Holes for Faces by Ramsey Campbell
PS Publishing/Drugstore Indian Press, pbk, £12.99
Reviewed by Ian Hunter
As Steve Miller once sang: “Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future” and he’s right. I say that with certainty, recalling that I first met Ramsey Campbell I was in my late twenties, and here I am in my early sixties, which is almost as scary as reading one of Ramsey’s short stories. Given that the young and the old feature in many of these tales, I could almost be Ray Marsden in the very first story “Passing through Peacehaven” who tries unsuccessfully to phone his wife and gets the answering machine instead, something which turns me into a stumbling, bumbling inarticulate mess. For Marsden it’s the least of his worries as he has alighted the train at the wrong stop where things are black as night, and about to get a whole lot darker.
“Holes for Faces” is a collection of Campbell’s short stories from the first decade, and a bit, of the twenty-first century, previously published by Dark Regions Press, but now re-released on an unsuspecting public by P.S. Publishing under their Drugstore Indian Press guise, with suitably creepy cover art by Randy Broecker. I had come across some of these stories before, namely in “Best New Horror” edited by Steve Jones, or Jones’ “A Book of Horrors”, and the last story “The Long Way” was published by P.S. Publishing as a gorgeous little chapbook back in the day. Only the story “Holes for Faces” was not previously published. The title leads the reader to believe it might concern people whose faces were ravaged by disease, but instead, a young boy holidaying in Italy encounters some headless remains, with a hole where the head should be. Soon he is seeing such holes everywhere, but what is behind them, waiting to peer through?
Young and old collide in “Peep” as a grandfather struggles to look after his grandchildren under the watchful eye of his daughter and the narrowed eyes of her partner, but there is something creeping around the edges of the grandfather’s past and it is coming to get him. “Getting it Wrong” gives quiz shows like “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” a deadly spin as Eric Edgeworth thinks he is on the receiving end of a prank instigated by his colleagues at the cinema, as one of his co-workers taking part in a quiz show needs his help to answer some movie trivia questions. Edgeworth isn’t happy about this development and deliberately answers wrongly, with some gruesome results. There is a marvellous revelation halfway through ‘The Room Beyond’ as the protagonist realises…something – no spoilers here, which might explain the strange goings-on in the hotel he is staying at when he returns home for a funeral, but worse things wait in that room beyond.
I could go on and on and describe each of the stories, but why waste the dark fun you will have reading them? Suffice to say that the tales exhibit many of Campbell’s strengths and his ability to continually tap into what were recent events, such as the backlash against the Chucky movies, and the paranoia and prejudice that rear their ugly heads in “The Rounds” concerning a briefcase on a train. Despite the bewildering claustrophobic feel of the story, I like to think it is darkly humorous as are some of the events in the story “The Decorations”, especially those involving the Santa on the roof. Yes, even Christmas can’t escape the Campbell treatment, but after all, it is a time of long dark days, ghosts and visiting relatives. That has always been another of Campbell’s strengths, his ability to take the ordinary and cast an unsettling light on it or show something darker beneath the surface. Thus, simple things like trying to catch a train, school sports days, visiting a hospital, returning home, or simply trying to find your way home can plunge into something darker. All of this is enhanced by Campbell’s descriptive abilities which are skewed, off-kilter and unique.
To use that well-worn phrase if you have never read Campbell before you are in for a treat, but if you have, you know what dark delights you are in for – a building of atmosphere and dread until your hand slips out of his and you have to take that faltering next step. All alone, beyond that last line into the shudder zone where you are confronted with the full horror of what he has revealed as it plays out in your imagination. Quite simply “Holes for Faces” is another great collection from the master and underlines Campbell’s status as The. Best. Horror. Short. Story. Writer. Ever.