Friday, 20 January 2017

But Enough About Me #9

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 ...


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:


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.

          The simple** professionalism of the first two-thirds of the book – the careful and clever ways in which the author builds and structures his story with chapters from alternating viewpoints, the quietly gathering menace, the laying out in completely convincing character sketches of the variously damaged descendants of Alison’s extended dysfunctional family – does more than it appears to do.   While plenty of scary shit happens – more than enough, in fact, to satisfy the limited ambition of lesser writers – it deliberately under-prepares us for what is to come.  It lowers our narrative defenses (though never, for the Campbell fan, our expectations) so that when we move – unknowingly at first – into what is the heart of the book we are rendered even more breathless.  The bravura thirty pages (comprising chapters 24, 26, and 28) of Rowan’s return to Liverpool constitute an astonishingly sustained tone-poem of the weird, of the macabre, of the secret nature of the dark.  Rowan’s strange journey is broken up by two interstitial chapters from the viewpoints, respectively, of her father and her mother.  Given what we are beginning to suspect has happened to the child (worse, is still happening), it is tempting to consider these breaks as being acts of authorial mercy.  But they’re not.  Instead they cleverly wrong-foot us, allowing us to maintain the illusory belief that time is passing for Rowan in the same way that it is passing for her parents, and rendering the moment when she finally reaches home even more devastating.
What happens to Rowan is due to the machinations of her Great Aunt.  Queenie, an old woman already dying when we first meet her, is the cruel and controlling matriarch of the whole family and her will to dominate survives even her death.  The whole novel could be seen as a dialectic between reduction and expansion.  The world in which this family lives is getting smaller generationally, its hopes and expectations ever more trammeled, and Queenie – clinging to the memory of her own father and to a past that she sees as superior – rages against these reduced circumstances, seeing them as a failure of the will and the spirit.  “You married beneath you,” she says to Alison, “just like your father.”
Whatever sins one could accuse Queenie of, failure of the will is not one of them.   And she’s not about to be reduced by anything, not even death – which she transforms into an opportunity to dominate her relatives even more thoroughly than before.  The death at her metaphoric hands of Alison’s cousin Lance (a man who struggles with pedophile tendencies and who is bravely drawn by the author as a somewhat sympathetic character) is a nasty little lesson in the strength gained by surrendering to the dark side:  Lance, a man who is doing his troubled best to contain his demons, is effortlessly led to his destruction by Queenie, a woman who has embraced hers and revels in the power she has gained from so doing.
Alison’s Aunt Hermione also falls victim to Queenie’s deathless will to power, literally ending up beneath her in what was Queenie’s grave.  Hermione’s death, in fact, could be seen as a kind of literal prefiguring of Rowan’s spiritual displacement.  You will replace me in the soil, Queenie might be saying to Hermione and, to Rowan, You will replace me in the dark.  Death, far from putting an end to Queenie’s hunger, has merely made manifest in the realm of the metaphysical the need to be above everyone else that she demonstrated consistently in her physical life. Consider her name.  Remember how her house (which, as in any good ghost story, effectively is Queenie) was seen “towering massively above her neighbors”.
Queenie’s appetite is apparently sated by her bizarre and posthumous return to the family but the implication is clear that any satisfaction is temporary at best, that her need to dominate, her desire to swallow up those around her, is ultimately insatiable.  Ramsey has proudly freed himself philosophically from the Christian Brothers who helped educate him but – as another of the lapsed – I can’t help but hear a ghostly whisper of Isaiah 5:14 hovering behind all this: “Therefore Hell hath enlarged herself, and opened her mouth without measure, and their multitude . . . shall descend into it”. 
The most significant of Queenie’s acts of dominance in the novel, of course, is her terrible triumph over Rowan.  And the difference between the fate to which she believes she’s sending the child and what Rowan actually sees is part of the undoing of that triumph.  Narratively, the saving of Rowan hinges on an act of irrational (and, to Derek and the other adults, disturbing) faith on the part of her mother, but it is Rowan’s personal glimpse of what might wait beyond the fields we know that gives her spiritual ammunition for her long-term salvation.
Rowan’s later interpretative understanding of what happened speaks directly to the central idea of the novel.  The Influence is, of course, like any good piece of fiction, considerably more than its “idea” – ideas are way overrated as fictive engines – but this idea is a particularly intriguing metaphysical notion as to the nature of the afterlife; that our last dying dream is a prime determinant of our post-death experience, along with whatever other imaginative luggage we may have packed for the trip.  Late in the book, Rowan has an insight into the different “darknesses” experienced by Queenie and herself.   “If that bare scoured dark was Queenie’s, the place Rowan had passed through . . . must have been her own,” she realizes and, a little later, “Whatever was waiting at the end of her life, surely it needn’t be what she had already gone through, unless she gave in to the fear that it would.”  From a writer justly celebrated as a master of the dark, The Influence is ultimately a spiritually optimistic novel.  Though it implies no free ride to the Elysian Fields, it dares to offer a hope that, like chance, like nature, supernature favors the prepared mind.  Our karmic reward or punishment at the moment of our transition is the darkness – or, by implication, the light – that we have prepared for ourselves and into which we fold ourselves forever.
The re-publication of this marvelous novel would be cause enough for celebration at any time, and is made even better by the fact that this year (2008) marks the twentieth anniversary of its first appearance.  Further, thanks to the diligence and enthusiasm of Jerad Walters and his Centipede Press, this is the first appearance of the book as its author originally intended, the first edition to contain the full quota of the splendid and disturbing illustrations created for it by Ramsey’s friend, the extremely talented J. K. Potter.  
If, in closing, I may shift from the analytic to the personal; it’s very moving to me to see these pictures again.  This year also marks the twentieth anniversary of my friendship with Ramsey and his family and I have fond memories of first seeing these pictures as framed prints on the walls of the Campbell family manse (which, by the way, takes a pretty good stab at towering massively over its neighbors).  The pictures feature, as Rowan, Ramsey and Jenny’s daughter Tammy (or Ms. Tamsin Campbell, as I suppose I should call her now that she’s, you know, a grownup and everything).  Tammy and her brother Matty (sorry – Mr. Matthew Campbell) were, and remain, dear to me, as do their parents, and seeing the pictures again reminds me of the time when I was first fortunate enough to enter their lives.  A sweet memory and an example, perhaps, of the things we all have and continue to accrue, the things we will take with us when the time comes for each of us to choose our dark and that which will illuminate it.

*The Claw is great. The nom de plume, though, is the kind of thing at which the Literary Criminologist takes a little puff on his Meerschaum Calabash and says “This, my dear Watson, is a man who wants to be caught…”

**Simple? You try it, Sparky.


  1. An excellent intro to an excellent novel, Pete.


    1. Hey thanks, Darren! I certainly agree with the 'excellent novel' part.