Ginger Nuts of Horror
When I was kid, at least once a year my parents used to take me and my brother to a seaside resort on the Lincolnshire coast, where it invariably rained. When I was young I preferred to go to Mablethorpe because it had a life-sized Dalek ride you could sit in for 10p. By the time I was fifteen, my preference had changed to Cleethorpes - because it had a good second-hand bookshop.
By this age I'd already discovered Stephen King on my dad's bookshelves, so I thought I knew what horror was. I'd already read some crappy genre stuff as well, so I probably wasn't expecting anything much above the level of being pleasantly grossed out when I bought a book with a picture of a women eating pickled onions from a jar with an eyeball floating in it...
Dark Feasts by Ramsey Campbell. A bargain at 50p (or five Dalek rides, if you prefer). And the book that taught me that horror fiction was far richer and exciting than I'd previously believed.
Visiting the second-hand bookshop was always the last thing we did for the day, because it was near the car park. We legged it through the inevitable August rain to the car, and a few minutes after purchasing Dark Feast I was reading the first stories in the back seat as we drove home.
Dark Feasts is a chronological 'best of' Campbell's short story work; as I remember I was only partially impressed by the first story, The Room in the Castle, which is from Campbell's earliest years when he was trying to write in self-consciously 'Lovecraftian' manner. Even as ill-read as I was back then, I found it a bit derivative.
But the second story... now that was a different matter entirely.
Cold Print is still heavily influenced by Lovecraft in terms of its plot, but its setting is contemporary Liverpool and now the voice of the story is all Campbell's own. And what a voice it is: one of the most distinctive in modern horror, a prose-style so supple that it seems to sing even as it hints at horrors only briefly seen. Up until reading Campbell I'd been under the impression that genre books focussed on story, and that 'fancy writing' was reserved for the kind of books we did at school (look I was fifteen, okay?) What Dark Feasts taught me was how misguided that view was; Campbell's horror works because of his prose, his extraordinary ability to conjure up a disturbing image in just a couple of sentences. His characters merely glimpse the phantoms and bogeymen in these stories, rather than seeing them straight on, leaving them (and us) unsure of exactly what's happening and how real it was.
The rest of the book is even better: Dark Feasts really does contain some of the best horror stories ever written: The End Of A Summer's Day, The Man In The Underpass, The Companion... These stories and others made me something else as well: that the best horror is often in the form of the short story.
Trying to recall the experience of reading Ramsey Campbell for the first time is tricky, as I've read his work so often since then. For years, because I could only afford to buy books for my university course, Dark Feasts was the only book I had by him and I read the stories it contained over and over again. In reality there was probably no sudden epiphany; it's more likely that what I learnt from Dark Feasts gradually revealed itself to me, and started to influence the stories I was writing.
And that first story? I even learnt something from that, now that I look back. I learnt that when you're starting out as a writer it's okay to explore your influences consciously, to deliberatively examine how someone else writes in order to begin the process of working out how you do. And in my case, I wasn't learning from Lovecraft.
About James Everington
I'm a writer from Nottingham, England- most of what I write is dark, supernatural fiction, although not necessarily 'horror' in the blood and guts sense. My main influences are writers like Ramsey Shirley Jackson, Robert Aickman, Kafka... and Ramsey Campbell, of course. I enjoy the unexplained, the psychological, and the ambiguous in my weird fiction.
My latest collection of short stories is called Falling Over and is out in paperback and all the usual electronic formats from Infinity Plus.
I drink Guinness, if anyone's offering.
For more information on James and his books head on over to his blog Scattershot Writing
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