By The Light Of My Skull by Ramsey Campbell (book review).

October 11, 2018 | By | Reply More

There is immense pleasure to be gained from reading stories by an author who knows how to shape words in to images, who can bring to life settings and characters and imbue them with a sense of menace. Ramsey Campbell is one such author. With his ‘By The Light Of My Skull’ anthology, he takes ordinary situations puts ordinary characters in situations that are familiar and introduces the unexpected. Often this has a supernatural element but, instead of trying to explain it, as lesser writers would, he leaves it alone. The reader has to accept that the supernatural just is.

While some authors restrict the characters in their stories to a narrow age range, perhaps reflecting their own outlook, Campbell’s stories cover the whole gamut. Refreshing is to see the retired couple getting into as much trouble as the schoolboy.

It seems a very mundane thing to go looking for the places familiar from the past and, as we so often find, they have changed. In ‘Fetched’, Lawrence wants to show Violet the view he remembers but their way is blocked by a housing estate on which they are made to feel unwelcome. Then Lawrence gets lost.

The retired couple in ‘The Page’ are on holiday when Ewan finds the page in a book that he’d earlier seen a man chasing. He becomes obsessed with discovering what the book was. You don’t have to be elderly to have problems remembering PIN numbers.

In ‘Know Your Code’, Vernon and Audrey have worked out a method. Fearing loss of memory is frightening enough but there are too many accounts of conmen.

Children feature as regularly in Campbell’s stories drawn into danger by their curiosity. Stuart is the outsider in ‘The Moons’ and tags along when an expedition to the beach in search of a lost bracelet has a group of naïve youngsters becoming disorientated in the woods behind the sand dunes. Mark, like many teenagers, doesn’t always take on board what his elders tell him. In ‘The Callers’, he makes the mistake of interrupting his grandmother at a bingo session and discovers that old women can be just as scary as young thugs. Grandmothers have a lot to answer for.

Alan takes him brass rubbing in a ruined church in ‘The Impression’. The figure he takes the impression of begins to haunt him. Jimmy, in ‘The Watched’ also has problems with a grandmother. She is forgetful and when he has to fetch the potatoes, she’s forgotten, he is recruited by a policeman to spy on his neighbours. Even after the man dies, Jimmy sees what he thinks is him watching his house for a signal.

Children do not have to be the victims of the horror. ‘Reading The Signs’ is a case in point. Losing his way, Vernon picks up a man and a boy who say they can direct him back to the motorway. He fails to read the signs, not just to the right road but in the relationship between his passengers.

Campbell doesn’t just put the young and old in jeopardy. In ‘Her Face’, it is the woman who runs the shop opposite to where Joe lives. After June’s mother dies, he notices that she changes. As readers, we can appreciate what is happening even if the characters don’t.

Old houses are a good source for creepy atmospheres and the hint of ghostly happenings. Following weather worn signs, Randolph finds himself ‘At Lorn Hall’, a decaying mansion. It well off the tourist track but geared up for visitors though the state of the place suggests none has been there for some years. Randolph decided to take the audio tour but finds the narration getting unsettlingly creepy.

‘The Wrong Game’ is a strange mixture of reality and fiction. Written as if Campbell himself is the participant, the narrator goes back to an isolated, now derelict hotel, the site of a convention he attended many years before. Both these story pack the kind of atmosphere haunted houses are there to provide.

Both ‘On The Tour’ and ‘The Words Between’ feature men having a mid-life crisis. In the former, Stu, once a member of a Merseybeat band, persuades the commentator of a Beatles Tour bus to give him a mention as it goes past his house. In the latter, Ross is a mature student on a film appreciation course. Both men are obsessive, both see what they think is a good thing, falling apart.

Campbell likes to write about the influence of things buried and forgotten but resurfacing to create havoc with the minds of observers. ‘The Fun Of The Fair’ involves the discovery of the type of horses head found on carousels, buried in the garden. Newly widowed Elaine learns that there was once a fun fair on the site where her house was built. Now she wonders if it is haunting her.

Retelling of fairy stories is a common activity amongst writers of horror and fantasy. Those who try to bring them up-to-date could well take lessons from a master. ‘Find My Name’ the first story in this volume is a riff on Rumpelstiltskin but here another grandmother has to find a way of preventing the monster from taking her grandson on his second birthday. It is an elegantly told tale.

Campbell has had a long and illustrious career in the horror field with many novels and stories to his name. These stories have not been collected before but have appeared in various publications between 2012 and 2016. His imagination has yet to let him down as these are subtle, unsettling and well worth reading and no-one is immune.

Pauline Morgan

October 2018

(pub: PS Publishing, Hornsea, UK. 294 page hardback. Price: £20.00 (UK). £50.00 (UK) signed slipcased hardback. ISBN: 978-1-78626-330-5)

check out website: https://www.pspublishing.co.uk/by-the-light-of-my-skull-hardcover-by-ramsey-campbell-4671-p.asp

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