I began writing horror fiction in an attempt to pay back some of the pleasure the field had given me. I continue because I still don’t feel I’ve found the boundaries of the genre, by which I certainly don’t feel restricted (although the way it has become a marketing ghetto is another matter). I’ve always regarded it as a branch of literature. Two of the anthologies I bought when I was young helped shape my view of it. Best Horror Stories, edited by John Keir Cross, included Graham Greene and Faulkner next to Bradbury and M. R. James, and quite a stretch of it was occupied by Herman Melville’s novella Bartleby, a psychological study which, even at 11 years old, I thought entirely at home in the book. Great Tales of Terror and the Supernatural, edited by Wise and Fraser, had Balzac as well as Lovecraft, Hemingway alongside Blackwood, Karen Blixen beside Machen. I don’t mean to imply that the specialists are less literate than the mainstream writers, though too often they’re perceived that way.
Once I’d written some dire juvenilia I started learning from the classics. From Lovecraft I learned intensity and the orchestration of prose. My first editor—August Derleth of Arkham House—advised me to reacquaint myself with the ghostly tales of M. R. James in the interests of restraint, and I saw how James conveyed more terror with a single sentence or even sometimes a solitary phrase than most writers achieve in a paragraph; he’s still unequalled at showing just enough to suggest far worse. The influence of both—indeed, of the English and American traditions—is united in the great works of Fritz Leiber, who took the tale of urban supernatural terror forward with a leap of imagination; whereas previously the everyday environment was invaded by the supernatural, now (in “Smoke Ghost” and others) it became its source. Of these three, Fritz was most crucial in showing me where I wanted to take the field—into areas where urban psychology and the spectral meet and merge. I think there are traces of other favorites, too—Graham Greene I loved for brevity of expression, Nabokov for joy in language. Now and then I make another effort to reach the cosmic heights scaled by Blackwood and Machen and T. E. D. Klein, among others.
Perhaps because it was frequently my childhood companion, I value the emotion of terror as highly as any other, especially when (as in the best work in the field) it touches awe. It’s no less valid as an aim in prose fiction than in film, in music, in painting, and the other arts—indeed, such formal appreciation can enhance the emotion.
Early on, I became aware that good horror fiction achieves its effects through the selection of language and the timing of prose. I’m also convinced that the genre is an eloquent medium for discussing the world we make and how we live in it, not to say die. I’ve no plans to leave the field: it’s where I live. I’d call much of what I write comedy of paranoia.
Ramsey Campbell is celebrating 50 years in print (The Darkest Part of the Woods was published by Tor in August). He has received more awards for horror fiction than any other writer. His wife, Jenny, is always his first reader.