Thursday, 7 May 2015

GREAT GHOSTS OF THE SHELVES #8 - Dark Companions by Ramsey Campbell

A few weeks ago on Great Ghosts of the Shelves, I covered one of my early encounters with Ramsey Campbell, the anthology The Gruesome Book. Now in that little write-up I did mention that his bleak and horrible tale Calling Card in that tome had resolved in my mind that I really needed to read more by him. Therefore his name joined a mental list, one that at that time included Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch and Richard Matheson, of authors I was looking out for when browsing various anthologies of fantastic fiction. And naturally I was keeping an eye out for his own books. And as it turned out, it wasn't too long before whichever angel that is set above secondhand book stores looked in my direction...

For one day in town, I had a sudden impulse to swing by the secondhand paperback stall on the market. Now this was one of those places whose stock didn't dramatically alter from week to week, but there were gems to be found for those willing to flip through the battered long unsold paperbacks, passing through the familiar same creased covers. And to this day I wonder if they ever did shift that dog-eared copy of The Devil's Coach-horse by Richard Lewis... But I digress...

And I'm sure it is no surprise to seasoned book hunters, but that this particular impulse turned out to be a golden one, as such sudden impulses often are. Yes, the angel of battered paperbacks was smiling at me, for there, amid the tatty Kings and Herberts, was a pristine copy of Dark Companions, whose cover (miraculously still rather pristine after all these years) you can see above. Yes, the condition was good, the price was even better, and I was already reading the introduction on the bus home.

Issued by Fontana in 1982, Dark Companions was the fourth collection of short fiction from Mr Campbell, and thanks to my somewhat excitable interpretation of the back blurb, for a good while I was thought it was a kind of best of collection spiced up with some new tales. Well, on the back it did say -
Dark Companions is a collection of some of his best stories. Most have not been published in this country before and some have never been published before.
In fact, it wasn't until I hunted down copies of his second and third short story collections - Demons By Daylight (1973) and The Height of the Scream (1976) - that I realised my error. So then, were the folks at Fontana being a bit naughty with their blurb?

Well, not really. First up, I'd have to say that really there's no such thing as a bad short story collection from Campbell - and I should know having being addicted to them ever since I picked up this volume. However as it turns out, this collection could well be legitimately considered a best of, for by a weird twist of fate it does contain a great many stories that have turned up in bona fide cream of Campbell collections - sharing nine tales with the 1987 best of Dark Feasts: The World of Ramsey Campbell and thirteen with Alone With The Horrors: The Great Short Fiction of Ramsey Campbell 1961-1991. So as it goes, my initial misreading of the back cover has ended up being not that far off the mark.

The full contents list is as follows  -
  • The Chimney
  • Down There
  • Above the World
  • Napier Court
  • Out of Copyright
  • The Depths
  • The Man in the Underpass
  • Vacant Possession
  • The Little Voice
  • Drawing In
  • The Trick
  • Heading Home
  • The Show Goes On
  • The Change
  • Calling Card
  • Baby
  • In the Bag
  • Conversion
  • Mackintosh Willy
  • Call First
  • The Companion
And if you know your Campbell, you''ll see that there are some of his most famous short tales in this collection, such as award winners like Mackintosh Willy, The Chimney and In The Bag. While in stories such as Out of Copyright or The Trick you can see why later critics would hail Campbell as the modern day heir to MR James, Campbell's terrors are very much his own, with tales like The Companion and Down There coming as close as one can to capturing the essence of  nightmares in print. 

And the collection showcases nicely the diversity of Campbell's short fiction. We have old school ghost stories with a modern twist and exercises in urban horror and alienation, but there's some fun homages to old horrors too. There's a sprinkling of tales that Campbell wrote to honour the infamous EC Comics, some fun takes on well-known horror tropes (Conversion and Vacant Possession), while others put interesting and entertaining spins on classic monsters, with Drawing In being one of my all-time favourite takes on bringing a certain gothic horror icon into the 20th century. 

After being out of print for many years, Dark Companions has been recently reissued in hardcover, paperback and e-book. The new edition has seen some slight changes to the running order with some stories swapped out for different ones, but given that any Campbell tale is usually a treat that's not a real problem. Dark Companions, in either incarnation, is still a fantastic introduction to Ramsey Campbell's short fiction and it's very good to have it back haunting the shelves once more. 

No comments: