Dear Mr. Campbell,
I have received your stories, but I have had time to read only one or two of them. I don’t want to comment on them in extended fashion until I’ve read all, but I do think them competent. However, there is one alteration I think you should definitely make; Mr. Wandrei would insist on it, and that is to remove your stories from the Lovecraft milieu. I mean, keep the Gods, the Books, etc., but establish your own place. This would give the stories vastly more authenticity as an addition to the Mythos rather than pastiche pieces, and it might then be possible for us to consider their book publication in a limited edition over here.
What I suggest you do is establish a setting in a coastal area of England and create your own British milieu. This would not appreciably change your stories, but it would give them a much needed new setting and would not, in the reader’s mind, invite a direct comparison with Lovecraft, for in such a comparison they would not show up as well as if you had your own setting and place-names for the tales.
August Derleth to Ramsey Campbell, 6 October, 1961
Inspired by HP Lovecraft’s stories to write his own tales of cosmic horror, at the age of fifteen, Ramsey Campbell was encouraged by friends to submit them to August Derleth and Arkham House. He did, and the rest was horror fiction history. Taking Derleth’s advice to heart, he created his own version of Lovecraft Country; a drear and haunted region of the Severn Valley wedged between the cities of Bristol and Gloucester and the western edge of the Cotswolds.
The Arkham House collection, originally titled The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants was released in 1964 when Campbell was eighteen. They may not be the best Lovecraft-inspired stories, and they’re definitely not Campbell’s best stories, but they are good fun and well worth a read.
When I was younger, Campbell was best known for his first two novels, The Doll Who Ate His Mother (1976) and The Face That Must Die (1979), but I knew him for his short story, “Cold Print.” I’d read it in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos Vol. 2, edited by August Derleth, one of the series with the freaky John Holmes covers. As I became increasingly enamored with all things Lovecraft, I read most of his Lovecraftian stories. The thing was, by this time, the eighties, he had left that behind and was in the early stages of building a large body of original and disturbing body of work. In the past decade or so, though, he’s come back around, and written a series of books and novellas.
The edition of the book I have bears the title Campbell and Derleth both planned for it: The Inhabitant of the Lake and & Other Unwelcome Tenants. This edition includes extensive commentary by Campbell, the best remaining versions of the original drafts he sent to Arkham House, and facsimiles of the correspondence between himself and Derleth. It’s a great presentation of the auspicious debut of one of the most influential horror writers of the past fifty years.
“The Room in the Castle” begins with some wonderfully over-wrought prose that sets the stage for the first few stories in the collection.
Is it some lurking remnant of the elder world in each of us that draws us toward the beings that exist from other eons? Surely there must be some remnant in me, for there can be no sane or wholesome reason why I should have strayed that day to the old, legend-infected ruin on the hill, nor can any commonplace reason be deduced for my finding the secret underground room there, and still less for my opening the door of horror I discovered there.
Campbell’s unnamed narrator comes across stories of an ancient creature, Byatis, known colloquially as the Berkley Toad. Following up on the bits and pieces of information he uncovers, he makes his way to a ruined castle in Western England’s Severn Valley. There he finds his “door of horror” and almost meets his end at the tentacles of “serpent-bearded” Byatis. That’s all there is to the story, but it works better than a hundred other terrible Lovecraft pastiches I’ve read. In his comments, Campbell explains how, even though his style may echo Lovecraft’s at times, he never believed “the style made the stories.” Instead, even in these early efforts, there’s atmosphere and even some psychological insight.
Campbell describes the second story, “The Horror from the Bridge,” as his version of Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror.” A family of improbably-long-lived wizards come to the town of Clotton, conduct terrible experiments, and allow for the loosing of a monster. Nothing new here, but there are hints of better things to come and Campbell already had a talent for unsettling images and ideas.
“The Insects from Shaggai” is a long story that mostly tells about the exodus of the titular creature to Earth from their doomed home planet. It’s not spooky in any way, but there are some very good bits, and the descriptions of the assorted aliens the Insects meet, torture, and enslave over their long journey are suitably wild.
It’s with “The Render of the Veils” that things really start to cook. Kevin Gillson, a man with an interest in the paranormal meets Henry Fisher, a man with an even greater interest in the paranormal. Gillson’s interest is piqued by claims Fisher makes, he accepts an invitation to attempt a ritual that will reveal reality, the true nature of the universe, hidden by our senses’ inability to perceive it. To do so involves the invocation of the god Daoloth, the Render of the Veils.
The object was not shapeless, but so complex that the eye could recognize no describable shape. There were hemispheres and shining metal, coupled by long plastic rods. The rods were of a flat grey colour, so that he could not make out which were nearer; they merged into a flat mass from which protruded individual cylinders. As he looked at it, he had a curious feeling that eyes gleamed from between these rods; but wherever he glanced at the construction, he saw only the spaces between them. The strangest part was that he felt this was an image of something living – something from a dimension where such an example of abnormal geometry could live.
When the Lovecraftian stories of the likes of August Derleth and Lin Carter fail, it’s because they focus on monsters and long catalogues of illicit tomes instead of creating any sense of cosmic dread. “Render” makes an effort to explore just how disturbing it would be for someone’s every perception of reality to be obliterated.
“The Inhabitant of the Lake” is my favorite tale in the collection. It introduces water-dwelling Glaaki and the series of books written by his worshippers, collectively known as the Revelations of Glaaki. Suffice it to say, when an artist takes up residence in a house the previous tenants abandoned suddenly and turns out to have been built by cultists, things don’t go well for him. What does go well for the reader is a nice, creepy story featuring a great setting, disease-filled and mobile corpses, and a solid addition to the Lovecraftian pantheon.
“The Plain of Sound” posits a dimension composed of sound. A trio of young men inadvertently discover an experimental site designed to help communicate with the inhabitants of that dimension. As must in this sort of story, things don’t go as well as any of the characters hope and one is left driven hopelessly mad. The story is not wholly successful, but, again, Campbell was striving for some of the cosmic strangeness Lovecraft’s best stories provide, not just more monster names and book titles.
“The Return of the Witch” was inspired by some lines from Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book (a collection of ideas he kept for possible stories): “Salem story — the cottage of an aged witch — wherein after her death are found sundry terrible things.” It’s a perfectly fine little fright tale, but nothing extraordinary. In his afterword, Campbell describes how unnerved he was to discover Henry Kuttner’s “The Salem Horror” had the same plot, “scene for scene.”
In “The Mine on Yuggoth” a man in search of a rare off-planet metal that will help him achieve immortality climbs a hillside to something called the Devil’s Steps. From there he steps all the way to Yuggoth, better known to Earthlings as Pluto. Runs in with alien technology and alien beasts result in a desperate escape and the usual concomitant insanity.
“The Will of Stanley Brooke” is a shuddery, if obvious, story of a miserly man. In the weeks before his death, he disinherits his few heirs, instead, leaving his wealth to a stranger.
“And how are you going to recognize this fellow,” Terrence Brooke inquired. “when nobody’s ever seen him before?”
“That’s the queerest thing about all this, Bond replied. “This man — William Collier, he calls himself — is the exact double of the late Mr. Brooke.
It might seem obvious where the story’s going, and I won’t say that’s not true, but young Campbell still managed to slip in a twist I enjoyed very much.
The concluding story, “The Moon-Lens” is the most over-the-top, insane, and wild in The Inhabitant of the Lake. Again, Campbell took his inspiration from Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book. It opens with one Roy Leakey seeking help from Dr. James Linwood, a man best known for advocating for euthanasia. Leakey is hoping the doctor can help him die before his life gets any worse. It seems he had the misfortune to get stranded in the town of Goatswood, Campbell Country’s Innsmouth analogue.
To give himself time to think, Leakey left the station and went for a meal at the Station Cafe opposite. The meal — sausage, egg, and chips, all over-raw — were barely palatable, but he would not have enjoyed a better meal. The faces of the other customers were too grotesque, and he felt that under the bulky suits and long dresses might lie the most revolting deformities. More, for the first time he was served by a waiter wearing gloves — and by what he could make out of the hands under them Leakey thought they were deservingly worn.
Like in Innsmouth, in Goatswood, the citizens are terrible human-monster hybrids and worship an alien god. Poor Leakey, a man who only got off at Goatswood to change trains, has the terrible misfortune to encounter that deity in all its terrible and transformative power.
This is not the best collection of Lovecraftian fiction, but it’s one I unequivocally love. First, I just like the stories for what they are — spook stories — and what Campbell hope to do with them — recreate even a fraction of the enjoyment he got from reading HP Lovecraft’s originals. That comes through on almost every page, something I never took away from any Lin Carter Lovecraftian story.
There are numerous flaws of all sorts across the book. For example, nearly every important revelation that happens in “The Horror from the Bridge” comes from some fortuitously overheard conversation at the wizard’s window. Some of the stories hew too closely to Lovecraft’s originals as templates more than inspirations. But it’s not enough to diminish the simple pleasure provided by a competently-told and -written Lovecraftian tale. The creep-tacular illustrations by Randy Broecker for each story only make the whole thing even better.
Fletcher Vredenburgh writes a column the first Friday of the month at Black Gate, mostly about older books he hasn’t read before or for a very long time. He also posts at his own site, Stuff I Like when his muse hits him.