Ramsey Campbell demands our respect as the most precocious horror writer of his
generation.  He started writing his first novel (unfinished) at age 7. He completed a book-
length collection of stories at twelve. As a teenager, he began publishing tales, and got the
attention of August Derleth, the influential champion of
H.P. Lovecraft and founder of
Arkham House.  Campbell’s first collection of stories was published at age 18. By his early
twenties, he was a seasoned pro, and a leading candidate to inherit the mantle of Lovecraft
and expand that author’s Cthulhu Mythos.

Yet Campbell now balked at this likely destiny.  He
broke away from Lovecraft’s influence, and for a time
even denounced that profane prophet of Providence.
Campbell discovered modern literary fiction, and began
learning from the works of
Vladimir Nabokov, Graham
Greene, William Burroughs and Henry Miller. He had
already learned the ropes as a commercial writer, but
now he set higher standards for his work. He wanted to
combine the visceral intensity of pulp fiction with the
verbal pyrotechnics of the 20th century literary masters.

In his late 20s, he was ready to reinvent himself. He even changed his name. Up until
this point, he had published under the name J. Ramsey Campbell. But now he dropped
the initial—later he even had his first name, John, legally removed. But a far more
striking transformation took place in his prose. By the time he published his second
Demons by Daylight, in 1973, Campbell was drawing more on Nabokov
than following the formulas of genre writers.  S.T. Joshi, an influential scholar
specializing in dark genre tales, announced that this volume was "perhaps the
most important book of horror fiction since Lovecraft's
The Outsider and Others."   

Joshi's praise was not sufficient to keep this collection in print, but Campbell continued
to write and publish at rapid clip. In the late 1970s and the 1980s, he issued 13 novels
and 8 collections of short stories. But this large body of work may have outrun the
audience's ability to digest it. Joshi would eventually complain that Campbell "does not
have even a fraction of the popular following of
Stephen King, Clive Barker, Anne Rice
or Peter Straub," and add that he "is more often praised than studied."

By the time of
The Nameless (1981), written when Campbell was in his mid-30s, our
author was no longer the wunderkind of horror, but a recognized luminary in the field.
Yet he fights against the constraints of genre fiction on
almost every page in this book. Supernatural beings are
crucial to the plot, but are pushed out of sight except when
their presence is absolutely necessary. Instead Campbell
focuses on psychology, mood and ambiance.  Indeed, much
of the storyline is built on waiting and anticipation, and the
anxieties they bring.

Barbara Waugh, a literary agent, lost her daughter Angela
nine years ago.  The girl was kidnapped by a stranger from
her school, and her body was discovered a few days later.
But was that really the corpse of Waugh's daughter? Now,
almost a decade after the event, Waugh starts receiving
strange phone calls from a young lady who claims she is
Angela. She wants her mother to rescue her from a cult that
keeps her under tight control, although the details she
provides are sketchy and insufficient to track her down.
The police dismiss the phone calls as a hoax, or perhaps
a setup for a later request for money from an impostor. Waugh decides that she must
take matters into her own hands, and rescue Angela from her captors.

Much of the suspense in this book is built around waiting for the phone to ring. That’s
hardly a promising gambit, but Campbell is determined to build most of this book on
undefined terrors. In fact, the villainous cult members here don’t even possess names.
Waugh eventually tracks down an investigative reporter who has been trying to identify
the people who may have taken her daughter. "While I was researching fringe groups
I kept coming across  rumors of people who had no names," the journalist tells the
distraught mother. "The earliest rumor I can trace was current in London in the late
forties. Then the rumors go to Dartmoor, Manchester, Inverness, Liverpool, London
again, Newcastle, Birmingham, Sheffield and back here to London. You see, there’s no
geographical pattern, and as far as I can trace, the times never overlap." Unlike most
extremist groups, this one doesn’t seem to have pamphlets or manifestos. It simply
exists, for reasons unknown, and apparently with the goal of remaining unknown.

Has any suspense writer relied upon such a vague adversary: a nameless group, out of
sight, with no known doctrine, no apparent goals, no home, and no identity either to the
organization or its members?

But if Campbell violates genres expectations in plotting, he is even more of renegade
when it comes to prose style. No horror writer of recent memory works harder on
passages describing landscape, sky and setting. These are usually formulaic parts of
genre fiction, tossed off in a perfunctory manner while readers wait for the 'action'.
Campbell, in his mature period, doesn’t see things that way. He fills up his descriptive
passages with extravagant metaphors, rapturous poetic sentiments, and bizarre
comparisons—sometimes demonstrating literary flair, at other junctures just seeming
to show off.  

Turn to a random page—in this case, page 91. Here’s what you find. Oncoming traffic
"quivers like jelly." Houses on a street "cluster like barnacles" and sing their "morning
song of vacuum cleaners." When the protagonist passes a Kodak office building,
Campbell notes that its façade looks like "two dozen strips of unexposed film."
is filled with these kinds of passages, so much so that they stand out as
defining elements of Campbell’s style. Let other horror writers—say,
Jack Ketchum
or Cliver Barker—pore on the gore; Ramsey Campbell piles up the metaphors and

I admire Campbell’s commitment to literary flair in a field that rarely cares about
such matters. He has clearly labored over these sentences and paragraphs. Yet that
makes me all the more surprised when he shows such clumsiness in other aspects
of the author’s trade. There’s a lengthy passage in this book involving a man trying
to meet up with the nameless cult near a motorway in Glasgow—and it eventually
results in a chase on foot and a violent confrontation. It’s filled with descriptors,
such as "Beyond a cobbled slope which led down from a gap between the overpasses,
the path curved again between bushes….Another empty ramp led up to the pavement
opposite the place where he’d waited.” Even after reading and rereading, I struggled to
visualize the setting. But Campbell piles it on, describing a complex choreography
involving ramps, pillars, a terrace, a concrete path, walls, buildings, bushes, railings,
slopes, several different roads that might intersect or perhaps run parallel to each
other, etc. He really ought to have included a photo or a drawing, because the
description is incomprehensible to anyone who hasn't visited this part of Glasgow.
The result is that one of the key passages in the novel—and one of the few that
involves action rather than waiting—is undermined by the lack of clarity in the

At his best, Campbell is an inspiring writer, and operates at a far greater level of
sophistication than most of his peers.  Yet
The Nameless testifies both to how high
this author was trying to reach, and also to what remained outside his reach. That said,
this book ought to be studied by others attempting to elevate horror and fantasy to
new plateaus. Just as Ramsey Campbell learned from Lovecraft, and took his formulas
to new places, others might find the same springboard from Campbell himself. Mixing
genre and highbrow literary concepts is very fashionable nowadays, but Campbell was
anticipating this trend forty years ago. To a great extent, he laid the foundation for the
legitimization of horror stories in the current day—as witnessed by works such as
Cormac McCarthy’s
The Road or Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves or the scary
stories of literary masters Joyce Carol Oates and William T. Vollmann. Ramsey
Campbell's works still have much to teach us, and when he falls short, we ought to
remind ourselves that it was usually because he was aiming so high.  

Ted Gioia writes about music, literature and popular culture. His latest book is How to Listen to Jazz from
Basic Books.

Publication Date: November 14, 2016
This is my year of horrible reading.
I am reading the classics of horror fiction
during the course of 2016, and each week will
write about a significant work in the genre.
You are invited to join me in my
. During the course of the year—if
we survive—we will have tackled zombies,
serial killers, ghosts, demons, vampires, and
monsters of all denominations. Check back
each week for a new title...but remember to
bring along garlic, silver bullets and a
protective amulet.  
Ted Gioia
My Year of Horrible Reading

Week 1:
By Bram Stoker

Week 2:
The Haunting of Hill House
By Shirley Jackson

Week 3:
Tales of Mystery & Imagination
By Edgar Allan Poe

Week 4:
By Stephen King

Week 5:
The Passion According to G.H.
By Clarice Lispector

Week 6:
By H.P. Lovecraft

Week 7:
The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty

Week 8:
The Woman in Black
By Susan Hill

Week 9:
By Jean-Paul Sartre

Week 10:
I Am Legend
By Richard Matheson

Week 11:
Ghost Stories of Henry James
By Henry James

Week 12:
Interview with the Vampire
By Anne Rice

Week 13:
American Psycho
By Bret Easton Ellis

Week 14:
Last Stories and Other Stories
By William T. Vollmann

Week 15:
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
By M.R. James

Week 16:
Rosemary's Baby
By Ira Levin

Week 17:
The King in Yellow
By Robert W. Chambers

Week 18:
By Daphne Du Maurier

Week 19
The Woman in the Dunes
by Kōbō Abe

Week 20
The Dark Eidolon
by Clark Ashton Smith

Week 21
Off Season
by Jack Ketchum

Week 22
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3
by Clive Barker

Week 23
The Silence of the Lambs
by Thomas Harris

Week 24
The Orange Eats Creeps
by Grace Krilanovich

Week 25
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde
by Robert Louis Stevenson

Week 26
by Robert Bloch

Week 27
by Octavia E. Butler

Week 28
Demons by Daylight
by Ramsey Campbell

Week 29
The Complete Short Stories
by Ambrose Bierce

Week 30
Pet Sematary
by Stephen King

Week 31
Our Lady of Darkness
by Fritz Leiber

Week 32
by John Gardner

Week 33
White is for Witching
by Helen Oyeyemi

Week 34
The Wasp Factory
by Iain Banks

Week 35
King Kong
by Edgar Wallace

Week 36
The Castle of Otranto
by Horace Walpole

Week 37
The John Silence Stories
by Algernon Blackwood

Week 38
The Magic Toyshop
by Angela Carter

Week 39
The Other
by Thomas Tryon

Week 40
Never Let Me Go
by Kazuo Ishiguro

Week 41
Ghost Story
by Peter Straub

Week 42
John Dies at the End
by David Wong

Week 43
The Great God Pan
by Arthur Machen

Week 44
The Cipher
by Kathe Koja

Week 45
Let the Right One In
by John Ajvide Lindqvist

Week 46
The Nameless
by Ramsey Campbell
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction

Can Horror Fiction Go Highbrow?

Ramsey Campbell could have gained renown as the successor to
H.P. Lovecraft...but then he decided he wanted something different
Essay by Ted Gioia
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Blind Assassin

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barker, Clive
Books of Blood, Vols. 1-3

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Bierce, Ambrose
The Complete Short Stories

Blackwood, Algernon
The Complete John Silence Stories

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Butler, Octavia E.

Campbell, Ramsey
Demons by Daylight

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chambers, Robert W.
The King in Yellow

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gardner, John

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hill, Susan
The Woman in Black

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Ishiguro, Kazuo
Never Let Me Go

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

James, Henry
The Turn of the Screw

James, M.R.
Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Ketchum, Jack
Off Season

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen

King, Stephen
Pet Sematary

Krilanovich, Grace
The Orange Eats Creeps

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Our Lady of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Levin, Ira
Rosemary's Baby

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Lovecraft, H.P.

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
I Am Legend

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Oyeyemi, Helen
White is for Witching

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Rice, Anne
Interview with the Vampire

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Clark Ashton
The Dark Eidolon

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stevenson, Robert Louis
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde

Stoker, Bram

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Tryon, Thomas
The Other

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
The Dragon Masters

Vance, Jack

Vance, Jack
The Languages of Pao

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vollmann, William T
Last Stories and Other Stories

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Wallace, Edgar
King Kong

Walpole, Horace
The Castle of Otranto

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter


SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

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Ramsey Campbell in the 1970s
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