"Exploring Dark Short Fiction #6: A Primer to Ramsey Campbell" Book Review

Written by Tony Jones

Published by Dark Moon Books

a primer to ramsey campbell michael arnzen poster large

Written by Ramsey Campbell and Michael Arnzen
Edited by Eric J. Guignard
2021, 196 pages, Reference
Released on 7th September 2021


Since arriving on the worldwide horror stage over fifty years ago, Ramsey Campbell has become a pivotal figure of the genre and his literary shadow of influence can be seen in the significant body of authors who have both followed and been inspired by him. In recent years, academic studies of his work have begun to appear and his reputation has spread beyond being known as a simple ‘genre’ writer and in this most recent example, A Primer to Ramsey Campbell, six short stories are featured and analysed. This is a very nice gentle introduction to Campbell; avid fans are unlikely to discover that much which is new, but the stories chosen by Eric Guignard are clever selections and illustrate the full range of the strangeness, subtleties, and originality in Campbell’s short fiction, rather than horror of the bloodier type. Simply put, Ramsey Campbell is an absolute master of the short story and to simply label him ‘genre fiction’ is a great injustice and Exploring Dark Short Fiction #6: A Primer to Ramsey Campbell illustrates that he is much, much more.

"Britain's most respected living horror writer," is a quote from the literary bible, The Oxford Companion to English Literature, which is frequently used when describing Campbell. It is also bang on 100% true. His extensive and formidable back-catalogue is awe-inspiring and although I have read many of his novels, I still enjoy discovering the many gems I might have missed. Thankfully, Campbell is still going strong and his run of recent fiction for Flame Tree Press has been of exceptionally high quality and if you are new to his work, that is also a fine place to start.

This particular primer also caught my attention because I am also a fan of the editor Eric Guignard, himself a very skilled author, and if you have never sampled him, Last Case at a Baggage Auction is an absolute beauty and was one of my favourite novellas of 2020. The primer follows a set pattern in which each story is presented and then followed by a critical piece by author and academic Michael Arnzen. I found these pieces to be thoughtful, nicely balanced reads, and although aimed at non-academic readers, are also littered with clever observations. Arnzen’s appreciation and admiration for Campbell shines through and on several occasions he makes pointers on things I had missed or had to revisit for a second look. These essays are not turgid dry academic studies and it is lovely to see horror fiction being treated with such respect and thought.

I am not a particular fan of up-and-coming or unestablished authors publishing collections at early stages in their careers, instead believing they should be saved for when there is a large enough body of work to select the prime cuts from. However, for Guignard, the shoe was on the other foot: How on earth do you limit Ramsey Campbell to six stories? Where do you start? Most definitely an impossible task, but he picks some beauties, including "The Companion", which takes the reader around a near-deserted fairground, and "The Alternative", a mind-bending tale of guilt about living a double life. In his commentary, Arnzen suggests that some of these stories are so clever they get better with a second reading. This is most certainly the case with "The Alternative", which needs to be read very closely.

"The Bill" is another odd but strangely moving tale of guilt with a man spending his adult life atoning for something which impacted his childhood. The story is framed around his day job as an optician, his customers, and the numerous homeless people he sees on his way to work. Things take an even odder turn when he is given a very strange, almost threatening, flier. "The Place of Revelation" blends horror with fantasy in an unsettling tale within a story, with little boy Colin telling his uncle a very late and peculiar bedtime story.

"One Copy Only" is one of my personal favourites. A man discovers a rare book shop which seemingly has the only copy in existence of certain books, none of which can be bought and only browsed in an upstairs reading room. Regular readers of Campbell will realise fusty old bookshops are a favourite location of his and it took me back to his excellent novella, The Booking. "Recently Used" is a Kafkaesque journey through a hospital labyrinth with a man seeking his wife who has recently been admitted there, only to find out that things are not quite as straightforward as they might seem.  Combined, the stories give an enticing look at the short fiction of Campbell and those who do use this book as an introduction to his work will surely feel the urge to dive deeper into his literary pool of novels, novellas and astonishing range of short stories of which these six barely scratch the surface.

Also included in the primer is the excellent essay "Why Ramsey Campbell Matters", which evaluates Campbell’s place as the modern master of psychological horror whilst reflecting upon his deep respect for those who went before; Lovecraft and Robert Bloch to name a couple. Has anybody built upon the traditions of the Gothic, the Pulps and the Weird better than Campbell? Michael Arnzen does not believe so. Further features include an extensive bibliography, which is slightly redundant, as so many similar lists are available online.

"My Roots Exhumed: an Essay" (by Ramsey himself) is also an entertaining read in which we are taken back to his childhood years and those early scares which shaped him, leading to him devouring Lovecraft aged fourteen and other key moments in his early literary development.

Finally, there is an enlightening interview led by Eric J. Guignard which covers much ground, discussing the selected stories, other collections, Lovecraft, film adaptions of his work and the ups and downs of the horror genre down the years. Campbell does a lot of interviews and is very generous with his time, so you will undoubtedly have seen some of this material covered elsewhere. I was once delighted to interview Ramsey for another website and fellow reviewer Stuart Monroe interviewed him here in 2020 for Horror DNA.

Exploring Dark Short Fiction #6: A Primer to Ramsey Campbell covers a lot of ground and is an entertaining read, even if I am not 100% sure who the target audience is. However, this outstanding author is always worth spending time with and the editors do a fine job in covering the key areas of his short fiction. Considering his status in the horror world, I am amazed how welcoming and accessible he is to his fans and really enjoy his frequent comments on the popular Facebook page, Books of Horror, where newbies to the page might think “Hang on a minute, is this the REAL Ramsey Campbell recommending books!?!” It certainly is.


Overall: 4.5 Star Rating Cover
Buy from Amazon US.
Buy from Amazon UK.
Buy from Bookshop.

This page includes affiliate links where Horror DNA may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Tony Jones
Staff Reviewer
Such is Tony’s love of books, he has spent well over twenty years working as a school librarian where he is paid to talk to kids about horror. He is a Scotsman in exile who has lived in London for over two decades and credits discovering SE Hinton and Robert Cormier as a 13-year-old for his huge appetite for books. Tony previously spent five years writing The Greatest Scrum That Ever Was, a history book very few people bought. In the past he has written for Horror Novel Reviews and is a regular contributor to The Ginger Nuts of Horror website, often specialising in YA horror.
Other articles by this writer


Join Us!

Hit the buttons below to follow us, you won't regret it...