Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Cold Print

 

Cold PrintCold Print by Ramsey Campbell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I've previously reviewed most of the early stories in this volume in my review of The Inhabitant of the Lake and Other Unwelcome Tenants. On re-reading these stories (which I'm not going to re-review here), I think they've lost some of their initial luster. Perhaps this is because Campbell continues in the same vein in many of the stories that are contained in Cold Print, but that are not in Inhabitant, which makes the stories in the middle of the volume feel like a hackneyed copy of . . . himself? I find myself possibly having fallen out of love with these stories because there's little original in them.

After the original series of Lovecraft pastiches, it becomes clearly apparent that Campbell is experimenting with grammar, vocabulary, and form. This gets more than a little tedious, at times. I found myself thrown out of the story, in these instances, partly because I fell into some of the same traps as a younger writer, and I feel a degree of self-loathing when I see this immature claptrap.

Before you think I hated this book, I didn't hate it. I should probably launch into my story notes so you can get a more holistic view of my thoughts and feelings while reading. Again, I am going to avoid commenting on stories I already reviewed in my other Campbell review except to say that they did not stand the test of time and were much more flat and blasé the second time around.

"The Church in High Street" is, yes, a derivative work of Lovecraftian horror. But there are hints of Campbell's own style peeking out, a certain restraint and cleverness that veterans of Lovecraft will notice as different (and, in my case, refreshing). Take, for example, this sentence:

In High Street at last, the moon hung over the steeple of the hill-set church like some lunar diadem, and as I moved the car into a depression at the bottom of the steps the orb sank behind the black spire as if the church were dragging the satellite out of the sky.

"The Will of Stanley Brooke" is most definitely Campbell's own, no mere mimesis of Lovecraft. The story's understatement carries the full shock of the unrevealed reveal. The old trope of the sudden change to a person's last will and testament takes a new twist.

"Before the Storm" is an atmospheric piece contrasting wildly divergent viewpoints that come together in the ultimate moment of horror. Ultimately effective, this tale comes short of greatness by the distracting use of too many adverbs, to put it plainly. And that's exactly the problem - so many words ending in "-ly," with many of them straining (and sometimes brazenly breaking) the limits of good grammar. Now, I'm all about breaking grammar rules to make a point, but doing it by a flurry of words ending in "-ly" just seems so . . . juvenile?

The title story is not only effective, but there is some knockout writing here, regardless of genre. For example, the sentence fragment: He closed his eyes again; the room and bookcase, created in five seconds by the neon, and destroyed with equal regularity, filled him with their emptiness .
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, is a brilliant way to pull the reader's senses into the story - much more effective than any of Lovecraft's indescribable horrors, which he goes on to describe ad nauseum. Here, Campbell's restraint is his strongest selling point. There is also a certain whimsical nihilism that cuts deeper than HPL's cosmic horror, not because it is bigger, meaner, or scarier, but because it is altogether unfair. The main character, Strutt, is an undeserving victim, chosen seemingly at random, which somehow makes it seem more personal, as if the universe is just picking on him for no good reason other than to make him suffer. This is more Ligotti than Lovecraft.

Normally, I would love a piece such as "Among the Pictures are These". Its a catalog, of sorts, a "story" format of which I am fond. There were lots of good descriptions, but not enough meat behind the images to discern any innovative or shocking story between the lines.

The Tugging" was frequently too precious about it's nods to fans of Lovecraft's work. There were a couple of momenta when Campbell's mastery of prose shone through, standing out from the discordant and inconsistent stream-of-consciousness, but so much was obscured by the looming form of HPL that one might title this story "The Shadow Over Campbell". Just when it looks like he is going to shine, he eclipses his own voice by calling out too barefacedly to his predecessors.

The main trope of "The Faces at Pine Dunes" is well-worn, close to worn out for those familiar with Lovecraftian fiction. As with the previous story, at times, Campbell's prose gets in it's own way, but at other times it is brilliant. If this was the first time I had read such a story, I would be elated. As it is, I found it very "swingy," up and down, which is a bit disappointing, frankly. It's not a bad story, but it's not great, either.

"Blacked Out," the penultimate story in this collection, hits all the right notes of atmosphere and tone. Yes, you know the end two pages into reading it, but Campbell's slow revelation of the inevitable is plenty to carry the reader along for the ride. His engagement of all the senses here is laudable, and the careful restraint actually bolsters the crescendo. Definitely one of the better stories herein.

As I read "The Voice of the Beach," I'm listened to the album "Stay Down" by Two Lone Swordsmen. Honestly, I can't think of a more appropriate soundtrack, especially the song "Spine Bubbles". It's like that song was written for reading that story! "The Voice of the Beach" is cosmic horror without all the words and names. You know, no Nyarlathotep, no squamous or Eldritch anything. This is exactly what I was hoping for: cosmic horror in Campbell's voice with only the faintest hint of HPL so far away that you can hardly hear him. Now, if the collection had started in this vein and continued from there, I might like it a lot more. Not bad, just too much HPL taint. Too little Campbell, a little too late.

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