From Soraya: Interview with Ramsey Campbell

Today I have another interview from my friend, Soraya Murillo Hernandez, from Spain. Soraya speaks Spanish, and I only speak English, so our friendship has leaned heavily on technology and Google Translate. Soraya has so many incredible interviews that I’ve created a category for her work. You can find all of Soraya’s interviews here.

Today, she shares her interview with Ramsey Campbell, the  English horror fiction writer, editor and critic. He has been writing for over five decades. Two of his novels have been filmed, both for non-English-speaking markets.

Soraya—In your novels many times horror is on the inside of the characters. For you that is the real source of terror?

Ramsey Campbell—It’s one of them. Certainly the dark side of the human mind is a preoccupation of mine, no doubt at least partly because my mother was schizophrenic, undiagnosed (so far as I know) until almost the end of her life.

I think it’s also true of many of my tales that the psychological and the external supernatural are inextricably bound up and often indistinguishable from each other – often one reflects the other, so that the ghost may represent something the characters deny about themselves.

Soraya—Your readers know your passion for Cosmic Horror. It is a very popular and successful term lately. Rivers of ink, as essays, tales and screenplays have been framed on this concept. But if we are sincere, we are not able yet to identify it. What has been for you the Cosmic Horror? Not only in literacy. Do you think your success has something to do with the time we are living?

Ramsey Campbell—Is it so popular? I think of the kind of awe and terror at the alien that we find in Blackwood (“The Willows”), Hodgson, Lovecraft (“The Colour out of Space” in particular), Leiber, Klein (“The Events at Poroth Farm” and its expansion The Ceremonies), Mark Samuels (“The Black Mould”), Marc Laidlaw (The 37th Mandala)… There are other examples, but I really can’t think of very many.

It does seem possible that we are more aware than ever of the vastness and mystery of the universe, or aware of it in a different way, where science is returning towards the numinous.

For myself, I’d be delighted if more writers attempted this kind of horror fiction, and I keep having a go at it myself. Mind you, I often use the term visionary horror, which can also encompass tales such as Machen’s great “The White People,” as the kind I most value.

Soraya—Something that impresses your readers, is that on a very concrete moment of our History, since the beginning of the 20th century, a group of people with similar affinities started a cultural movement that supposed a revolution for the fantastic, horror and science fiction literature.

We are talking about people like Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, Derleth… People who read each other on small independent publishings, who are in contact by letter, that admire each other to the point of having a true and sincere friendship around their cultural affinities.

It is remarkable this net, the ability of sharing ideas, myths, character, gods and city names. Even Robert Bloch (kindly) asked Lovecraft for permission to kill him in a story! So all this universe becomes something in common that produces a certain sensation of a group membership, even for the readers. Anyone can add one of his tales to the collection of horrors.

Is it really like that? Did you feel you were a part of this phenomenon as a writer? Do you think it is still alive?

Ramsey Campbell—I felt that way when I wrote my early Lovecraftian tales, certainly. I was taking references from tales written by Lovecraft or his friends and building on them – Bob Bloch’s glancing reference to “serpent-bearded Byatis,” a line Lovecraft quoted in “The Festival” from the Necronomicon, several notes from his commonplace book that Lovecraft never got around to developing.

That said, I was too eager to fill in details that Lovecraft had left undefined in order to work on the reader’s imagination – to suggest larger and more awesome things than he showed. 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.

The Mythos was conceived as an antidote to conventional Victorian occultism – as an attempt to reclaim the imaginative appeal of the unknown – and writers like me robbed it of some of that mystery, I fear.

Soraya—Lots of people seem to fear that Cosmic Horror becomes mainstream (if it already isn’t). It seems that massifying these things means detracting them. It makes the most passionate readers to stop feeling that they belong to something special and unique.

However, it still is an unknown concept for part of the public. It seems that Cosmic Horror doesn’t end to show its head. There is a lot of merchandising, games, comics, movies, serials and references in pop culture. But it doesn’t arrive to become something that, for example, Hollywood producers, want to sell to great audiences, it is always attached to the term “independent” or “underground.” 

Why do you think this is happening? It is that stars haven’t aligned? We aren’t ready for Great Cthulhu’s awakening?

Ramsey Campbell—Well, Lovecraft’s achievement has been rendered worse than banal by some of the tie-in toys and the like. I think the problem may be that many people will now see him in terms of these associated items rather than reading his actual work and appreciating his enormous care with structure and language.

Certainly there’s nothing cosmic in a plush toy or a pair of slippers, but no doubt that’s the price of popularity. Still, his work is being published more widely than ever, and I hope new generations will go to it and see what’s there.

Soraya—In Spain, many of your novels have been poorly translated. How do you feel when you know that in some cases your work is not arriving to the public on the appropriate way?

Ramsey Campbell—Disappointed, but on the other hand I appreciate that my prose may well give translators problems. I like to use the English language for its nuances and ambiguities and pitfalls clusters of meaning, and other languages generally won’t be able to catch that.

For instance, a couple of my tales – “The Words that Count” and “Out of Copyright” depend on the arrangement of particular words that conceal a secret message. Both stories have been translated into other languages, but as far as I can see the translators were unable to produce my effects in their languages, so I can only wonder what the readers made of the whole thing.

Soraya—Why does a writer needs to write about horror? What does he need to exorcise from his own experience?

Ramsey Campbell—I don’t know that I need to exorcise anything. I write what I write because it engages my imagination. 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. I became aware early on 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.

Soraya—If we get a little serious, we could say that the literary genre we’re are talking about has conformed a philosophical movement that many feel identified with. Michel Houellebecq has an essay/biography dedicated to Lovecraft, where he deepens in that sense. But we are tired of listening to the critics talking about horror as a subgender based on entertainment and curiosity. In your experience, do you think that horror and fantastic literature should be taken more seriously?

Ramsey Campbell—I think there’s a fair amount of serious comment on the field, but admittedly not enough. That said, Steve King is about to be given a medal by the US President, while in my small way I was recently made an Honorary Fellow by Liverpool John Moores University for outstanding services to literature – so perhaps we’re beginning to lose some of our lowly status. When I accepted the Fellowship I said I was accepting it on behalf of my field, which I’m proud to be part of.

Soraya—Your terror is very much based on atmospheres. What is the “trick” to create a terrific environment?

Ramsey Campbell—No trick that I know of, nor should there be – just writing what you experience and observe as accurately as you can.

Soraya—Few of your novels have been taken to a movie (The Nameless was adapted in Spain). Are they difficult to adapt to this media?

Ramsey Campbell—Ask the filmmakers, not me.

Soraya—After so many years as an author aren’t you tired at the time of finding horror resources?

Ramsey Campbell—You tell me. Does my work feel tired? It doesn’t to me, and I don’t.

Soraya—Which authors does Ramsey Campbell read?

Ramsey Campbell—H. P. Lovecraft. M. R. James. Graham Greene. Vladimir Nabokov. Algernon Blackwood. Arthur Machen. Robin Wood. Brian W. Aldiss. Philip K. Dick. Peter Straub. Stephen King. Lawrence Durrell. Fritz Leiber. John Dickson Carr. Kingsley Amis. Iris Murdoch. Flann O’Brien. John Kennedy Toole. Penelope Fitzgerald. Steve Mosby. David Mitchell. And others…

Soraya—What is your opinion about Amazon and the e-book? Are you afraid of paper literature’s death?

Ramsey Campbell—I’m certain the physical book will survive, even if with a smaller (though devoted) audience.

Soraya—What did you think when you knew that one of the dark regions of Pluto was baptized as Cthulhu for the NASA scientists?

Ramsey Campbell—It should have been Yuggoth!

Soraya—Thank you very much for answering my questions.

Soraya Murillo Hernandez

From  Soraya Murillo Hernandez: I am an early reader, I started reading very soon and I was interested in terror, I liked to look for monsters and ghosts in the stories. Then I knew that the greatest terror came from humans. I am a book reviewer in Spain, I do it free to help its authors to know their works.

Soy una lectora precoz, comencé muy pronto a leer y me interese por el terror, me gustaba buscar monstruos y fantasmas en las historias. Luego supe que el mayor terror venia de los humanos . Soy reseñadora de libros en España, lo hago gratis para ayudar a sus autores a conocer sus obras.

About Angela Yuriko Smith

Angela Yuriko Smith is an American poet, publisher, and author with over 20 years of experience in newspaper journalism. She co-publishes Space and Time magazine with author husband Ryan Aussie Smith. For more information visit
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