'Stories are part of a place too aren't they? They're like what it dreams.'
I was sitting in a pub around Penny Lane, Liverpool, armed with a pint after the journey up from London, chatting with John Reppion, Ian 'Cat' Vincent, David Southwell and Richard MacDonald. We were all speaking the next day at Calderstones Park at the Spirits of Place event, and being surrounded by people who were all into the same stuff was a good feeling (something that spilled over and was magnified tenfold the next day). Not having to explain a deep interest in literature, landscape, folklore, horror, comics, weird fiction, history and place felt great. John and Richard were goldmines of information about Liverpool, fascinating to listen to, and it made me realise just how big and interesting the world can be. After a decade I feel like I just about have a good grasp on my native city of London, and some of the parts of Kent I grew up in. There's so much more to learn about the other cities and areas of my own country; let alone the rest of the world. It could be enough to drive your barmy, that weight of history and information, but I find it (usually) invigorating and exciting.
The headline speaker at the event the next day was the veteran horror writer Ramsey Campbell. In the pub, I was chatting about the bits of his fiction I had to date read, and was asking what was the best Liverpool novel of his (him being a Merseyside native, of course) to read, as I kew he'd used the city extensively in some of his fiction. As someone who finds weird fiction and horror to be most effective when in rooted in real locations with a deep sense of place, I knew I had to pick up some more of his books.
Creatures of the Pool was the immediate answer, from all four people sat around me, with a great deal of lager-fueled enthusiasm.
I was interested in Ramsey Campbell for a while before I read any of his work, reading interviews and reviews of books that sounded fascinating, and very much in keeping with what I was interested in. Not only his Liverpool-centric work interested me; I was fascinated how he's created his own fictional part of the Severn Valley (Brichester) to set his early Lovecraft Mythos stories in. This was a place he returned to in later novels like The Darkest Part of the Woods (a brilliant novel subject of its own upcoming blog post) to great affect, and I have always been very interested in fictional parts of real places, such as Ulverton and Michael Moorcock's Brookgate.
However I was put off, if I'm honest, by the lurid titles and cover of his 70s and 80s output (such as the following) and still holding those prejudices in my head about what and what was not literature.
The horror genre was a base thing, a bit silly, not real writing. That's what I'd always been told via the various channels I'd had literature taught to me. Though even that wasn't true, quite: it was acceptable to read ghost stories by Dickens, discuss the work of M.R. James as art (and yes, it is), heap praise on the late Robert Aickman.
Coming across the concept of 'the weird' greatly changed my perception what literature was, what you could achieve with writing in different genres. I suppose what it did was allow me to legitimise genre fiction for myself (I own up to my prejudices here), and I'm glad I did, because it led me to the work of M. John Harrison, Jeff Vandermeer, Liz Williams, Angela Slatter, Helen Marshall, Thomas Ligotti and many more fantastic writers I may have otherwise ignored through self-imposed rules.
How weird fiction intersects with the traditions of British landscape writing, hauntology and psychogeography, is something that is becoming increasingly important and compelling to me. How one of the best ways to address social anxieties and contemporary paranoias may not be through strictly realist fiction. This is something I have been slowly attempting to achieve in my own short fiction, finding the best way to tackle issues of gentrification, class stratification, rapid urban change, the housing crisis (and my own unease about it all) and more is to adopt elements of weird fiction, especially the stuff with a strong sense of place and tackling social unease through the horrific. This is why my stories like 'The Hollow Shore' and 'Greenteeth' (that I was greatly pleased to place in the horror/dark fantasy magazine Black Static) deliberately invoke the weird, in the places I know best: namely modern London and the north Kent coast.
Drifting towards this method more and more, it became clear I need to be reading some more Ramsey Campbell.
'They aren't my stories.'
'If they're the city's, that's better still isn't it? It made you and they're part of it just like you.'
The weight of history weighs heavily on the shoulders of Gavin Meadows, the tour-guide narrator of Creatures of the Pool, threatening to completely crush him. The novel is, by Campbell's own admission, his attempt to write his definitive novel about his native city. In conversation with John Reppion at the Spirits of Place event, he discussed how the book is a condensing of all the folklore, history, ghost stories and weird bits of information he as accrued about the city over many years - the product of years spent haunting second-hand bookshops, delving into the local history sections, gathering as much information about a specific place as possible. Campbell then adds his own invented myths and stories to Liverpool, admitting now that he is unsure whether certain parts of the book were lifted from an obscure source or purely the product of his imagination. This is what makes the book so interesting to me, this latticework of stories that make up a city as much as any map, as much the bricks and mortar which often are outlived by the stories they spawn. The sense that we are the products of the places we grow up in, but that we then feed back into that collective narrative with our own fictions and biographies.
Being a horror writer, the novel of course needs something horrific. Creatures of the Pool is in some ways an attempt to revive a theme from H.P. Lovecraft's 'The Shadow over Innsmouth', with its insinuations of disturbing amphibian-looking people, half-breeds originating from the Pool of the title with obscure motives and a dark history. Water is an ever present force in the novel, with Liverpool presented as city beset by incessant, torrential rain (this is a British book after all), a malignant presence in itself. There's something supernatural or monstrous here if you want it.
But like the best of Campbell's work that I've read, and very much in keeping with his other 'comedies of paranoia' like The Grin of the Dark and Ghosts Know, much is left unsaid, and the horror stems just as much from the fractured mental state of the first person narrator. The weight of a city's history becomes the source of terror, especially all the half-remembered possible truths and the things we know exist but don't have suitable explanations for. I'm sure every city has an equivalent, but Campbell uses something very real (and really f**king weird) to great effect in the novel - namely the Williamson Tunnels that wind under the Edge Hill area of the city. Built by eccentric businessman, Joseph Williamson, between 1810-40, no one I have spoken to can agree on a consensus on why they exist. But exist they do, and they become a perfect symbol of that buried history we know is there but just can't fully get our heads around.
This is one of the best novels I've read lately that takes a specific real location as its subject. Strangely, for horror readers in search of quick thrills and explicit violence/monsters/ghosts, there is little on offer here. Nothing is wrapped up with any degree of certainty. More literary readers may shun a book like this because of it's place in such a maligned genre. So it ends up in a space between the two, which is precisely where the weird comes in. And if you're a reader also interested in place writing, it becomes essential - one of the most successful novels to wed horror, folklore, myth and a city's history to date.