Old and New Work from the Master

by S. T. Joshi

RAMSEY CAMPBELL. Somebody’s Voice. London & New York: Flame Tree Press, 2021. 343 pp. $14.95 tpb.

RAMSEY CAMPBELL. The Village Killings & Other Novellas. Hornsea, UK: PS Publishing, 2021. 390 pp.

You’ve never read a book by Ramsey Campbell like Somebody’s Voice. You’ve never read a book by anyone like Somebody’s Voice.

In this scintillating, obsessively readable novel, this veteran of more than sixty years of writing tackles some of the most sensitive issues of our time: sexual abuse of children, gender transitioning, the perils of social media, and others. From the first page to the last, it is as unputdownable a book as Campbell has ever written,

At the outset we appear to be dealing with Carla Batchelor, who claims she was abused by her stepfather, Malcolm Randall, after her own father died tragically in a car accident when she was a little girl. Carla’s account is searing, although Campbell’s elliptical narrative spares his readers any explicit details of the abuse; let us simply say that, although it was not quite as horrific as it could have been, it was bad enough.

Campbell’s account keenly and painfully etches how Carla became increasingly isolated, especially from her own family. Her mother, Elaine, profoundly grateful that Malcolm rescued her from a life of poverty, refused to believe that her new husband was anything but the emotional and financial saviour she perceived him to be, and she constantly chastised her daughter for not being sufficiently grateful to Malcolm for all that he had done for the family. Carla found herself unable to discuss the matter with her few close friends; and to add to the horror, when she attempted to confide in her priest, Father Brendan, he not only dismissed her story but then took the opportunity to abuse her himself.

Carla later underwent a gender transition and became Carl. He then decided that his story needed to be told; he approached Tiresias Press, and its editorial director designated Alex Grand, a struggling crime writer (who had just published a novel that partly addressed some of these same issues), to be a ghostwriter. Working with Carl, Alex wrote the book, which was published (with a joint byline) under the title When I Was Carla.

The novel takes an unexpected turn when a woman gets in touch with Alex, announcing herself as Hilary Wilson. She claims to be the daughter of Malcolm and Elaine. In When I Was Carla Carl had maintained that Elaine had suffered a miscarriage, so if her account is to be believed there should be no such person as Hilary; but Alex discovers that she is in fact who she says she is, and this casts much of Carl’s account into doubt. Hilary claims that her father never abused Carla at all and that Father Brendan, although in jail for pedophelia, was never known to have molested girls, only boys.

In the midst of the controversy now surrounding the book, Alex is further troubled by issues with his own family. His father, Gordon, a noted English professor, appears to be developing dementia—and he bizarrely accuses his son of writing When I Was Carla as a veiled attack on himself. Alex’s mother does her best to make peace between her husband and her son, but to little avail.

If all these fraught issues aren’t enough, Campbell also engages in keen and bitter satire on identity politics and on the viciousness of social media. Once some of the apparent errors or inconsistencies in Carl’s book are publicised, Alex’s Twitter account is bombarded with anonymous posts lambasting him and actually advocating violence against him. And there is the figure of ToM, a person who has transitioned from a woman to a man and is now a strident advocate for his cause.

And the stink of religion hangs over the entire work. Assuming her account is true, Malcolm in particular is evilly adept at hypocritically summoning his God as a bulwark for his own loathsome actions, and Carla finds anything but comfort or protection from the religious authorities she appeals to for help.

This novel may seem leagues away from Campbell’s customary work in weird fiction, but there are elements of continuity all along the line. From the very beginning of his career—so early as The Face That Must Die (1979/1983)—Campbell has ventured into psychological terror, and in other such works as The Count of Eleven (1991), The Last Voice They Hear (1998), Silent Children (1999), and several others, he has dealt poignantly with issues of class distinctions, gun violence, the victimisation of children, and other social ills. And while it can be said that Somebody’s Voice is as close to a mainstream novel as any Campbell has written, this is merely a matter of genre categorisation, not a qualitative judgment. Indeed, in the latter portion of the novel the focus is on Alex’s own increasingly deteriorating mental state, very much along the line of Horridge in The Face That Must Die or Jack Orchard in The Count of Eleven.

Campbell’s writing in Somebody’s Voice has never been better. Every word, every sentence contributes to the overall effect. The dialogue is particularly fine, as each utterance crackles with a sinister undercurrent that emphasises the hideous moral and sexual depravity that fuels the narrative. And the novel really is unputdownable. I have never been convinced that this is a vital or lofty goal for writers, since it can be found in any number of forgettable potboilers in the mystery, suspense, or horror genres; but here the hypnotically compelling hypnotic nature of the scenario urges the reader on absorb chapter after chapter. The narrative is skilfully arranged by alternately recounting Carl’s story and the events of Alex’s life; and even if Carl disappears toward the end and a few issues remain unresolved, Campbell reserves one final cataclysmic revelation to the end, bringing the novel to a suitably cheerless conclusion.

With The Village Killings & Other Novellas we are on somewhat more familiar ground—but only somewhat. Three of these five novellas have been previously published, and I have commented on them before. Needing Ghosts (1990) is in many ways the quintessence of Campbell—a mesmerising fusion of surrealism, paranoia, humour, and baffling weirdness whose very plot cannot be easily stated, let alone analysed. The Pretence (2013) features some of the same sense of unease, discomfort, and vague disturbance found in Needing Ghosts, dealing with a disturbed man who becomes involved with a cult, with potentially cosmic implications. The Booking (2015) is slightly more orthodox, a fusion of supernatural and psychological horror using a bookstore (as in The Overnight [2004]) as a setting.

Of the two new works in this volume, one is not new at all. It is the unfinished locked-room detective story that Campbell wrote as a teenager, under the influence of the puzzlemeister John Dickson Carr. The Enigma of the Flat Policeman (previously published as a standalone booklet from Borderlands Press) is entertaining on many levels, among them Campbell’s wry and self-deprecating comments on this juvenile work; but it appears that he has forgotten that some of the details in the tale stem from his quite close imitation of Carr, especially in his know-it-all detective, who bears considerable similarities to Carr’s own larger-than-life sleuths, Dr. Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale. It may well be that the various characters are introduced to us in too much of a hurry and fail to develop distinct personalities; and it is also a shame that Campbell not only left the work unfinished but now cannot recall what its resolution was supposed to be. But even so, as the work of a teenager it augured well for Campbell’s later work.

The final work in the book, The Village Killings, is, somewhat surprisingly, also a work of detection, although with plenty of understated horror and gruesomeness along the way. Here too we are perhaps overburdened with too many characters at the outset, as a number of mystery writers gather at the home of a best-selling author to discuss their furure work; but the novella gains power and atmosphere with each successive page, with a denouement that only Campbell could have devised.

I once wrote with what I hope is pardonable flamboyance that “a volume gathering three or four tales of the calibre of Needing Ghosts would constitute the greatest weird collection in the history of literature.” I do not flatter myself that this random comment in any way led to the compilation of this volume, but it is certainly one that I personally have long wished to see. I have little doubt that others will find it as richly rewarding as I have.