Published by Dark Regions Press
This collection of short stories has been in print for a while now, but I’ve chosen to review it for a few reasons. Firstly, I wanted to begin with something by Ramsey Campbell to celebrate his recent ‘Life Achievement Award’ given by the World Fantasy Association. Also, this is the first time the book has been available in hardback. Finally, this particular volume is a great collection of tales by Britain’s greatest horror writer.
Reviewing short stories is always problematic – it’s the nature of the beast; if you write too much, you’re at risk of giving it all away; too little and you’re no more than a bibliographer. So, I’ll try to be neither and do both. I’m not sure if the stories collected here were consciously chosen with the theme, but most of the tales conform to it: aging and youth. Perhaps this reflects the fact that we’re now into Campbell’s sixth decade as a professional writer, and these have all been collected from the past decade or so.
Some commentary, then, about the tiny tales that give you Holes for Faces:
Passing Through Peacehaven
Quite simply, Marsden, an elderly man, gets off a train at the wrong stop, Peacehaven. He is confused and struggles to make sense of the railway announcements or the timetable as he tries to get back on the right train. Ramsey Campbell plays well with mis-heard words, allowing him to serve up some of the darkly humorous puns he is famed for. We share Marsden’s paranoia, agitation and fear, mounting as he attempts to get through to a taxi service and to make other, more personal calls. There’s an underlying sadness in this tale as we begin to realise he’s unlikely to ever get away from Peacehaven; it might well be his final resting place, while the voices he hears are smudged and smeared as though through a veil of smoke.
This one will appeal to anyone with a fear of clowns, stories involving children’s toys and games, or dark shapes in the corner of the bedroom. It concerns a grandpa and the short time he spends with his daughter’s twin children. The narrator’s thoughts (“Peep” is written first-person) return to his own ancestors–notably, his Auntie Beryl as he wonders where the children learned the archetypal kids’ game Peep. Perhaps Peep is the first game we learn, and Campbell has managed to make it one of the scariest…
Getting it Wrong
Another older person, at least older than his fellow workers and feeling very isolated from them, is called upon to take part in a very surreal game show to help one of his colleagues. Scary. It also draws on Campbell’s love for (and knowledge of) movies. This tale would make a great short movie itself, reminiscent of The Game or SAW, but without the explicit gore and sadistic violence, although there are undertones and shadows of what might be happening on the other end of the phone line…
The Room Beyond
I will quote one sentence to give insight to Campbell’s mastery of storytelling through imagery and his command of the English language: “On both sides of the street the slender terraced houses huddled together like old folk afraid of descending the precipitous slope.” Master of simile, metaphor and symbolism, this story is dark. Worth a second read if you don’t get it the first time. It was similar to “Peacehaven,” I think, and may suffer for being so close to the opening story, but nonetheless, it is a timeless piece of true horror. The kind of terrors we all have to face one day as an elderly man returns to a place from his past, only to find his future lies in ambush.
Holes for Faces
The title piece brings us firmly into Charlie’s world, which mostly revolves around a holiday with his over-protective frightened mother and his father who tries just that bit too hard to help him make the most of their holiday. A trip to Italy is made worse by the family who seem dead set on mirroring their own family holiday plans. Add to the mix Charlie’s increasing paranoia and a growing fear of holes and faces (including the one in the mirror), heads without bodies, bodies without heads; and the family’s trip to the Catacombs and Vesuvius don’t give Charlie the memories his parents hoped for. But travel broadens the mind, so they say, and Charlie will return a changed person.
Another tale set on a train in the Liverpool loop (a city familiar to any regular readers of Campbell’s stories), this tale is the exception that proves the rule (whatever that means). No children or old people in this one. But the paranoia pervades, this time born of a very real fear for anyone who grew up in Liverpool in the 60s, and again in today’s climate as we’re constantly told to ‘stay alert for terrorists.’ The fear of an abandoned parcel or luggage in a public place, coupled with the urge to not make a fuss in case your suspicions are wrong or you’re accused of being a racist. Then there’s the feeling of being stuck in a loop…
An eerie psychological Christmas read with more children, more grandparents, another funeral. More things to be afraid of, lurking in the dark, and the fear that Santa isn’t real, or perhaps he’s just too real…
This time an elderly man, Fraith, is simply trying to find a railway station to get back home. Campbell once more deals us a hand of cards from a very mundane deck, but uses his Aces (the subtle use of words and imagery) and then bangs down the pack’s Jokers to defeat us with something unexpected and quite horrific. Fraith feels like he’s getting in the way of his daughter and her young children, but he probably shouldn’t be out alone. Confused, lost, and gradually becoming more afraid, and rightly so based on some of his encounters. The underlying horror here is real again and deals with aging and the threat of Alzheimer’s. It also makes us confront the loneliness of old age, the alienation and exclusion, the loss of clarity and direction in a world where one’s hearing and sight are diminishing, people and places are changing, and the way forward isn’t made any clearer by easily-overlooked signs and pathways.
An old man, Tunstall, wakes in a bed that’s “too bare and wide by half” by a phone call from the hospital where his wife is lying ill. He dashes off to visit her, hopefully in time, but is confounded by a maze of hospital corridors, poorly signed and organised, deliberately, it seems, to cause confusion and delays. Another commonplace theme in Campbell’s work, this tale is a dream-like race that is equally suspenseful and frustrating and has the protagonist running round and round in circles.
Chucky Comes to Liverpool
If you don’t get the title’s references, you might not be a horror movie fan or a Ramsey Campbell fan. I’m sure this story will appeal to any horror buffs and will doubtless be many readers’ favourite. It deals with schizophrenia, overly-protective parenting, obsessions, peer pressures, and teenage rebellion. Add a dash of dope, and introduce Chucky, the star of the Child’s Play/Chucky movies, and get ready for some great fun. Worth buying the book just for this one in my opinion.
With the Angels
Two sisters, and the children of one of them, visit their old family home and are greeted by some long-lasting and haunting memories. Playing games with children should be a fun thing, shouldn’t it? When the kids’ Auntie finally allows herself to do just that, it leads to frightening consequences.
Behind the Doors
A seemingly gifted schoolboy is given a reward by his aging teacher. Unfortunately (or not), his grandfather had the same teacher when he was at school. Creepy enough yet? Should a child be given treats as a reward, or punished for being poor with numbers? Should they be made to stand out in any way from the other children? And if so, what if the reward was a Christmas advent calendar, behind whose doors tiny chocolates lay waiting to be eaten; would you let your grandchild eat them? What if you felt you were becoming that teacher you’ve loathed all these years? These are the simple, everyday questions that Campbell manages to turn into plot devices and triggers for old memories and deep-seated feelings…
Holding the Light
Two teenage boys, cousins, forced to while away their Halloween together. Introduce two girls, frustration at the cinema, and some psychological quirks. Standard horror movie fare? What if one of the boys suggests a trip to “that haunted place”? A legendary double-suicide, a tree, and a tunnel. Add a sp0onful of Campbell’s eerie medicine, and read this one at night.
The Long Way
I’ve tried to avoid quotes, but this is a classic Campbell-ism I had to share, “A chill wind kept trying to shrink my face.” This is a pun-filled tale of a teenager who helps his wheelchair-bound uncle on a weekly shopping trip. He also writes horror stories, secretly. His imagination takes hold as he has to pass through an abandoned estate to and from his uncle’s. One seemingly vandalised house might not be quite as vacant as it should be, and a stick-like figure he thinks he sees inside it reminds him too much of the nearby woods…
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