Two or three years back, I marked the occasion of Dennis Etchison's seventieth birthday by reprinting here my introduction to his FINE CUTS collection, leading no doubt to a massive upswing in sales for the lucky Mr. E. I am ashamed to say that this time last year I neglected to do the same favor for another then-brand-new septuagenarian, my dear old mate and living-fucking-legend, the great Ramsey Campbell.
Well, Ramsey turned seventy-one a couple of weeks ago and as seventy-one is the new seventy, or so I'm reliably informed by those who make the decisions about these things, it seems that it's not too late for another bit of burrowing through the archives.
2008 marked the twentieth anniversary of Ramsey's magnificent novel The Influence and Jerad Walters of Centipede Press was both wise enough to publish a superbly designed anniversary edition and kind enough to ask me to scribble down some thoughts about it and its author.
I'll inflict said thoughts on you in just a moment, but first ...
BEST INSCRIPTION EVER
I was browsing the bookcase in a thrift store a year or two ago and, stumbling upon a copy of the american edition of Ramsey's collection GHOSTS AND GRISLY THINGS, I was charmed by (and a little envious of) a lovely christmas-gift inscription from a sweet old grandmother to her beloved grandson.
In case you're reading this on your phone and are too dumb to zoom, it says: "Noah - Hope this book will scare the shit out of you. Love, Grandma". Wherever and whoever you are, Noah's Grandma, we love you.
A visit to centipede press is always a good idea for lovers of fine books and creepy shit and a search through their backlist might reveal a copy or two still available of their beautiful edition of The Influence. In the tiny hope it may drive some traffic their way, I offer the following:
CHOOSING YOUR DARK
You know that guy who can’t tell a joke to save his life? You know who I mean. He’s either a relative or somebody who works with you or went to school with you or whatever. You know, that guy. We’ve all got one. Let’s call him Jim, for now. Jim’s the idiot who, two minutes into the joke and half a sentence away from the punchline, suddenly pauses, has a little think, and then says “Did I mention that the Bartender only had one leg and the dog was blind?” Yeah. Jim. We hate Jim.
Or then there’s that other asshole, Jim’s mate Fred. Fred’s the one who wouldn’t know a spoiler if it bit him in the bollocks. The one who, upon recommending, say, Citizen Kane to someone who hasn’t yet seen it, will open with “It’s about this kid who’s got a sled called Rosebud . . .”
Well, writing an introduction to a novel as wonderfully constructed and as full of secrets and surprises as The Influence places one at risk of being one or the other of those two morons. You feel, on the one hand, obliged to convey certain pieces of narrative or thematic information in order to celebrate it properly and, on the other, constrained from giving too much away in order not to rob the novel of some of its power.
All of which means only this: Caveat Lector. Reader Beware. If you are lucky enough to be coming to The Influence for the first time, you might want to consider reading the novel itself before reading this introduction. I won’t be offended, I promise. Go on. Off you pop. I’ll still be here when you get back.
The Influence was first published in 1988 and was Ramsey Campbell’s eighth novel under his own name (there’d also been a couple of very good novelisations of old Universal monster movies, written under the house name Carl Dreadstone, and The Claw, written as Jay Ramsey*). There have been another fourteen novels since and the books divide, fairly evenly, into those that are tales of psychological suspense and those that are stories of the supernatural. The Influence is one of the latter and is, in my opinion, one of the very best, not just of Ramsey’s but of the field as a whole.
The novel is set in the author’s native Merseyside and tells the story of a significant year in the lives of the Faraday family – Alison and Derek and, particularly, their young daughter Rowan. In some ways the book could be described as a “domestic”, a tale of small lives and small dreams. It is the story of one family in one provincial town and takes place in relatively few locations. It is, of course, much more than that and the novel announces the scale of its secret ambition very early. There is a moment – one could call it passing, even throwaway, were one foolish enough to assume that Ramsey Campbell doesn’t always know precisely what he’s doing – on the very first page. Let’s enjoy it:
(Alison) fought her way along the narrow street beneath sodden embers of sodium lamps. Darkness several stories high carried windows past the end of the street, as if Queenie’s house had floated loose from its foundations. It was a ship beyond the dunes, and the dark bulk from behind which it had sailed was Queenie’s house, towering massively over its neighbors.
Isn’t that great? It’s at once a specific moment, a real moment – eerily and poetically described, perhaps, but accurate to the realistic circumstance that birthed it – but at the same time evocative of so much more. The careful reader is right there (on page one, for Christ’s sake!) put on notice that the darkness in which our characters will find themselves is vast, and that within it move things of enormous power – things barely glimpsed and less understood.
Curiously, transcribing those sentences from the novel, I find that, out of context, they actually seem clearer – and a little less powerful because of it. Which just goes to show that deconstruction or decontextualisation is no friend to Art – because, in context, they are gloriously disorienting; although Alison knows where she is (a street that faces the River Mersey), the reader, as yet, does not and thus the dark mass sliding past the end of the street is even more disturbing and mysterious to us than it is to her. It is a part that presents, in microcosmic prefiguring, the ultimate meaning of the whole. Like a fractal kaleidoscope endlessly revealing itself, it is a moment in which the literal and the metaphoric, the present and the prefigured, exist simultaneously, time and timelessness mutually infecting each other.