Every author has their own style, even though some don't realize it--indeed, it is those writers who are least aware of their style who will be dominated by its little vicissitudes. As Bruce Lee observed: the best style is no style at all--to be able to move fluidly, unpredictably from one moment to the next, doing precisely what is required when it is required instead of falling back on tired old habits. Many authors who distinguished themselves by turning their years of knowledge and experience onto their preferred type of story end up stumbling awkwardly when they step outside of that, and discover that their chosen voice is not universally applicable. It inspiring for any writer to see just how far Campbell has come from these early roots, that he does eventually develop the ability to tell a story, and not a bad one. However, unfortunately the key term in that compliment is 'a story'--almost all the tales in this collection could have been created by my patented Ramsey Campbell Story Generator: John is a (Writer/Literary Agent/Publisher/Editor) and he likes (Jigsaw Puzzles/Hiking). It's almost as if Campbell is trying to refine a very specific, focused style--a one-story style, as we develop in the process of drafting and editing: ever focusing, tightening, improving--this collection provides an apt example for why we don't include all our early drafts alongside the final copy. There is precisely one female narrator in the collection, but it's still the same story, just with a perspective shift: we still have our standard Campbell Protagonist, while the woman narrator seems to be one of his various jerk friends. Tellingly, the woman is alone, like all of Campbell's narrators, but unlike the men, she doesn't prefer it that way, instead falling into the tired role of the old maid, desperate to make a connection, but too afraid to do so. The oddest thing is that the last two stories in the collection are completely different from everything that came before: experimental, unpredictable, unusual--with variance in voice and tone that are estimable.
This is another good creepy one, this one has a great, very scary ending I thought, it really holds it's punches until then, building effectively. Call First - This is one I read years ago, it's a fairly basic horror story, but effective. The Chimney - This is a very creepy story, one of the best non-Lovecraftian Campbell stories I've read. The Voice of the Beach - I read this several years ago and still consider it Campbell's best Lovecraftian work. The Show Goes On - This was Campbell at his best, this is the type of story/setting where his creepy touches and details really work to create a supreme atmosphere of dread. Again - This felt like good, old-fashioned "Tale From the Crypt" type horror; suspenseful, gross, not trying to be overly original but it's very impressive. A man enters the window of a house to let the old woman in who owns it and has forgotten her key, but while trying to open the door he discovers increasingly creepy things. Old Clothes - This was a great story, I really love the concept here and I thought it was well-executed and creepy. The Other Side - Great story here, this one has a neat "Rear Window" feel to it that works very well, the atmosphere of urban decay is well-done and it's got a creepy clown in it, what more can you ask for? Stories like "Where the Heart Is" about a man who loses his memory as his old house is remodeled, or "Boiled Alive" about a man who finds himself living in the horror film that his phone number was featured in -- good ideas, but I didn't think they were as effective ultimately as the others.
The later stories did improve significantly in plots and quality, but (with very few exceptions) they never seem to capture that sense of awe that Campbell speaks of in his foreword to the book. He sticks to his guns never once lowering himself to using gore or sex to cheapen his work (according to him that is, personally I think there is time and place for those things in books). Campbell's obviously been inspired by works of classic horror, Machen, James, etc., he stick to his guns on writing subtle insidious gore free tales, but they lack, quite consistently, and, more tragically, bore. Having read the entire collection of his short fiction, it is easy to see how incredibly formulaic his endings are, which is quite disappointing to see from someone who obviously has the imagination to do better.
Ill even add the additional caveat that since this is a fairly large collection of fairly short stories, theres some repetition of themes and imagery throughoutunsurprisingly, since it covers a large section of Campbells career and all writers have their particular and distinct preoccupations, especially when it comes to writing about fearthat may mean that this book will work better if you dont try to read it all at once. Campbell cultivates great ambiguity, here and elsewhere, and it rarely feels manipulative or uncertain, as if hes pulling the supernatural out of a bag and shrugging at it. The Voice of the Beach is the perfect antidote to Campbells serviceable-but-dull Lovecraft pastiche that opens the collection (its good to know where he comes from, but its a slow start to an otherwise great set of stories): cosmic horror themes in that grounded, dispassionate documentary prose. Again, as always, Campbell does a marvelous job pairing the ghostly with real world details such as clothes and rotten fruit: even before the supernatural comes into The Fit, the reader is already uneasy from the dresses made with human hair woven into the fabric. I said before that Campbell only rarely seems to try for the readers sympathy, either for his good or bad characters, but I think this qualifies as an exception, if only because the circumstances are so terribly and (unfortunately) realistically desperate. In its own way, the history of Ramsey Campbells career, as represented here, is the history of horror short stories at large: from Lovecraftian imitation to stories that place the ghosts and monsters in the ordinary (and often low-rent) neighborhoods, from there to stories that deal with how those horrors spring from and interact with real life horrors, then a side-track to experiment with Lovecraft on our own terms, then on to weird fiction, genre-blurring, trope revisions, etc.
This definitive collection deserves at least three stars for it extensive retrospective of 30 years of Ramsey Campbell's short fiction. It is the perfect collection to discover and assess Campbell's literary output. Campbell combines urban blight, suburban malaise, and the post-modern socio-psychological angst and combines it with psychological and supernatural horror. The average horror readers raised on King and McCammon will find his tales too introverted.
What's so powerful about Ramsey's work is the subtle dread it inspires, and how achingly human his protagonists - and victims - are.
I'd still recommend dipping into it, especially if you're a little less likely to be as easily distracted as I tend to be.
However, beyond Lovecraft's influence, Campbell has a wonderful style all his own which will leave you wanting more at the end of most of these stories.