Why I Write Horror

Popular genre writer Ramsey Campbell expounds on his terrifying tales.
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I’m Ramsey Campbell. I write horror.

I’m in a minority of writers who say that they do. Some who made their name with it seem eager to show they’ve moved on. Some might even like to convince us that they never entered the field, and seek to erase all traces of their presence as they flee the scene of the crime. I won’t be doing either. Perhaps I was lucky to encounter the classics of the genre first—anything that found its way between hardcovers and into the public library—but I’ve never faltered in my conviction that horror is a branch of literature, however much of it lets that tradition down. I started writing horror in an attempt to pay back some of the pleasure the genre has given me, and I haven’t by any means finished. I don’t expect to choose to, ever.

H.P. Lovecraft declared that the weird tale—by which he meant much of horror fiction—could only ever be a portrayal of a certain type of human mood. Certainly one of the pleasures is the aesthetic experience of terror, which involves appreciating the structure of the piece and, in prose fiction, the selection of language. I don’t see this as limited. There’s surely no more reason to criticize a piece for conveying only this experience than there is to object to a comedy for being nothing except funny (as might be said of Laurel and Hardy, surely the greatest exponents on film) or a tragedy for making its audience weep.

I wish more of the field still assailed me with dread: These days little besides the darker films of David Lynch achieve it. However, the field is capable of much more, and frequently succeeds, as satire or as comedy (however black), as social comment, as psychological enquiry, and perhaps best of all when it aspires to the awesome, the sense of something larger than can be directly shown. One reason I stay in the genre is that I haven’t found its boundaries.

I’ve never gone for broke and tried to write the most horrifying tale I can concoct, because I don’t see the point. To quote the critic David Aylward, “Writers [of horror fiction], who used to strive for awe and achieve fear, now strive for fear and achieve only disgust.” And it seems to me that too much straining for terror (as I certainly did in The Parasite) is wont to produce nothing more than a disgusting dump. If I can’t approach awe, I’d rather try for the other quality I value most in dark fiction, not exclusively in generic horror—a lingering disquiet. Good art makes you look again at things you’ve taken for granted, and that can certainly be true of horror.

An old saw states that horror and pornography are the only kinds of fiction that seek to produce a physical reaction. Presumably whoever originated this twaddle was never made to laugh or weep by fiction. I think there’s nothing at all wrong with art that causes us to feel, but I maintain that horror fiction can address the intellect, as well. I don’t want to scare people out of their wits; I’d rather scare them in. The field has an honorable heritage that’s worth preserving, emulating and extending. For a heartening amount of evidence that plenty of writers are worthy of it, look to Ellen Datlow’s annual survey and Steve Jones’ Best New Horror books. Me, I’m off to try again.

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