Honestly, I feel a little underqualified to talk about Campbell. I just haven’t read much by him—nothing, in fact, beyond the seven stories in this collection, Scared Stiff (pun intended, I’m fairly positive), which is not as representative of his work as I thought it was when I picked it up. I do know that Campbell is part of the newer generation of Lovecraftian horror writers, that he is responsible for the creation of the fictional town Goatswood, and then he deals a lot with the intersection between the Lovecraftian mythos and pagan mythology, particularly as concerns Shub-Niggurath (a personal favorite deity of mine, along with Nyarlathotep), but that’s about all. What this comes to is, don’t judge Campbell by this collection, because it’s quite possible that his skills lie elsewhere, with the Lovecraftian tales that made him famous.
This was not a pleasure to read. I think this is the first reading I’ve done for Shocktober that I actually didn’t enjoy most of the time. I have a pretty big tolerance for bad horror, but honestly this collection pushed my buttons in all the wrong ways. The writing wasn’t juvenile, overly verbose, or pulpy, it was just dull, unremarkable in every way. Thinking back on it, I can’t think of any particular phrase or linguistic trick which caught my attention. The narratives weren’t particularly original, with the exception of the first story, “Dolls,” which I did rather enjoy. They weren’t particularly scary; in this sense they suffered the problem of some ’80s slashers (which are redeemed by other elements, but I’m sure I’ll discuss that in a future post) and a lot of mainstream ’00s horror film: the main characters are so unlikable that you almost feel they deserve what’s going to them. Specifically, the main characters are for the most part sexist as all hell! This is clearly intentional, given the fact that this is, according to something I read on the internet, pretty much the founding work of something called ‘erotic horror’, but it’s also very tiresome. Just look at this passage from “Lilith’s” when the character thinks back on a public argument he had with his ex-girlfriend over her desire to have autonomy (not an exaggeration):
“But next day everyone seemed to glance persistently at him, even the girl who had taken Emily’s place. Were they blaming him? Couldn’t they see the scene had been Emily’s fault, her and her moods?
“His dull anger grew. When he reached home he had to let it out. ‘I’ve had a bloody awful day. All because of women, bloody women. And you’re not much bloody good, are you? Don’t have my dinner waiting, do you?'”
After Bierce, Campbell’s prose feels as subtle and refined as a backhoe. While we obviously aren’t meant to sympathize with the character, the problem is that he isn’t interestingly unsympathetic. This is no Patrick Bateman, no Richard III. Hell, it’s no Leslie Vernon. This is just a cliché painfully sexist character. And when he [spoiler] gets his comeuppance for it, there’s little emotional response beyond, hmm, that’s what I expected. The whole thing is just so boring, and that’s not helped by the consistently repugnant male characters and the frequently uninteresting female characters.
But wait!—this is erotic horror, right? Well, again I feel underqualified as I’m very unfamiliar with erotic fiction, my exposure pretty much limited to a spattering of de Sade, Sacher-Masoch, Miller, Burroughs, and whatever other authors choose to incorporate. However, I can say that I hope most erotic fiction isn’t written like this, but if it is I’m not missing much. The sex doesn’t sound real, it sounds like it was written by someone who was largely familiar with sex from pay per view channels. A lot of giant penises and warmth between the legs and serial orgasms and all the sort of cliché ways of writing about sex, which can be done well, but only if they can be painted in a way that feels realistic or connects emotionally. This writing just doesn’t feel meaningful to me, it feels amateur.
THE OTHER WOMAN
The scenario for the story is fairly simple. Since I’ve spent so much time on the book as a whole I think I’ll again make this portion brief. We start with Phil, painter of lurid paperback covers. Feeling uninspired and unhappy with his lackluster marriage, he suddenly strikes upon the image of a woman with a blue eye and a brown eye, and imagines raping her, then paints that imagined image for the cover of racing-based slasher story Throttle. That night he tries to have sex with his wife Hilary but can’t get it up.
The publisher loves the covers; commissions more. He fantasizes about the woman he painted, masturbates while imagining raping her. He gets inspiration for his next cover, The Truth about Witches and Devils, and while painting it Hilary brings him coffee and he gets mad at her. Sex with her again fails that night. The next morning he realizes he has been painting the same woman on all his new covers.
He fantasizes about strangling her, masturbates, feels bad about it, gets another commission, masturbates. His wife says, “Aren’t you ever going to paint anyone except that woman?” She wants to go on holiday. She feels neglected, legitimately. He ignores her, then erupts at her. “He knew what was wrong, of course. They hadn’t had sex for almost three months.” We get the detail that she often reads Forum. “He was happy enough. Each time he failed with her he would masturbate later.” He’s cool with it though. “He felt no guilt. If he were frustrated he couldn’t paint.” But not. “But he did feel guilty. He was lying to himself … Hilary made him feel guilty, with her issues of Forum. You read those things as a substitute, he told himself. But that wasn’t why she left them lying around. She scattered them in the hope that he would read them, learn what was wrong with him. Nothing was wrong with him! Sex wasn’t everything, Jesus! He was rushing from success to success, why couldn’t she just share in that? Why was she threatening to spoil it, by her pleading silence?”
The solution is of course “so simple it took his mind a moment to catch up”: turn out the lights and pretend you’re strangling your wife. Guess what the ending to this story is. So anyway, he does it, succeeds in having sex with Hilary, is feeling pretty good about himself. Next book assignment is a story about a succubus and conveniently he for the first time now learns what one is. Hmm, seems a lot like what’s happening to him. Then, conveniently, he begins to leaf through Forum and sees a letter to an advice column that is very clearly from his wife: she fears he’s cheating on her with the women he paints. We get this gem: “I know it is a real woman, because her eyes are different colors … and he must have based that on someone real.”
Naturally the editor tells her that her belief in the affair isn’t really based on much and is probably untrue, then goes on to suggest that she involve herself more in his painting, and maybe try to do something to ameliorate the sameness of married life, like fulfilling a fantasy. Right then, he, reading the letters, feels like he is being attacked by the woman, but it’s only the cat. He decides the woman is like a succubus, and that his rape-fantasy is dangerous. “What they advised in Forum was wrong, that you should act out your fantasies; that was wrong.”
He realizes what an awful husband he’s been, and when he gets home he decides he’s going to make it all better. He surprises his wife at work, and confronts an obnoxious customer in a way that probably gets his wife fired but it’s okay, she doesn’t need to work, because he’s got plenty of money. He takes her home, says they’re going on holiday right away. She offers to begin sex, wonders if he has any fantasies. Of course, she read the reply in Forum. He says he wants to rape her, she says, “Go on, then,” he tells her to struggle. They do it, and then bam, he snaps her neck. She’s dead. He feels awful. “Then her legs closed over his, and he stared down to see her eyes gazing up at him: one blue eye, one brown.”
Okay then. Now, maybe it’s just because of what I’ve read previously, but what really stood out for me with this collection is just how sex is treated. In this story, as in the others, sex is something to be feared. It is a tool of demons and devils, a way for people to manipulate each other or to be manipulated. It scars, kills even. Only in one instance that I can think of is any positive vision of sex portrayed, and then it’s only seen voyeuristically, and still ends up pretty horribly. I mean, despite the content, I feel like these are sort of stories a Puritanical sect might pass out in pamphlets: the dangers of sexy Devil worship orgies—violent fantasies—sex dolls—premarital sex at all—drugs and sex—even having had sex in the past—and soliciting for / being solicited for sex. It’s just tired moralizing.
Each of these could potentially still be done well, particularly if filled with interesting, complex characters that leave the story open to more complex readings, but that’s not what we’re given. Instead, we get the most boring writing, overplayed characters, and tired plot devices. In the end, it wasn’t the obnoxious characters or retrogressive message that turned me off of this collection, it was just how boring it was. I give the story a 6/10, and along with the opening story, “Dolls”, it was the best story in the collection. Unless you’re really interested or didn’t get enough cliché sex scare stories in abstinence-only education, I would say give Scared Stiff a pass. Campbell has several collections devoted to his Lovecraftian writings, and those are probably much better places to turn. I would suggest perhaps his first collection, The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants, which contains a number of stories I’ve heard name-dropped elsewhere. I know that if I see a copy of it for sale, I’ll be picking it up and giving Campbell another chance there.
Next we’ll check in with one of the rarest of creatures: an author simultaneously considered to be a horror author and a ‘literary’ author. Joyce Carol Oates tomorrow.
All quotations from Scared Stiff copyright Ramsey Campbell 1987.
Everything else copyright Kile Marshall Bigbee 2012.