Liverpool Is The Character: Ramsey Campbell Interview

Weird Tales Ramsey Campbell
Date: 02/03/2017

I look on from the bay window onto the front lawn and leafy street in Wallasey.

“Do you neighbours know what you do?”

“Yes, I haven’t been run out of town yet!”. I was pondering what it might be like to have a well-known author as a neighbour; Ramsey Campbell jovially answers as if the implication is there is something undesirable about living next door to a man described as Britain’s most respected living horror writer.

But his warm greeting, an Escher-print t-shirt and pair of comfy slippers indicate that nothing could be further from the truth. Unless you really dislike Escher.

Campbell, a writer for half a century, started off writing in a fictional universe, namely a Lovecraftian town called Brichester, but as time passes and Campbell moves away from Lovecraft to what might be termed a more subtle MR James idiom, it becomes more recognisable as an analogue for Liverpool before being ditched altogether in favour of the author’s hometown.

By the time of Creatures of the Pool – described by Campbell as his ultimate Liverpool novel and ultimate SevenStreets novel – it’s clear that Liverpool has become as much a character as any of Ramsey’s human, or non-human, cast. In his short stories and novels the city takes on a whole new aspect: a city haunted by shadows, connected with its past, harbouring people and things to be avoided who may or may not be phantoms of fevered minds.

“It was about 15 years in the making and I was gathering all the material – I just called it The Liverpool Novel while it was being written. The more obscure and out-of-print the books I was looking for were, the better I could mine them for real-world detail.

“I’m very proud of the collection of books I put together – there are a lot that haven’t been in print since the 19th Century, particularly something on Liverpool theatre – and I was able to draw on that. Creatures of the Pool really is my ultimate Liverpool book – and ultimate Seven Streets book.”

“Stephen King says something in Danse Macabre to the effect that in my first novel, The Doll Who Ate His Mother, Liverpool is the main character; this slumbering beast.”

Campbell’s journey to authorship started with a chance encounter with a copy of Weird Tales, a pulpy anthology that was something of a gateway drug to youthful minds attracted to the escapism of science-fiction and horror.

“It was one of those places that sold sweets and books in Southport on Seabank Road, including these American imports with a half-crown sticker on the front. The cover had a birdlike grotesque in the foreground in this black desert, being approached by two monstrous skeletons with huge skulls. If that was the cover what would it be like inside? At seven I was too young for it and my mother wouldn’t let me buy it but the memory of it stayed with me.

“I picked it up a few years later to find that it’s a vulture that’s painted quite badly with two human skeletons in the background. But my mind latched on to the original image and wanted it to be stranger – it invented this even more bizarre image. And I’ve been doing it ever since.”

This is something of a trend in Campbell’s work: Stories rooted in the everyday and brought to life through detail where the protagonist gradually realises that something rationally inexplicable is taking place. Whether it’s all in the mind of the narrator or main character is often left for the reader to decide.

“The writing that I enjoy – and the writing that I try to create – is something that makes you look again at something you take for granted. One of my first stories, The Cellars, is essentially a historical document of Liverpool city centre as the characters walk this route between Bold Street and to Old Hall Street. And I did the walk – I always go and look again, noticing details I’d never seen before that I could use.”

In his earlier works Campbell describes a Liverpool not seen for decades; a Liverpool down on its luck – full of blasted landscapes and joblessness. It was fertile ground for a writer who melded the physical landscape with unconscious terrors.

“In those days I would go to cinemas – The Homer in Great Homer Street and another in Kensington. To get to them you would pass these derelict streets; through this wasteland that Liverpool was in the war. This entire new city opened itself out to me as I was discovering Lovecraft, and the two came together.

Ramsey Campbell by Matt Thomas

“A lot of the stories come out of the location. With Mackintosh Willy I was walking in Newsham Park and found these fading footprints in some new cement. And then I noticed on the park shelter was written Mackintosh Willy; when I looked closer I realised it was three guys’ names – Mack, Tosh, Willy – who had graffitied their names on the wall. And that was all I needed to write the story – the idea of Mackintosh Willy.

“Everything starts off with a germ of something. With The Brood we actually lived on Princes Avenue – number 25 – and we had a flat on the top floor. That one came completely out of looking out of the window one night and seeing someone walking around the street lamp. That and the fact that moths are attracted to light made me think there was something in that.”

Campbell has reviewed films in print and on local radio for decades and discussion The Brood leads on to a film by David Cronenberg of the same name. Campbell is a treasure trove of genre knowledge, perhaps unsurprisingly for a man who worked in a Liverpool library, and a genuine film buff.

“A man called Paul Blackmore used to be a manager at the ABC Forum on Lime Street and he told me a funny story about the Cronenberg film. The managers used to go off on conferences where they’d show teasers of all the new films and one day, after breakfast, they showed The Brood and everyone was appalled! But in a way I found it quite affecting – Cronenberg was going through a divorce when he made it and described it as his Kramer Versus Kramer.”

Ramsey Campbell Tombstone

Campbell accepts that Liverpool has very much shaped the writer he has become and though it’s tempting to speculate that there is something in the city that has spawned several more renowned genre writers. Not least Clive Barker, who has used Liverpool in much of his writing, most obviously in The Forbidden, the story that became Candyman.

However he seems inclined to regard of it as coincidence, although he aided a young Barker’s rise to the top table of horror. Another luminary of the genre has written about Campbell’s work and suggests there’s something more fundamental between Liverpool and the writers it spawns.

“Stephen King says something in Danse Macabre to the effect that in my first novel, The Doll Who Ate His Mother, Liverpool is the main character; this slumbering beast.”

Can a city – its architecture and race memory; wounds and and scar tissue – affect the minds of the people who live, write and work there; somehow turn their conscious and unconscious minds into a conduit for things only understood instinctively? Campbell’s work frequently feels like a synthesis of influences, the city of Liverpool speaking through him.

The writing that I try to create is something that makes you look again at something you take for granted.

Having digested much of his work over the last 18 months I have begun, as Ramsey Campbell says, to look again at Liverpool; looking up at the rooftops and facades and down at the flooring and paving, pondering what lies beneath the streets and the rolling Mersey.

Liverpool’s rich, deep, febrile history is evident in its buildings, its road names and peculiar topography: slavers and slaves, rogues, murderers, lunatics – even its own mischievous spirit in Springheel Jack, the fleet-footed gremlin of Everton’s rooftops.

Much of Liverpool – Whitechapel, Princes Avenue and James Street – look different to me now with the added context of Ramsey Campbell’s insidious prose, which promotes the suspicion that there is something else at the edge of our perception; something we might glimpse if we were to look again. The creeping suspicion that, somehow, something is vaguely wrong.

Ramsey Streets

Many Ramsey Campbell stories are set in specific Liverpool locations. Here are just seven.

Mackintosh Willy

An old shelter in Newsham Park is the setting for a disturbing tale concerning an old tramp, to whom there is more than meets the eye.

The Companion

A youth is pursued through a fairground in New Brighton by a gang of ne’er-do-wells, taking to a ghost train to escape.

The Brood

An insomniac is unnerved by an old woman standing underneath a lamppost outside his flat on Princes Avenue and resolves to investigate who she is – and why local pets are disappearing.

The Man In The Underpass

A young girl forms a connection with some unusual graffiti in an underpass off West Derby Road.

Creatures of the Pool

Gavin’s father has gone missing. As he searches for him and begins to piece together Liverpool’s myth and history he starts to realise that the city’s connection with what lies in the ground and the water has formed its present. The book is crammed with real-world historical detail on Liverpool.

The Face That Must Die

A homophobic killer stalks the streets of Aigburth and Toxteth in this bleak, hallucinatory thriller.

Calling Card

A miserable tour of Liverpool lends no respite for a woman who lives on Lark Lane, seemingly haunted by a ghost of Christmas past.

“They wanted a 2000-word Christmas and NY story. So I wrote them the story – it was originally to be called First Foot – and they said ‘this is too horrible, we can’t publish it!’. You might thought they’d find out the sort of thing I write! I think they expected clanking chains but that’s not the sort of thing I do…”

This interview was originally published in the SevenStreets Almanac:

Images by Matt Thomas