There exists a land where dinosaurs roam the city streets and real life flickers in monochrome. That’s how my children picture my youth growing up in Liverpool anyhow. It was in that black and white world I discovered a tatty horror anthology in a second hand book shop that would change my view of horror forever. I began reading it on the bus ride home, passing the real locations written between the covers. The collection was ‘The Books of Blood: Volume 2’ by Clive Barker. I set out to find the rest of these stories, which I discovered in a glorious omnibus edition. A fellow Liverpool horror writer, Ramsey Campbell, wrote the introduction for that version. I rushed out and bought the first book of his I could find, ‘The Doll Who Ate His Mother’. The title and cover were enough to make me sacrifice my beer money for words.
It was the first time I’d read fiction set in my hometown. Until that point I’d been reading of the monsters in America by the likes of King and Matheson. Or even those in England from James Herbert. But these monsters walked the same streets I did. They even drank in my favourite bars and they were as chilling as they were exquisite.
Image Something about that closeness, that connection of pavements and pubs struck a chord with me. Now horror felt real and nothing like a Hollywood film. In his new collection ‘Holes For Faces’ Ramsey Campbell once again sets the monsters free among the people on both sides of the Mersey. Not in every story, but in enough to remind me of the first time I discovered Barker’s ‘Books of Blood’ and the serendipity of discovering The Master.
Rather than any concrete strand there are liquescent themes that drip through these stories. They deal with families holding together through death, divorce and darkness. There are grandfathers that stretch out to grandchildren across the gulf of doubt in their own parenting skills. There’s a cast of children unsure where they fit in as they float between the universe of childhood and adulthood. Because most of the adults in these stories are flawed and crackling with anger. They are broken people trying to superglue the cracks of their past back together.
Every tale is bubbling with fear and confusion. The titular story, ‘Hole for Faces’ for example is a paranoid grotesque featuring a child in fear of adults and monsters alike. The boy in the story finds it difficult to distinguish between either during excursions to the catacombs and the ruins of Pompeii on a family holiday to Italy. His trip is filled with terrors from adults as well as the beasts that fleet inside walls and reflections of glass. Yet it’s the opening story, ‘Passing through Peacehaven,’ with its obvious M.R. James influence, which announces the tone of the stories to follow. Like the spectral Tannoy calling out false notices to the protagonist Marsden.
Of course a snake of dark humour writhes between the terrors of these stories, as you’d expect from Ramsey Campbell. He uses this humour like a torque bar; turning the human connection it lends to the reader until the tension becomes virtually unbearable. A sobering story however is ‘Chucky Comes to Liverpool’. It blends a real life child murder with the mythology that propagated around the case. Rather than simply using the killing as a vehicle to tell a grisly tale, Campbell respectfully examines the culture between entertainment and violence. How we’re too ready to point fingers that block the parallax of what is really happening in front of our eyes.
Another characteristic of these stories is the cyclic nature of the tales. The best example being, ‘The Rounds’ which had echoes of the film ‘Source Code.’ Yet Campbell’s conclusion is far more impressive. I don’t think I’ll be able to travel on the Merseyrail underground again without an anxious terror running through me. At least not until I see the comforting daylight at the top of the escalators. I could imagine Rod Serling introducing this story. It has the feel of a Twilight Zone or even Hitchcock episode about it. As does, ‘Getting it Wrong’, a story examining how the chance of quick fame and fortune may produce a castigatory form of reality entertainment. Not many steps away from the diluted versions we’re fed by the media.
While many of these stories are located in Campbell’s dark version of Merseyside, don’t be fooled into thinking it may only appeal to locals or UK residents. The author has the same skill of bringing a unique knowledge of a town and twisting it enough to transform it into any place in the world. It’s the same skill Stephen King uses when he sets his monsters free in Maine, or more specifically in Castle Rock, his amalgam of small New England towns. I won’t list all of the stories in this collection. Those above stand out for me as do the chilling ‘With the Angels’ and the touching fear of ‘The Long Way’.
I’ve read enough of Ramsey Campbell’s short stories in horror anthologies over the years to make me appreciate his gift for the form. However, I’ll admit I’ve never read an anthology of his own work before this collection from Dark Regions Press. ‘Holes for Faces’ will change my bookshelf in that respect. If you’re in the same position ‘Holes For Faces’ is a great place to start. It’s a superb collection of stories of the strange and the dark that I’m sure fans of the genre will love. I know I did.