jueves, 11 de julio de 2019

Interview with Ramsey Campbell: Under the light of a Giant

By José R. Montejano
Translation: Amparo Montejano
(You can read the interview in Spanish here)

Ramsey Campbell was born in Merseyside, Liverpool, on 4 January 1946. He worked as a civil servant in the American administration until he decided to take the commendable step of writing - exclusively - in 1973 and it is from this moment on that he became one of the Great Nightmare Fabulators, whom the Oxford Companion to English Literature itself describes as "the most respected living writer of terror in Britain". 

Deeply influenced by M. R. James, Graham Greene, Vladimir Nabokov and H. P. Lovecraft, he sold his first story at the age of sixteen, and having not yet finished his studies, it was August Derleth himself who acquired the rights to his first anthology (of clearly Lovecraftian stories). 
Considered one of the greatest and most exponential living figures of the genre of terror of the twentieth century, has published as many novels and stories "realists", as others in which the plot is unravelled with an irremissible fantastic air, but always, with fidelity to a style of his own -colorist and care- that has earned him great reviews and criticism, (Campbell's work has been awarded worldwide, being one of the authors of the genre with more awards to his credit). 

With Demons by daylight, a collection of short stories published in 1973, he tried to move away from the particular imprint of Lovecraft (which was wielded over his early writings), to works such as The end of a summer's day or Concussion, where the author is the stylistic owner of plots with "unfolded or distorted" points of view -characters of sick minds- together with a profuse richness of images (which give substance to inanimate matter) and the precise playfulness -with the reader- of the continuous directional changes of the narrative structure itself. 
In their stories, fear is a natural extension of helplessness. Other similar feelings emanate from it, such as isolation, old age, incomprehension, uprooting and, above all of them, loneliness. 

It is therefore an immense honour for me and for the entire "Lovecraft Circle" team to be able to interview this enormous writer and great literary master. 

J. R. M. (José R. Montejano) - To date, you have had an enviable career: more than thirty novels, twenty-one collections of short stories, along with fourteen anthologies -as publisher- and countless essays, stories and poems. What do you attribute your immense productivity and indisputable genius? Is it a gift? Or as like Einstein referred: 1% genius and 99% work? 

R. C. (Ramsey Campbell) - I don’t think I could use the word genius about myself! It’s work and it’s a compulsion, though one I enjoy much more than I don’t. When I’m writing a new tale I do so seven days a week, Christmas and my birthday included. I work from six in the morning, initially composing the first lines I’ll write and developing other ideas and phrasing for the day’s session, and am here at my desk by seven. I’ll write until at least late morning, and then work on something else – non-fiction, proofreading – in the afternoon. Late afternoon I’ll watch a Blu-ray with Jenny, my wife – that’s my reward and relaxation (though often enough I’ll watch the film with an eye to writing about it, and I’m presently working on a monograph about the Three Stooges). Instead of genius I’ll say that I can’t write unless the work engages my imagination, which is my definition of inspiration. I do think – hope, at least – that my work is still improving. Some folk say it is. 

  Image: Ramsey Campbell
What does Lovecraft mean to you? What about the Cosmic Horror? 

R. C. - The fathers of the modern horror story are Poe in America and Le Fanu in Britain, both of whom refined Gothic methods to produce some of the greatest short stories in the field. Nor should Hoffman’s psychological fantasies be overlooked. If I take Lovecraft to be the most important single writer of the weird, it’s because he unites the traditions that preceded him on both sides of the Atlantic and builds on their strengths. His Supernatural Horror in Literature is not only an appreciation of all that he found best in the genre and a critique of the flaws he saw, but also a statement of his own artistic ambitions. His fiction gives them life. 
To an extent his reputation is the victim of his most famous creation, the Lovecraft Mythos. It was conceived as an antidote to conventional Victorian occultism – as an attempt to reclaim the imaginative appeal of the unknown – and is only one of many ways his tales suggest worse, or greater, than they show. It is also just one of his means of reaching for a sense of wonder, the aim that produces the visionary horror of his finest work (by no means all of it belonging to the Mythos). His stories represent a search for the perfect form for the weird tale, a process in which he tried out all the forms and all the styles of prose he could. 
Nevertheless the Mythos is his most visible bequest to the field, because it looks so easy to imitate or draw upon. As one of the first writers to copy Lovecraft without having known him, I must take some of the blame for the way his concept has been rendered over-explicit and over-explained, precisely the reverse of his intentions. 

  Art of Zdzisław Beksiński
Luckily his influence is far more profound. In his essays and letters he was able to preserve the notion of horror fiction as literature despite all the assaults pulp writing had made on its best qualities, a view that was especially fruitful in the case of Fritz Leiber, who followed his mentor’s example of uniting the Transatlantic traditions. Other correspondents such as Robert Bloch, Donald Wandrei and Henry Kuttner assimilated his vision into their own. More recently such diverse talents as T. E. D. Klein, Thomas Ligotti and Poppy Z. Brite have acknowledged Lovecraft’s importance to their work, but who could accuse any of them of simple mimicry? And consider Alan Moore, Jorge Luis Borges, Stephen King, Thomas Pynchon, Mark Samuels, Caitlín Kiernan, China Miéville, Laird Barron… Several writers have even attempted, with various degrees of success and seriousness, to produce a version of the Necronomicon, the famed forbidden book of which he gave us glimpses that suggested something vaster. Artists as different as H. R. Giger and John Coulthart have drawn inspiration from him, and directors such as Roger Corman, Sean Branney and Stuart Gordon have filmed his tales. While the opera for which Harold Farnese (who set two of the Fungi from Yuggoth to music) asked him to write a libretto was never written, Lovecraft is celebrated musically by two bands that bear his name, and dozens of others have included references to his work or derived whole pieces from it; the German band Nachtgeblüt even based six neoclassical keyboard fugues on “The Outsider”. His importance as a writer has been recognised by both the Library of America and Penguin Modern Classics, and the Penguin editions offer definitive restored texts. His use of suggestion and allusion might seem beyond the reach of most filmmakers, but I submit The Blair Witch Project as the most Lovecraftian of films, not least in the documentary realism he urged upon serious artists in the field and in the inexplicitness with which it conveys, to use his phrase, dread suspense. 
Yet Lovecraft’s achievement lies not so much in his influence as in the enduring qualities of his finest work. Who can forget the cellars of Joseph Curwen, the alien colour, the grotto beneath Exham Priory, the mountain that walked or stumbled, the graveyard above the tower, the handwriting out of time and so much else? 

“I must be very deliberate now, and choose my words.” 

He did, and more of his successors should. The field would be all the richer if more writers learned from both his care for structure and his larger principles. His yearning for the cosmic is the greatest strength of his best tales. He is one of the few masters of the tale of terror that reaches for, and often attains, awe. 

J. R. M. - Between 1961 and 1963, August Derleth wrote you a series of letters in which he specified the guidelines and corrections you needed for the Arkham House label to publish your stories. With the passage of time, do you consider Derleth's somewhat intransigent aptitude as normal? Do you think we would not understand the figure of Lovecraft (his Myths) without the dilemma that Derleth created? 

R. C. - I think August’s suggestions were entirely necessary. He helped me improve my early work, not least by taking it out of the American setting (where I’d never been) and relocating it to England, and by toning down the overwriting that I mistakenly thought evoked Lovecraft’s effects. I should point out that he never tried to impose his own vision of the mythos on mine – it was I who to some extent followed his structure of good versus evil, though by no means entirely. I certainly think he was crucial to promoting Lovecraft’s reputation, though his own mythos stories were increasingly less good (which he himself acknowledged). 

 August Derleth
J. R. M. - Do you think the Lovecraftian horror is almost transforming itself into a literary resource, excessively exploited by authors and publishers, as a synonym for success? Is it losing its "original" essence? 

R. C. - It has certainly become diversified and diluted, but there are still writers who try to return to the original principles, aiming for awe and cosmic terror. I actually think that the authentic qualities can often be found I work that isn’t overtly Lovecraftian, at least in terms of referring to the mythos. I refer again to The Blair Witch Project, or in literary terms, Mark Samuels’’ extraordinary apocalyptic vignette “The Black Mould”. 

J. R. M. - Your works mainly delve into a psychological horror filled with anxiety that undoubtedly drags and traps the reader beneath its claustrophobic aura: a cross between the everyday and the weird. How did you come to form this unique style... particular? 

R. C. - Probably from my own experience – my mother was an undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic, and my father was an unseen presence in the house for most of my childhood and young adulthood, since my parents were permanently estranged very early in their marriage. I suspect the sense of being trapped in terror derives at least partly from all that. Equally, though, I was inspired by the likes of Fritz Leiber – the way “Smoke Ghost” makes the everyday urban environment the source of the uncanny, not a setting that’s invaded by it – and by Buñuel’s film Los Olvidados, where realism is pushed so far it teeters into the surreal, and dream invades the mundane without being signified as dream. I encountered both when I was fifteen, and was changed. 

  Covers of several works by Ramsey Campbell

J. R. M. - What advice would you give to writers who are beginning to write fiction, and specifically horror?

R. C. - The best way for a writer to compete is with oneself, to do better than one did last time. I’m not the first to say that the most important thing for a writer to do is to write, but I’ll add that you should work on whatever you’re writing every day until it’s finished; to do otherwise is to court writer’s block, every blank day adding to the hurdle that prevents you from getting back into the story and making the task seem more impossible. An example of this is my story “Litter”, where six months elapsed between my first day’s work and my return to the story, which I took up by writing the line “That’s how he enters the story, or this is.” I should have rewritten the story to improve its shape, of course. Now I rewrite more and more severely, and take great pleasure in cutting thousands of words out of first drafts; I think that’s a pleasure worth learning as early as possible in one’s career, not least because realizing one can do it helps one relax into writing the first draft, where it’s better to have too much material for later shaping than not enough. Learning to relax enough with the technique of writing novels comes easier to some than others; you may feel you need to plot a novel in advance (maybe all the way to breaking it down into chapter synopses) before you begin the first chapter, but it’s worth trying to regard the synopsis merely as a safety net once you begin writing, trying to let the novel develop itself as it takes on more life. I did that first in Incarnate, and since then I’ve avoided plotting or constructing too far ahead, trying to know only as much as I need to know to start writing and head in the right direction. It can be fearsome to find yourself losing your way halfway through a novel, all by yourself in the unknown, but I find that the solutions are usually somewhere in what you’ve already written, and I can tell you that the bad days are worth the days when you feel the novel come to life. I’m still stressing the arduousness, but let me see if I can pass on some tricks I’ve learned. We all have an optimum period of creativity each day, and it’s worth beginning work then if you possibly can. Mine is from about six in the morning until noon or so. It’s easy to get distracted away from your work, but music may help; my desk is between the speakers of the hi-fi on which I play compact discs (which last longer than records and keep me there longer) of all sorts of music from Monteverdi onwards. (Steve King uses rock, Peter Straub jazz.) 

Don’t be too eager to feel you’ve exhausted your creative energy for the day, but if you sense you’re close to doing so, then don’t squeeze yourself dry: better to know what the next paragraph is going to be and start with that next time. Scribble down a rough version of it rather than risk forgetting it. Always have a rough idea of your first paragraph before you sit down to write, and then you won’t be trapped into fearing the blank page. If you must take a day or more out from a story, break off before the end of a scene or a chapter, to give yourself some impetus when you return. Always carry a notebook for ideas, glimpses, overheard dialogue, details of what you’re about to write, developments of work in progress. If an idea or something larger refuses to be developed, try altering the viewpoint or even the form: if it won’t grow as a short story, it may be a poem. Sometimes two apparently unproductive ideas may be cross-fertilized to give you a story. Then again, you may not be ready technically or emotionally to deal with an idea, and it can improve with waiting. 
What else can I tell you? Only to write. Surprise us, astonish us. Enjoy your work. Above all, don’t despair. The frustration you will inevitably experience sometimes, the feeling that you don’t know how to write, may be the birth pangs of something genuinely new. I know I still suffer that experience every time I write a story. Believe me, it’s preferable to playing it safe with a formula. Good luck! I look forward to reading you! 

J. R. M. - After the trilogy of fantastic shorts, namely 'Angel', 'Lazarus taxón' and 'El grifo', Denis Rovira makes his directorial debut in the feature film 'La influencia', a horror story based on your novel of the same name, which he premieres next month. What does this work mean to you, what's so special about it? 

R. C. - La Influencia is a powerful and disturbing film based on my novel. It certainly conveys a sense of psychological and supernatural dread. It does make changes in the narrative, some of which I wish I'd thought of myself. May it do well! 

J. R. M. - Ramsey, on a personal note, could you give us an outline of your upcoming projects? 

R. C. - PS Publishing in Britain will bring out a mammoth two-volume set of my short stories, The Companion and Other Phantasmagorical Stories and The Retrospective and Other Phantasmagorical Stories. Flame Tree Press will reissue The Influence in October, and publish my new novel The Wise Friend next year. Borderlands Press have a very strange novella of mine (if that’s what it is), The Enigma of the Flat Policeman. I’m presently working on a monograph about The Three Stooges and a novel, Somebody's Voice. And after that, who knows… 

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