4 minutes reading time (795 words)

Ramsey Campbell: It never dies

Ramsey Campbell: It never dies
Horror never dies, however many funerals it's given. It may be declared disreputable, but this only lends it the appeal of the forbidden. The British ban that uncut horror videos suffered in the 1980s simply rendered them collectible and created a clandestine market for them. Soon enough even these became acceptable, and nearly all the banned titles can now be bought officially uncensored in Britain, several of them rated as suitable for anybody over fourteen. Some of these films are horrible in the wrong sense, but even this seems not to have robbed them of all their appeal. It's only when the public grows tired of horror that it's buried, and seldom for very long.

It went under in the 1990s, and who can say why? Perhaps people were simply surfeited with it, or perhaps it almost suffocated from its own popularity, which attracted too many hacks. Alas, its collapse took fine writers down with it as well as bad ones. Worth will out, and this century has brought horror fiction back, even if it isn't always sold as such. Leave aside the tiresome need some creators seem to feel, to insist that their horror isn't horror. Remember D. H. Lawrence - "Never trust the teller, trust the tale." But it's also the case that some of the classics of the field came out of the mainstream: The Haunting of Hill House wasn't tagged as horror at the time, any more than The Exorcist or Rosemary's Baby. If we look only in the horror section of the bookshops we may miss some fine work.

Why, apart from its own innate vigour, has horror returned? I've seen it suggested that films such as Get Out and Hereditary have brought a new maturity to the field, which I fear is nonsense. That's not to denigrate either film but simply to maintain that the maturity was already to be found in the best examples of the genre. Perhaps these films and others do so well because they're perceived by the public as rising above the current average, which they do, not least in relying on accumulated dread rather than simply trying to make the audience jump. Like the zombie films of George Romero, Get Out functions as dark satire, while Hereditary develops a central theme of horror fiction, family tensions grown monstrous. Perhaps these elements resonate with the general audience, and ingenuity does too - I present as evidence Ghost Stories, a film best seen at least twice.

Do we actually need an explanation for the latest resurrection of the field? Its range and qualities might well be enough, and I'll cite just a few examples. Andrew Michael Hurley rediscovers dark folklore in The Loney, and horror lies in wait in Steve Mosby's ingenious narratives, even if they're disguised as crime novels. Reggie Oliver epitomises the elegance of the English supernatural tale, the better to convey its chill. Nina Allan's tales are as insidious as living shadows, while Lynda E. Rucker's are as unnerving as they're lyrical. Adam Nevill's love of the classics of the field leads him to outdo them for intense dread. Important new voices are making themselves heard: Victor LaValle (whose Ballad of Black Tom interrogates the racism of a Lovecraft story while retaining a sense of Lovecraftian weirdness), Paul Tremblay's unsettlingly ambiguous novels, Sarah Pinborough's deft inventiveness, Cate Gardner's eloquent grotesqueries. And the contemporary masters are still productive: Thomas Ligotti's cosmic nihilism, Stephen King's devotion to hope in the darkest situations, Peter Straub's refusal to grow predictable except in the excellence of his prose, Kim Newman's witty inventiveness... With so much going for it, I think the field deserves its present success, and it's especially heartening to see the likes of Flame Tree Press creating a new line of horror.

But if we need to justify the field and its renewed popularity, here are some suggestions. It reflects the state of the world, not least politically - a whole group of British writers are producing horror fiction as social comment (Gary McMahon, Simon Bestwick and Gary Fry are some of them). Has Stephen King's recurrent theme of malevolent chaos (epitomised in his terrifying novel Revival) ever been more relevant? If the world has turned nightmarish, it's no surprise that fiction does. Yet there's also horror fiction that reaches for awe, that high peak of experience; I've toiled up the foothills myself. For me that's the best defence of my field. At its finest it enriches the imagination, without which we might as well not be human.


Ramsey Campbell is a horror writer. Two books by Ramsey, Thirteen days to Sunset Beach and Think yourself lucky, are now available as part of the launch list of new imprint Flame Tree Press. Further information on Ramsey and his works are available at his website.

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