Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Gruesome Gateways to New Horrors!

The Gruesome Book edited by Ramsey Campbell London: Piccolo Books, 1983

I remember discovering Ramsey Campbell's work when I was in the sixth grade. He was mentioned a lot by Stephen King, and his name popped up frequently in paperback horror anthologies with lurid covers. While not what I would call a brand-name (especially in the U.S.) the Liverpool-born Campbell has been writing tales of horror since the early sixties with dozens of novels and over a hundred short stories to his name. The Gruesome Book (1983) is an anthology edited by Campbell with the intention of scaring the hell out of younger readers.

Calling Card - Ramsey Campbell
The Pond - Nigel Kneale
The Extra Passenger - August Derleth
Hobo - Robert Bloch
The Deep-Sea Conch - Brian Lumley
Long Distance Call - Richard Matheson
The Graveyard Rats - Henry Kuttner
3:47 AM - David Langford

In the introduction, Campbell states that the scary story collections he read at the age of eight "wouldn't have scared a neurotic three-year-old." He found child-oriented chillers to be weak and decided to compile his own primer for the younger reader of the macabre. Campbell chose a mixed bag of genre authors for this collection. Some of the bigger names are here (Derleth, Campbell, Bloch, Matheson, and Lumley) combined with those more obscure to the casual reader (Kuttner, Kneale, Lanford). Not all of these stories reach the level of mastery some of these authors are known for, but there are a few horrific entries that prove effective. I will focus on my favorites of the bunch.

Gradually, as he stood he became aware of a smell. It was wholly unpleasant. Seemingly it came from the weed, yet mixed with the vegetable odor was one of another kind of decay. A soft, oozy bubbling accompanied it. Gases must be rising from the mud at the bottom. It would not do to stay in this place and risk his health. -- Nigel Kneale, The Pond

Nigel Kneale wrote the screenplays for The Quatermass Experiment (1953), a popular television serial for the BBC that featured horrors from outer space and creeping paranoia on earth.
The successful series spawned some feature-length adaptions from Hammer Film Productions, and opened the doors for a new era of science fiction TV programming in the UK.

Kneale's contribution is "The Pond." The story is a basic cautionary tale against animal abuse, charged with a gruesome supernatural revenge at the end. An evil old man is fond of capturing toads, boiling them alive in a pot, and making taxidermy dioramas with their remains. Having terminated most of the toad population of his favorite pond, he considers looking for a new locale. Taking advantage of the old man's gluttony, a supernatural force guides him to the glowing pond one night with the promise of more victims, only to give him an excruciating taste of his own medicine. The ending is clever and echoes the dark humor of Tales from the Crypt and other horror comic titles of the 1950s.

The boxcar wasn't empty...Sprawling against the opposite side of the wall was the man. He sat there nonchalantly, staring at Hannigan--and he'd been sitting there and staring the whole time. The farther reaches of the car were in total darkness, but the man was just close enough to the opposite door so that flashed of light illuminated his features in passing. --Robert Bloch, Hobo

Robert Bloch was known for writing Psycho (although his contribution to fantastic literature was immense), and his penchant for lurking knife-wielders is shown in "Hobo." Eager to leave town, Hannigan, a down-on-his-luck drifter hops a train that he hopes will deliver him from his troubles. The main trouble being a lone killer who has been fatally stabbing members of the homeless community. Hannigan finds another man in his boxcar whom he judges to be a kindred traveler. Unfortunately for him, trust in strangers yields gruesome results. Bloch employs his "less-is-more" style of terror effectively here, having the main character do all the talking while the unknown man remains ominously silent.

A rat was approaching -- the monster he had already glimpsed. Grey and leprous and hideous it crept forward with its orange teeth bared, and in its wake came the blind dead thing, groaning as it crawled. -- Henry Kuttner, Graveyard of Rats

A friend of H.P. Lovecraft, Henry Kuttner was an avid contributor to the pulp magazine Weird Tales in the 1930s. "Graveyard of Rats" was his first published work, and considered by Campbell to be his scariest. I would have to agree. Although there are some strong thematic similarities to Lovecraft (New England setting, sinister rats, ancient cults), Kuttner's story packs a punch like the best of 1930s pulp fiction and moves at a pace that should appeal to younger readers.

The plot focuses on Masson, the bitter, old caretaker of a cemetery in Salem, MA. He moonlights as a grave-robber, stripping corpses of their valuables before burying them in cheap coffins. Consequently, the rat population nearby has also taken an interest in the cemetery, dragging dead bodies into underground tunnels to eat them. This cramps Masson's style, not only are the rats stealing his merchandise (gold teeth fillings are valuable!) but they make him look like a lazy employee. In addition, he hates the locals, who fear the rats and might be worshiping evil entities that put Salem on the map. Everything comes to a head, when the rats steal a body that had some expensive cuff-links and Masson decides to follow them into their domain. This proves to be a terrible mistake, and he meets horrors beyond rodent infestation.

The cover art and illustrations for this book were provided by Ivan Lapper, and more than live up to the title. Worm-eaten skulls, rotting undead creatures, and all sorts of horrific images adorn this book. Not for the easily repulsed, Lapper's work here is graphic and definitely more in line with the the artwork found on scores of 1980s adult horror paperbacks than anything geared towards a younger audience
. Likewise, the illustrations definitely compliment the stories and present this book as something infinitely scarier than most anthologies targeted at youth audiences.

Ultimately, this is one of those books that I think would appeal to the younger YA crowd who are ready to step from the Christopher Pike / John Bellairs level of scary fiction to the more adult arena of authors like
H.P. Lovecraft, or Stephen King. The best stories here provide gruesome shocks, alternating between chilling horror and pitch-black humor. This collection gives a decent introduction to obscure authors for the curious reader, although finding a copy of this book might prove equally challenging.

On a side note, I find it interesting that visceral horror fiction in the early eighties seemed like something a young reader would have to really seek out, depending on anthologies like this one to discover new gems. This is quite a contrast to the recent upsurge in mainstream popularity of vampires and zombies in current fiction geared towards a YA (and sometimes younger) audience. I would like to write about this phenomenon in more detail at a later date, although I am curious what readers of this blog might think.

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