as crime fiction if I could.

A few years and three novels left me yearning to return to the uncanny. In 1999 I asked my editor at Tor (Melissa Ann Singer) if she could take a supernatural novel, and she said yes. All the same, at the start of the millennium I felt sufficiently insecure to take a job at Borders Books for several months. Then my wife went back to full time teaching, which let me return to my desk full time. (Without her I would never have succeeded as a writer - her job supported us for several years in the seventies.) The field was now covered mostly by the small presses, just as in the decades dominated by Arkham House. I was taken up by PS Publishing in Hornsea, and we've been together now for almost 20 years, though whether they can still be called a small press is arguable - their list of authors (sf, fantasy and horror) rivals that of any other publisher.

They and similar outfits kept the genre going in the early years of this century. Tor kept me in America as their representative horror writer, and Leisure started a horror list, taken up by Samhain when Leisure ceased to trade. In Britain a Virgin paperback horror line briefly flourished under the editorship of Adam Nevill, now a considerable novelist in his own right. It looked as if the mass market wasn't yet generally hospitable to the field, but books crept into print there all the same, even if they weren't presented as horror. Some demonstrate just how fruitful the small presses are. For instance, Andrew Michael Hurley's award-winning novel The Loney was originally published by the excellent small house Tartarus before gaining mass recognition.

Now it looks as if horror is returning to the open. Films such as Ghost Stories (based on an equally effective stage show) and Hereditary are bringing chills into the dark of the cinema, and the classic Haunting of Hill House has generated a highly successful television show, while Guillermo del Toro is developing a new horror series for Netflix.

Flame Tree Press has dedicated a line to horror - an ambitious approach that sees simultaneous hardcover and paperback editions on both sides of the Atlantic, together with ebook and audio versions. Their packaging is suggestive and atmospheric, which I'd say is the way to go. The line is edited by Don D'Auria, an expert in the field and a veteran of publishing. I'm delighted to work again with Don and to be part of the Flame Tree line. They're brightening the future of the field, and I wish them every success.

Ramsey Campbell's novel Thirteen Days by Sunset Beach is available now from Flame Tree Press, and Think Yourself Lucky will be out on 15 November (pb £9.95; limited edn hb £18.95).

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