Ghosts and Grisly Things – by Ramsey Campbell
I’m starting another of my real-time reviews. This time it is of ‘Ghosts and Grisly Things’ a collection of short fiction by Ramsey Campbell (Pumpkin Books 1998). I shall attempt to draw out the book’s leitmotifs and mould them into its gestalt. I shall leave reading the book’s Introduction by Ramsey Campbell until I’ve read all the stories themselves and completed this review. [My previous real-time reviews are linked from here: https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/09/07/df-lewis-real-time-reviews/ ]
The Same in Any Language
“If she’s going to talk about me as though I’m not there I’ll do my best not to be.”
Constructively resonant with another of Campbell’s ‘holiday’ stories (one that commenced the ‘Beneath the Ground’ anthology edited by Joel Lane) entitled ‘The End of a Summer’s Day’, here we have the I-protagonist as a young boy on holiday in Greece with his crass, rude-to-foreigners father who, being separated from the boy’s mother, picks up a woman on site as a ‘holiday romance’. The three of them visit an island that once was a leper colony. The story has a wonderful genius loci. And a nightmarish rite-of-passage that the protagonist needs to undergo to exorcise something he could not be blamed for: the thing that gave him birth. But unlike with leprosy, one wonders if spiritual cankers of self can truly be sloughed off. Beautifully done throughout … with a startling ending that is both crass like the father and meaningful / well-meant like the plot’s gift of that rite-of-passage to the one it created. (25 July 09)
“…he’d established a regular rhythm when his trousers began to chirp.”
This resonates ‘tunnelishly’ with the previous story and, by filtering in both directions at once, ‘The End of A Summer’s Day’…
A mass charity-walk in an especially emptied-of-traffic-for-this-purpose road tunnel with service walkways as well as the road itself. It is a period piece of mobile phones with aerials, while conjuring road rage and rat race as well as, I sense, a form of the ‘flu epidemic hysteria besetting us at the moment. The press of the bodiest bodies. The press of modern crossed-relationships. The manufactured need for constant communication, even when underground (sleep as an underground having dreams as tunnels?) … emergencies fermented by the slightest triviality of life. Misinterpretations of body contact.
This was a nightmare that I truly felt beyond the text as a fiction. It evoked a feeling that transcends various periods of recent social/psychological history and health/illness grey-areas as well as loose emotional/relational mores. (25 July 09 – 2 hours later)
“Can’t I potter round my own property?” asks the protagonist. “…a mechanical chirping…” This story portrays a pair of alternate worlds interacting by a mobile-phone form of dreaming (…“memory…was vivid as a photograph”). A story of the guilt that the story protagonist feels in each ‘world’ about his family (now an accountant, but now scrabbling for a credit crunch living in a downbeat flat owned by the man who is/was a client in the other world.) Amazing stuff. All these stories resonate like music.
“…Highton poured himself a large Scotch and put a compact disc of Mozart piano sonatas on the player.” (25 July 09 – another 3 hours later)
Out of the Woods
“The glass of Scotch gnashed its ice cubes…”
A mass subsumation by paper, books and their accoutrements, akin to the invasive body-human mass in ‘Going Under’, but the hysteria of words and palimpsest, in this case.
A baffle and a fable where a ‘dealer’ in books – here a publisher of children’s books – is wood-aickmanized by an ostensible businessman type (akin to one side of ‘The Alternative’ protagonist)….. in the same way as I feel this is happening to me as a punishment for trying (as I am here) to unlock this book’s leitmotifs to flay them back towards the textured lofty gestalt. Angela Carter would end up engrained, too, no doubt. “Get off my property!” There’s no way out. This process must continue till this whole book is revealed to its bottom knot.
“Send your bloody propaganda somewhere it’s wanted.” Thankfully, Campbell is never didactic, although, for all I know, he may think he is. “Then he let out a gasp that would have been a word if he’d known how he was feeling.” But where does Sibelius come into this? (Question for anyone reading both the story and this review). (25 July 09 – another 2 hours later)
A Street Was Chosen
A social experiment on a particular street taken to Academc Science Journal lengths. A brlliant alternate-world (non-didactic) satire on the ‘Big Brother’ human-hothouse experiments of the early 21st century. TV Reality shows flayed and laid open.
A spine runs through all these stories so far like a dream-tunnel (but still tough and sinewy because the dream-feel is made real by skilful ‘magic fiction’ and realised texture of words on wood by sleight-of-hand) … anachronistic and semi-absurdist, with human inter-relations stress-tested.
(I note this story was first published in 1991, but I only checked that after writing above. I shall henceforward only be carbon-dating the words by pure reading without recourse to the book’s extraneous printed data).
“…attempt to persuade several of the other subjects that a pattern was discernible in the various recent events…” (26 July 09)
McGonagall in the Head
“Why was it death that produced so much doggerel?”
A portrayal of a newspaper office (with sharply observed mental and physical office-work habits), an ambitious reporter starting off with notices of deaths, births…
In the main, absolutely hilarious, then slowly absorbing some of the word-itches-in-the-brain that the previous stories in this book accentuate by serendipitous foreshadowing in hindsight…
I can’t describe how much I really enjoyed this story –
a Smilemime through the pre-email phone or the dream-tunnels of time…
each grin with its weight of darkness and relentless rhyme. (26 July 09 – 8 hours later)
Through the Walls
A remarkable and courageous story regarding ‘forms’ of extreme synaesthesia that one can empathise besetting a father in a nuclear family with wife, daughter and son. ‘Forms’ that derive from Horror story tropes made entirely original. This story has firewalls sitting squarely within ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ ethos that underpins all my real-time reviewing. Indeed, there is another story (of an industrial chemist) outside the ‘possibly-less-than-firewalls’ of the ‘real’ story, a side-story (as opposed to a back-story) fabricated to rationalise the temptations within the ‘real’ story. A story of inner and outer torment, sexual and paranoiac, cohered by the form of the story itself, as well as by its content. A story of true greatness.
[The synaesthesia is further permeated (and thus strengthened) through the story ‘walls’ of the whole book itself so far, e.g. the inferred loose relational tangles in ‘The Same In Any Language’, similar in ‘A Street Was Chosen’ that also had its own internal walls from house to house that could not prevent the concertina repercussions, the body onslaughts in ‘Going Under’ and the word onslaughts in the ‘McGonagall’ story etc.
But was the street terraced?]
“He’d cleared his desk of the convoluted cases which had been gathering, piling up against his mind.” (26 July 09 – another 3 hours later)
“On the playing-field beside him, rugby posts were panting in the August heat: H H H. As he opened his front door, pushing back a couple of letters, spacious echoes greeted him.”
A densely-packed and effective prose work that evokes, for me, a Magritte painting, turning from puckish to brackish as it is ‘painted’ before us in words. Rainwater and much repeated panting (not painting) and dreams of lying in bed with a non-existent wife affect a spiritually detached artist who is presumably finding his feet professionally with a one person show in a gallery. His detachment finally transcends the ‘walls’ of this word painting – as he finally finds a non-detached, if guilty, self by turning the dimmer-switch of his identity to a similar level of relative brightness (or dimness) as that emerging through the panting words. One has a wife merely to wash one’s pants…
A TV game show he appears on as a way to advertise his artwork…
There is a girl on a swing next door and a lady friend who dies. These are perhaps other paintings or side-stories in his portfolio.
Also elements of synaesthesia similar to the previous story and people/word onslaughts of other stories. The cross-references, however, do not blur the detached separateness of each of this street of stories, so far as I’ve walked down it with shifting abstract perspectives of its end or beginning. (27 July 09)
The car crash at the beginning (I somehow recall) of ‘Through The Walls’ has come right through the walls of this story to haunt it with a sneering face at the steering-wheel… like an imaginary mutant author’s reaction to someone reviewing his book too deeply or crossing its road or path with undue care…?
We mostly cross through life with undue care. Here another street, once quiet, now a busy throughway, with over-bright carbon-footprints of street-lighting, a subway tunnel to the shops across the way, unwanted words tattooed on the tunnel walls ….
An old couple (still struggling with childlessness as well as modern living and going under), she losing her memory … both steeped in word-touchable depression … both living in just one story on that row of other stories that have lost its essential Coronation-Streetness.
This old man is not dreaming a wife (as in ‘This Time’); she is all too real. He feels he must care for her. One wonders how easy it is to write such stories when relatively young, because the scenario in the story that one is creating is so distant – but today the car is turning the corner and approaching the end of the street, the end of the story.
But not yet the end of the book.
Evocative reality in extremis. I have not the heart to extract a sentence from it as a quote. It would be too much like opening a window in its wall. It would only be another street-lamp, an unnatural depletion of its utter darkness. (27 July 09 – 90 minutes later)
Between the Floors
“They’d agreed on ‘Casablanca’ when reminiscing about favourite films.”
A piquant, poignant nostalgia for a seaside atmosphere contains here a Cinema Managers’ Convention in a Blackpool Hotel. The protagonist (nearing early retirement as well as nemonymity and unlucky with the ladies) has recurrent encounters with a lift and its anachronistic attendant situated in a part of the hotel he’s mistakenly been put into…
It’s beautifully done, reminiscent of ‘Grin of the Dark’, Reggie Oliver, Charles Dickens, the ‘McGonagall’ story herewith…
For those of you now seasoned with reading my reviews (this one in particular, so far) will not need telling of the leitmotifs echoing here strongly from the rest of the book: the sublimated author himself riding a vertical version of his ‘street’, with floors instead of walls. And more.
The book’s leitmotifs are indeed so strong, they no longer need teasing out by the likes of me: they are egging out themselves into word-spawn, and the gestalt is already poking through like a wondrous totem of fiction, yet incomplete, but already ripe with what it will encompass by the book’s eventual end-of-the-pier. (27 July 09 – another 2 hours later)
Where They Lived
“…the pillars of unbuilt walls.”
Another holiday story in the tradition of Campbell holiday stories. Here it is exotic Turkey, in pre-digital camera days, where a married couple are healing their aging marriage but meet another couple from England who are more than just a little obnoxiously oppressive and comfort-zone invasive. In fact there are more walls between these fellow countryfolk than perhaps between them and Turkey (that is now not so exotic and tantamount in the European Union). The lengths that are then gone to so as to partition the two sets of English couples are of what I am beginning to call by a special brand of Campbellian grotesque absurdism. The wide world is not an oyster, but a metaphorical terraced street. Gubless them all. One of them even makes up his own nonsense foreign language as a sort of filter-baffle. But the result is the same in any language.
“‘If there’s nothing we can do there’s nothing we can do,’ she said, and turned towards the wall.” (28 July 09)
“…punching the books, as they ran, until the shelves looked gap-toothed.”
A new Library Policeman story. Well, not exactly, but it features a probationary librarian in a library amid an urban deprivation and a pub that loses the letters of its name day by day. Responsibility and paranoia (perhaps watchwords for this book) play their part, as stalked by a mythic hubris. Life needs to be faced. But things are not didactic here. The only way to do good from fiction is to try not to do good from it. Let the characters stack naturally however vulnerable they are. Here we have books on shelves like terraced streets, plus real terraced streets outside now boarded up …. followed closely by the next cumulative leimotif: tower blocks (no doubt with lifts). (28 July 09 – 2 hours later)
“On his last visit the landlord had scurried through the house, not even waiting for Nairn to catch up…”
An essay in paranoia, with a sneered-at old man reminscent of ‘The Sneering’ scenario itself. Once the home with his wife, now falling apart, developing faces (imaginary or not) ‘looking out’ from windows and from dark corners …. a man hounded by the world at large and by the landlord in particular – or so he thinks. The house is a sort of Heath Robinson metaphor for the internet, as its website corrodes around the user with care-worn firewalls (earlier provided by anti-virus packages) themselves seeping darkly into each other…as one day surely they must.
I dare not interpret this story beyond that for fear of repercussions. Some may know what I mean. In fact the ‘internet’ conceit is just a cover-story for something else I really wanted to say about ‘Looking Out’ and the Jungian interconnectibility of everything through time and space. But that would be one fiction too far. One’s got to look out for oneself. (28 July 09 – another hour later)
The Dead Must Die
“As I make my way downhill through the blackened furtive terraces the tethered flames jerk above the soiled roofs, and I see I am descending into Hell.”
There is a lift at the beginning of this story, and perhaps the aforementioned ‘tower block’ eventually becomes a terraced street again but not of houses proper but of terraced tomb-houses. But how thick are the walls?
This is a powerful story, cast in a Biblical language and style of hectoring, telling of the pious I-protagonist surnamed ‘Priest’ who fights against the Undead and their takeover of the world, by organ-transplant manipulation … a parable as a Boschian / Ligottian vision. Family loyalties. Fire and Redemption. But, essentially, responsibility and paranoia, again. We wonder whom we, the readers, are actually cheering on. The Iconoclastic or the Sanctimonious? But it’s somehow too grim to cheer at all. No grin in the dark here.
“But the Adversary has sent his minions to beset me.” (28 July 09 – another hour later)
A Side of the Sea
“I turn away with the grin stuck to my face…”
Being a veteran of coach holidays, this tickled me plain, purl and crossstitch.
One has to have a sense of humour if one reads books that have something like ‘The Dead Must Die’ living next door to this story. And I hope people who read this review and its serendipities have a sense of humour, too.
This, like its next door neighbour, has piety and prayers.
A coach community is like a Coronation Street or Big Brother of the soul. Except DON’T get on the wrong coach.
I’ve been as far as Budapest in a coach.
I’ve not yet met the neighbour on the other side (of the sea?). A next door neighbour appropriately called ‘Missed Connection’… (28 July 09 – another 2 hours later)
“An unlit bus probably. It had seemed to pace the train…”
I rarely miss connections! From the coach journey in the previous story to a train journey in this one (these travelling street-communities of short-term and long-term-neighbours) … the dark serendipities grow stronger and stronger. Here, a wondrous mass of images: trains are where you’re not told anything about delays as it waits forever on the track inexplicably; not being able to ‘grow’ friendships and antipathies as one can on a coach but, especially on a train, one does sometimes have to endure chatterboxes; the fleeting fear of colliding side-on with a train travelling next door; the incessant cougher from “McGonagall” (and, oh yes, I forgot the relentless word-itches from ‘McGonagall’ that slid into ‘A Side of The Sea’)…
I’m sure there is a big clue in this story to unlock the rest of the book: a book by Robbe-Grillet (not the usual sort of book to take on a journey). I once remember reading a French anti-novel in the Sixties that spent chapter after chapter describing rain in Manchester. This train journey, although described in this relatively short story (almost a vignette or prose poem), is remarkably relentless, nigh endless.
Reading this book is like ‘Going Under’ for real, each story with its own aerial, its own mobile communication to other readers along the way…. (28 July 09 – another 90 minutes later)
This story fulfils the book’s title: ‘Ghosts and Grisly Things’, while putting a window in one of our walls and a bus-stop close outside it where queues form. The window makes the wall psychologically less secure, but many walls have real windows or at least ghostly fenestration…
A companion piece, somewhat, to ‘Looking Out’ (and to ‘The Sneering’ and ‘Through the Walls’ with indeed another car crash and odd street-lighting!). It is an effective essay on the spiritual condition of Horror Writer, in this case a semi-professional (who also works for the Inland Revenue). But he’s not writing of a blood-sucker, but a werewolf.
Identities dim and brighten, and even grins are rehearsed. Treatment of self and nemonymity. This is the first time in the book that walls grow vulnerable, as two-way filters, with only shapeless ‘baffles’ as meagre safeguard…
This story and its title give another leitmotif: transformation. Aickmannerisms for the modern reading eye – or should I say the future modern eye, if this story turns out to have morphed into existence when the influence (as perceived) was still ringing changes.
‘Passage to India’ and ‘Picnic at Hanging-Rock’…
“For a moment he was helpless with panic, then he realised that the glass protected him.” (29 July 09)
“…the net curtains of the gardenless terraces were grey as old cobwebs…”
A near perfect Proustian Nocturne. A sheer dark delght. Only ‘near’ perfect, as, for me, it has suspect moments of rare didacticism.
The terraced street earlier in this book did become tantamount to grave-houses; now, in that light, it has meaningfully developed to house sideshows of a fairground in a canal-environed area formed from the buildings of the protagonist’s childhod home town. It is a poetic trip, a holiday in ‘Last Year in Marienbad’, ‘The Masque of the Red Death’, ‘The Carnival of Souls’…. Childhood that comes back to bite you as the same dog. The same exorcism in any language. The same root cause. (29 July 09 – 45 minutes later)
See How They Run
“‘The Swine,’ the tobacconist whispered fiercely, glaring at Fishwick.”
Fishwick is in the dock for brutal serial murders and the story’s protagonist, Foulsham, is on the jury. Windows look at each other over the city. There is some sort of epidemic – as if madness is catching, madness and murder. And limps. Phone-ins and houses without phones. This is the culmination of the book’s gestalt (and I sense by instinct that the long story (the book’s final one) that follows ‘See How They Run’ is a yet unfathomed coda (or an ‘Alternative’?), i.e. not structural to the totemic gestalt – we shall see). Here, though, the walled enclosures surely come home to roost. A city of streets, not a single one of which can be chosen, as they say.
“Foulsham switched off the radio and imagined the city riddled with cells in which people lay or paced, listening to the babble of their own caged obsessions.” (29 July 09 – another 2 hours later.)
“‘Have they found the swine yet?'”
The title has lost a letter, like that pub in ‘Root Cause’. Makes it like an Egyptian God or a manufactured foreign language that some take on holiday as a defence mechanism.
Here we have an avenue of twinned houses near a golf course. Not a terraced street. I was right: it is the coda, not the code, of the book. The Twin Peaks-type victim’s mother could have prevented a lot of trouble or even predicted the story’s ending if she had read ‘Through the Walls’ first. But I am being flippant about a clever, but uncharacteristic, story in a loose-limbed popular crisp language.
This is not a back story, not a side story, this is a free bonus track.
‘Ghosts and Grisly Things’, I think I have shown, is a g*stalt. I also hope I’ve shown, by strength of the synchronised shards of random truth and fiction, how this McGonagall-in-the head type of review can entice new readers to it and renew it for old readers. I’ve not broken down its walls but perhaps taken the old wallpaper off them. Each reader has his or her own ownership of the book they read. The author, equally.
It’s an honestly great book that allows one to do that to it. It is a great book, full stop.
It has enjoyable separate stories if taken one by one. But if you as a reader also want to place them on your own personal real-time potter’s wheel, what’s the betting your g*st*lt would be different from mine? And from the author’s? Thus ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ hath it. (29 July 09 – another 2 hours later)
A cento of opening sentences – culled from the stories in Ghost and Grisly Things – reveal an interested pattern….
“Blythe had shuffled along to the ticket booth when he knew he should have sent the money.” (GOING UNDER) “Highton was driving past the disused hospital when the car gave up.” (THE ALTERNATIVE) “Hugh Pears was gathering mint in the backyard when he heard the crash” (THROUGH THE WALLS) “The Hatchards had just crossed Ataturk Bulvari when a shoeshone boy commenced rubbing the straps of Don’s sandals with a cloth.” (WHERE THEY LIVED) “Slade had been driving all day when he came to the road home.” (WELCOMELAND)
The explicit device is clear – related, are these openings from the same book:
“The glass of scotch gnashed its ice cubes as Thirsk set it down on his desk.” (OUT OF THE WOODS) “As Crosby emerged from the dentist’s he almost tripped over a dog, which vanished behind the bushes.” (THIS TIME) “As soon as I push the doors open, I know I am in the presence of evil.” (THE DEAD MUST DIE) “As soon as he reached the flat, Don started writing.” (THE CHANGE)
“When” and “as” doing the same job as in these openings:
“I sat behind my second pint of beer and pretended to be unaware.” (ROOT CAUSE) “The first time Nairn saw the figures in his house, he thought he landlord had won.” (LOOKING OUT)
I’ve noticed this for years, that Ramsey gets his reader hooked right off the bat, by a kind of symbolic “hook” in his opening sentences: action A, reality A, situation A, is suddenly upturned by reality B; A is in the past, or a pre-existing reality; B is in the present, or is somehow happening “now.” Sometimes they’re related (THE ALTERNATIVE), sometimes tangential (THROUGH THE WALLS), but they’re always a disturbance of the singular sentence’s world order – there’s an eeriness to all these opening lines, an ominous ruffle on the edge of actual sensation. A distant chill can be felt in and through the sentence’s very structure. It’s quite magnificent.
3. Weirdmonger left…
“Blythe had shuffled along to the ticket booth when he knew he should have sent the money.”
I confess that I’ve long regretted that sentence – unnecessarily ambiguous, I think. It should be
“Blythe had shuffled along to the ticket booth when he knew he should have sent Lydia the money.”
As it stands it appears to refer to the booth.