Grandville Force Majeure original art now on sale

Page 54 of Grandville Force Majeure by Bryan Talbot

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Bryan's introduction to Creatures of The Pool by Ramsey Campbell


“Can you hear me, that when it rains and shines,
It's just a state of mind
Can you hear me? Can you hear me?”
Lennon/McCartney: Rain

We’re about halfway across the Pennines when it starts to rain. Ribbons of water are worming horizontally across the windows of the carriage against a background of blurred shadows.

Mary and I are en route to Manchester airport from our home in Sunderland. This very morning I’ve posted to my publisher the disks containing the files of the graphic novel I’ve just finished. After having worked like a bastard for the last three months to complete it I can now chill for a while. At last I have the time to read the manuscript of the new Ramsey Campbell novel and I disinter it from my shoulder bag as the train pulls out of Newcastle station.

Writing this foreword is a pleasure and an honour. Not only have I read much of Ramsey’s fiction over many years but I’m also repaying a debt. In the late 80s, Ramsey was kind enough to write the introduction to a volume of my Luther Arkwright series. I first came across him in a classy horror fanzine called Twylight in the 60s and encountered him again in the pages of the first publications of the new-born British Fantasy Society when, as a teenage fan artist, I drew the cover to the very first issue of Dark Horizons.

Now, Creatures of the…what? The pages are smeared with blood. It takes me a few seconds to realise that the finger I’d sliced on a sharp knife while washing up a couple of days ago has burst open, presumably as a result of hefting our large suitcase, made ludicrously heavy by its load of artwork and books.
It’s raining heavily by the time we cross the slickened runway to the plane. We’re going to Italy for a couple of store signings and as guests of the Bologna Comic Festival in a few days’ time.

One comic had a particularly strong influence on Ramsey – a Rupert the Bear annual he read when very young. A creepy sprite-like creature composed of twigs stalking Rupert through a dark pine forest terrified him so much it gave him nightmares. He must have decided in retrospect that he enjoyed the experience so much he wanted to give them to other people.

Unlike many contemporaries, Ramsey’s horror fiction is genuinely disturbing. In his tales we’re sucked in by his storytelling and wit but it’s never long before the veneer of apparent normality begins to peel away, revealing the inherent horror lurking beneath. He relentlessly reprograms the reader’s perception, infusing the mundane and even the innocent with menace, until our view of reality begins to be filtered through his hallucinogenic prose.

We arrive at Bergamo airport and bugger me if it isn’t pouring down here as well. This intensifies as we’re driven north into the Alps to our hotel in Lovere, the night ahead obscured by greasy water smudged across the windscreen as we speed uncomfortably close to the brink of a great black lake. It’s too late: Creatures of the Pool has infected my brain and I’m seeing everything through its dark mirror.

The setting of the book evokes my first memories of Liverpool: alighting onto a platform surrounded by loudly hissing steam trains, my grandma points out with apparent relish the smashed windows, wartime bomb damage, still evident in the station in the early 60s. We walk through soot-blackened streets to the pier beneath the rampant Liver Birds to take the ferry across the Mersey to New Brighton, which, even then, was positively threadbare and a far cry from its Victorian seaside resort glory.

In the hotel in Lovere the menu offers fillet of colt and braised donkey but I plump for the ravioli, which arrives swimming in butter and smothered by flaccid strips of soggy bacon fat. A Whiter Shade of Pale seeps from the radio, its familiarity rendered surreal by the transmogrification of its lyrics into Italian.

Over lunch I mention to Mary the use of Frog Lane as a location in the story, as it has a namesake in Wigan where we both grew up. Near Wigan Pier and the Leeds-Liverpool canal, it was the site of a Victorian workhouse and on our almost nightly route to Mary’s folks’ as I walked her home. This prompts her to remind me of the time I had an exceptionally vivid acid flashback there of Springheeled Jack leaping down the street to land before me and leer in my face. Is this sheer synchronicity or selective perception engineered by Ramsey’s words?

I had to cross Frog Lane again on my way home, then cut through street after scary street of derelict two-up two-down terraced houses awaiting demolition and pass beneath the railway down a narrow unlit pedestrian tunnel, supposedly haunted by the spectre of a hideously disfigured woman who burned to death in an adjacent house during the war. One of the gutted shells was once the home of a school friend and fellow horror film aficionado who became a Satanist. I can’t help it. Ramsey’s book is summoning such memories.

Ramsey knows Liverpool and its history and his sense of place is palpable. That he delineates its psychogeography to such chilling effect is a tribute to his well-honed writing skills. Frog Lane, James Maybrick, the High Rip Gang, the tunnels of Joseph Williamson et al are all fact, seamlessly woven into the fiction.

Reading the manuscript, I’m continually transported by his Lovecraftian vision of the city to my own visits there. To the Walker Art Gallery, for example, or the Adelphi Hotel near Lime Street, where Ramsey and I often attended the British Science Fiction Association Eastercons. Mary and I once stayed the night at Ramsey and Jenny’s Victorian pile after I’d been signing with him at one of Trev Hughes’ comic marts at the Bluecoat Chambers. We were unnerved to be suddenly overshadowed by the large mildewed gravestone bearing his chiselled name looming over the stairs outside our room. It was, of course, a polystyrene prop left over from a TV documentary filmed there.

Back at the signing in Bergamo, my eyes are stinging and I feel bloated, stomach distended by the greasy lunch. I reach for the bottled water but pause for a moment. In Creatures of the Pool, that wretched Campbell person even renders sinister the simple act of taking a drink of water.

In the story the terror is increasing exponentially, notch by notch. It’s taken over my thought processes. I have to get some air.

Even though the rain hasn’t let up, we go for a walk around Lovere. The lake is violently agitated by an infinity of splashes and ripples. Clouds cling to the flanks of the snow-capped mountains making them look as though they’re steaming. A doleful bell tolls as we climb through the narrow cobbled alleys with their decaying stucco walls, water pouring from low balconies.

We take shelter in a Baroque church whose every surface seems to be covered in lurid decoration, dimly-lit through hand-painted stained glass windows depicting scenes of brutal martyrdom, and are accosted by a squat, incredibly aged nun who appears to be about three feet tall. She insists on gabbling an interminable commentary in Italian as she leads us around, despite us making it clear that we don’t speak the language. Beside the altar with its grisly crucified sacrifice, twin glass coffins display the corpses of the town’s resident saints, their skulls and hands covered in painted wax in a ghastly simulation of life.

I breathlessly reach the story’s conclusion next day as the train to Sarzana passes over swollen rivers beneath darkening skies. It’s still bloody raining when we arrive in the small town and are escorted through the night to a restaurant in an unfrocked medieval church. On the way to our table the swirling marble beneath my feet briefly disorients me. It’s like walking over running water.

The place is hosting an exhibition by a local artist. The startling images, daubed in cracked oils in a naïve style, proffer a glimpse into a truly disturbed mind: a screaming Medusa is strangled by her own snakes, a naked woman devoured by a huge crocodile. Here’s a demented Mona Lisa with a grotesquely elongated neck. Our host toasts us and, following local custom, toasts the dead by tapping the base of his wine glass on the table.

Around midnight we arrive at our B & B after circumnavigating the mother of all puddles directly outside it. Our small, cold, stone-flagged room is totally dominated by a massive portrait in oils, dated 1874, of an ageing patriarch with the face of a serial killer. His eyes follow us around the room with unnerving accuracy, his left eye, nestling under a slightly raised eyebrow, uncannily so. A nasty smile curls one corner of his mouth as his right hand absently fondles his crotch. We’re expected to sleep overlooked by that? My God. I’m in a Ramsey Campbell book!

“He did have a way with words, didn’t he?” says a character in Creatures of the Pool, “It gets inside your head, doesn’t it?”

Damn right it does.

Bryan Talbot
Hotel Aemilia, Bologna March 2009


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