A history of horror

As the spookiest night of the year creeps ever closer, we spoke with horror novelist Ramsey Campbell about the ghosts of horror past, present and yet to come

25th October 2018

Ramsey Campbell

We all love fancy books and The Folio Society produces the most sickeningly beautiful editions of classic tomes. When it decided to put together a horror anthology, only one man had the terrifying experience, the forbidden knowledge and unnatural ability to do it justice.

Ramsey Campbell is a certified master of horror. They don’t actually hand out certificates for that position but it’s hard to argue that “Britain’s most respected horror author” wouldn’t qualify for one. He has written scores of novels, endless short stories and featured in innumerable collections. The chances are, he has probably forgotten more about horror than the average reader knows.

A horrific who’s who

Working with illustrator Corey Brickley, The Folio Book of Horror Stories presents a timeline of terror starting with anti-raven activist Edgar Allan Poe and coming right up to the modern day. The art for each story is beautiful and the collection is a real treat for horror aficionados. For Campbell, the trick was to include authors who each represent a bold stride into the spine-chilling shadows of horror. Campbell explains:

📸 ©2018 Corey Brickley from The Folio Society’s The Folio Book of Horror Stories

“Every one of them significantly added to and developed the literature. Poe pretty well creates the modern horror story in its various forms. Charlotte Perkins Gilman brings a feminist sensibility to the field. Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen both reached for visionary awe. M. R. James had a genius for sentences or even single phrases that refine uncanny dread to its most intense. H. P. Lovecraft unites many of these influences to create a new form of cosmic terror. Fritz Leiber radically alters the urban supernatural tale by making the big city the source of the uncanny rather than simply its setting. Margaret St Clair provides a remarkable instance of horror as metaphor, and Shirley Jackson’s delicate disquiet is insidiously haunting. My own contribution stands up for gruesomeness, though not too much of it, I hope. Thomas Ligotti’s cosmic vision is bracingly bleak. Dennis Etchison focuses his precise clear prose on nightmares of the (all too) every day, and Stephen King creates an unforgettably haunted room invaded by malevolent chaos. Reggie Oliver brings his enviable elegance and reticence to a movingly personal theme, and Adam Nevill distils monstrous terror almost to abstraction. I wouldn’t be without any of them.”

That’s a bloody and substantial legacy — and paragraph —  for readers to sink their fangs into.

Campbell’s personal history has been tinged with horror since his youth in Liverpool. Reading ghost story pioneer MR James — whose stories are still read on BBC Radio every Christmas — as early as six years old and confronting the creator of cultural craze C’thulhu, HP Lovecraft around eight, he started submitting his own horror stories to publications at only 11 years old.



Ominous, spooky and full of Beatles? Probably Liverpool 📷 Marcelvekey

“The Liverpool of that era still seemed mysterious and vast to me, and the fact that areas were still ruined by the blitz helped. Since then, I’ve set quite a number of novels and at least a book’s worth of stories on Merseyside, largely in Liverpool. Creatures of the Pool draws on its stranger bits of history and tradition, and my trilogy shows it in three periods — the early 1950s, the mid-1980s and something like the present. I think I’ve celebrated the place and the people in my own dark way.”

Campbell also created the fictional city of Brichester and the Severn Valley as a stand-in for Liverpool and Merseyside. This allowed him to pour his imagination into places historical and geographical facts were inconvenient. In addition to Campbell, Liverpool has produced horror alumni Clive Barker and Peter Atkins of Hellraiser fame. As a simple Google search will prove, Liverpool is also home to a healthy market of people who claim to communicate with the dead. The Overtake had to know if there was something supernatural about scousers?

“Well, I’d distinguish between mediums and fiction writers, since people know we’re making up what we write. One Merseyside medium was an inspiration for my novel Ghosts Know, specifically for the scepticism that’s at its core. Maybe we’re all influenced by the Celtic mist that hovers around Liverpool as the nights grow longer.”

The outsiders

Supernatural or not, in literature, scousers and, more broadly, northerners are often forgotten about or resigned to kitchen-sink dramas. Campbell’s focus was to balance the classics of the genre for new readers whilst including enough rarities to entice even the best-travelled reader and most jaded fanatic.

Women, northern or otherwise, are often marginalised in literature, too. While the women included in this tome do represent important stepping stones in the horror tradition, they are never-the-less outnumbered by male authors.

“I wish I could have included more female virtuosi. Here, I talk about the authors who were crowded out,” says Campbell. “Female writers have always been crucial to the field, and increasingly so.”

📸 ©2018 Corey Brickley from The Folio Society’s The Folio Book of Horror Stories

As in all literary genres, diversifying storytellers diversifies our stories. That’s a good thing. There is a sad irony that Arthur Machen’s The White People (featured in the collection) has had such an impact on the horror world as The White People also describes every author included in the book.

The historical and racial prejudices of the literary world — indeed, the world in general — have made it difficult in the past for writers of colour to get work published, and practically impossible for it to be considered influential. The genre hasn’t exactly been welcoming to other races. The debate around Lovecraft’s bigotry isn’t so much focused on whether he was or wasn’t a racist but to what extent. The black guy dying first is a trope so old, even parodies or inversions of it have become as predictable as they are unoriginal.

Hopefully, change is coming. As black creators like Jordan Peele tackle horror (and Lovecraft) in more immediately visible fields, namely cinema and television, we’ll see more authors of colour emerging and strengthening the horror genre — and its short story collections. Campbell agrees:

“It [horror] can only benefit, and examples of the benefits are multiplying. I immediately think of Victor LaValle — his compelling novel The Changeling, for instance, and his novella The Ballad of Black Tom, a critique of Lovecraft that maintains a Lovecraftian sense of the weird — and Priya Sharma, whose collection All the Fabulous Beasts lives up to all the best senses of the adjective.”

Fear itself

As society changes, demanding more diversity and more representation in out art, horror is inevitably going to change too. At the moment though, it feels like we’re living in a horror novel with poorly constructed, two-dimensional characters producing a fresh hell, daily. So, what can horror offer us that waking up in a morning doesn’t already provide?

“I suspect it may grow more overtly political and more explicit in its social comment — there’s already such a movement. It’s one of the strengths of the field that it can incorporate and draw life from so much. I fear it may find much to reflect and comment upon in the future.”

You’d think that dealing with fear would be par for the course for a horror novelist, but there are still things that go bump in the night, or more accurately in broad daylight, that scare Campbell.

“It’s reality that produces the fears… Gullibility. The vulnerability of children. The increasing reluctance of people to intervene when they see or suspect wrongdoing. The espousal of beliefs that deny the right to question. The growth of fundamentalism, which means more and worse of the previous trait. The willingness of the masses — which may well mean all of us — to find scapegoats. The growth of the notion that literacy and other standards are less important than they used to be.”

Horror as a genre is reflective of the time it was created in. It’s fair to say Campbell knows what he’s talking about, and the future of horror will doubtless explore these issues of culpability, letting evil prevail and the loss of a moral compass and commitment. It’s scary to say, but we could be entering a new golden age of horror. Be scared but be brave.

In that tradition, The Overtake cautiously asked a question, dear reader, that worried us. It has been told at campfires, written at typewriters with no writers and whispered in the darkness when we swore that nobody was around. Is it true that Ramsey Campbell is the inspiration for author, dreamer weaver, visionary, plus actor, Garth Marenghi?

“I’d be interested to know who claimed it — can you say? What similarities do you see between me and old Garth, apart from the leather jacket? According to Matthew [Holness] (creator of Dark Place), he had someone else in mind — I couldn’t say who. But, I’d certainly be flattered to have him parody me.”


The Folio Society’s The Folio Book of Horror Stories, edited and introduced by Ramsey Campbell and illustrated by Corey Brickley is available exclusively from the Folio Society’s website.

Main image: Corey Brickley from The Folio Society’s The Folio Book of Horror Stories

UPDATE (25 Oct 19.35): This article has been amended to correct some awful maths that we tried to do.

25th October 2018