Covid Horrors

by S. T. Joshi
(From Dead Reckonings, 2023)

RAMSEY CAMPBELL. The Lonely Lands. London & New York: Flame Tree Press, 2023. 246 pp. $26.95 (£20) hc (ISBN 978-1-78758-865-5); $16.95 (£9.95) tpb (978-1-78758-862-2).

No one can say that Ramsey Campbell, at the venerable age of seventy-seven, isn’t up-to-date. In this new novel he takes on one of the most traumatic and divisive events of our time—the Covid pandemic—and uses it as the springboard for a gripping and literally nightmarish novel that tiptoes between supernatural and psychological horror at every turn.

The Lonely Lands is largely focused on Joe Hunter, a man in the Liverpool area who, after his partner Dawn leaves him for another man, finds love and companionship with Olivia, who runs an antique shop with the distinctive (and significant) name Made of Memories. But Joe admits to Olivia that his childhood was not an entirely tranquil one, largely because he lived in actual terror of his grandfather, Arthur Maine. Maine had been a follower of a church run by the charismatic Christian Noble. Readers of Campbell’s work will recognise that name from his recent Daoloth trilogy, where Noble is presented as one who believes in the literal resurrection of the dead—and apparently has perfected a means of bringing that about.

Indeed, Arthur speaks in ominous tones that the living can effect such a resurrection merely by thinking about the dead, or dreaming about them. On his deathbed he urges his grandson, “Just promise me you’ll think good thoughts about me when you haven’t got me any more.” This adjuration is far more than the conventional De mortuis nil nisi bonum. Arthur goes on to say of the people in Noble’s congregation: “Mr Noble used to help them see their loved ones…only half the time they hardly recognised them. They couldn’t keep their shape, the one they used to have or the one they’d turned into either.” And, finally, “I heard him say once all of us are just cocoons for the dead.”

Joe, distressingly, finds himself in a position to test Noble’s theories. A burglar who had broken into a neighbouring shop had coughed on Olivia as she tried to detain him. Joe, for his part, had seen the entire incident, but couldn’t reach Olivia because a mob of aggressive anti-Covid protesters had barred his way. Although the burglar, Darrell Swann, is arrested (and later given a nominal jail sentence), Joe watches helplessly as his wife succumbs to Covid and dies.

What follows, throughout the rest of the novel, is an utterly disorienting series of tableaux where the reader doesn’t know whether the event is occurring or is a dream on Joe’s part or a hallucination whereby his memories have become twisted—perhaps through the influence of the dead. There are repeated scenes of Joe searching for Olivia while vacationing in Greece. He finds her and leads her back to their hotel—but the oddness of their conversation means that something has gone horribly wrong with Joe’s memories, or else that Olivia has in some fashion returned from the dead (“Their embrace felt disconcertingly insubstantial”).

Some of these dreams or hallucinations come across as grotesquely comical, as when Joe imagines he has donned utterly inappropriate attire for his wedding day; but even in the dream he knows something is awry (“It wasn’t like this…This didn’t happen”). But another dream, where Olivia gives birth, not to a human baby, but to dozens or hundreds of hideous winged creatures (“naked midget simulacra”), is a moment of agonising horror. At other times Joe believes he is being pursued by the ghost or spirit or revenant of his grandfather. What might seem like a ludicrous chase through a car park (what we Americans call a parking garage) is in fact acutely terrifying as only Campbell can make it:

He could only dash across the car park, though his flight felt like thoughtless panic. He didn’t know whether he meant to flee into the street in search of somewhere else to lose the pursuit or retreat down the stairs again, though the prospect of returning to the lower regions felt like prolonging a nightmare. It was starting to seem possible that the chase would never end—that he was trapped in his personal eternity. He needed something to stop his grandfather, and he would have prayed if he’d thought it would be any use. “Please stop it” was the best he could manage, in a voice so muted it expected no response.

And yet, there is much more going on in The Lonely Lands than these isolated moments of dread. It is true that the overall tone of the work recalls his other masterworks that tread the borderline between dream and reality, such as Incarnate (1981) and Needing Ghosts (1990); but, as the tragic and infuriating manner of Olivia’s death attests, Campbell also addresses some of the central social concerns in our post-pandemic age. How can one ensure public safety without infringing on individual freedom? Why is it that so many people rebel at authority even when it is not in their own self-interest to do so? Why is the criminal justice system so heavily weighted toward protecting a defendant but not on rendering justice for the victim? These are not issues that writers of horror fiction customarily discuss, but Campbell has developed a mastery in incorporating them seamlessly into his weird narratives. Indeed, it could well be said that Ramsey Campbell—like some of the mainstream writers upon whose work he nurtured himself in earlier days, ranging from Graham Greene to Vladimir Nabokov—has long been one of the leading social satirists of our age, a kind of modern-day Martin Amis or even Ambrose Bierce. And it should not be assumed that his satire is solely directed toward conservative or working-class people: in a pungent scene he laces into an overprotective parent who mouths conventional liberal platitudes in steering her son away from books that might cause him to question the worldview she has carefully inculcated in him.

But we will remember The Lonely Lands for its many scenes of unnerving terror. Even if many of the chapters come across as more or less independent scenes with no intimate relation to one another, the cumulative effect of the novel is the inducement of a profound unease in the reader in regard to the nebulous distinction between dream, memory, and reality. And the conclusion, where Joe commits an utterly selfless act to preserve his wife’s memory in the afterlife, allows the novel to end on a note of mingled poignancy and horror.

The Lonely Lands may lack the flamboyant, over-the-top gruesomeness that many contemporary readers lamentably have come to expect, but the more pervasive sense of the uncanny that it effortlessly engenders places it high among Campbell’s output—and that means it holds a very high place indeed in the weird fiction of our time.