Many horror fans would agree that Ramsey Campbell is the quintessential British modern master of the genre. If not, they should give this book a try. Dark Companions is one of the author’s earliest short story collections, but also one of his best. Campbell uncommonly and artfully bridges the Old World Gothic-style tale with the modern horror terrain exemplified by Stephen King and later Clive Barker, and Dark Companions is a prime example of that. These are mostly ghost stories of a sort, and the majority of them are a unique enough riff on that theme, but what really gives Campbell’s yarns their wallop is the absolutely superb writing on display here. Even the less successful pieces in the collection are a worthy investment of one’s time for the sheer beauty of the sentences alone; but luckily, the majority of the tales in Dark Companions are brilliant.
The opening story in this collection, Mackintosh Willy, won the World Fantasy Award in 1980, and deservedly so. In it, a young boy’s crime against a homeless man is avenged from beyond the grave. Other standouts are Down There, where an office building’s sub-basement houses something monstrous, Out of Copyright, in which an anthologist of obscure dark stories finds his holy grail . . . an unwittingly releases an entropic evil into the world, Little Voices, where a priggish childless teacher finds herself haunted by the spirit of a puckish but desolate infant that tests her patience and her sanity, and The Companion, which finds its protagonist braving an abandoned fairground ride with unexpectedly creepy results.
But undoubtedly, the real star of this collection is The Pattern, about a haunted field whose evil is not bounded by time. Rarely does a story truly shock me, but the ending of this one caught me right in my quivering heart, and I found myself only vacating my bed to void my bladder quite reluctantly, and then returning to it as quickly as I could. Maybe it was because the main character was, like myself, an artist, or maybe it had to do with me being somewhat agoraphobic. But I think it owed more to the fact that an evil which could freely violate the laws of physics (namely the impossibility of traveling back in time) seemed like it would hardly be constrained by something as paltry as being a mere piece of fiction, and that it could spring wholly into existence simply for the fact that I had opened the pages of Mr. Campbell’s book and read about it. Beyond the tale’s scare factor, its title also has multiple levels of meaning, all the more so for its protagonist being a painter.
A few of these pieces left me with more questions than answers, but they were no less scary for that. The Puppets, for example, is undeniably about a haunted Punch and Judy show (which are pretty creepy to begin with, it must be said), but the question I had at the end is, was Mr. Ince, the proprietor and operator of the show, the poltergeist behind the scenes or simply another puppet? And perhaps that was the point. That kind of thing is hard for veteran horror writers to pull off, much less one only about a third of the way into his career as Campbell was when he penned this. Another such story was The Show Goes On, which had a vague and claustrophobic ending that somehow works despite the confusion. Campbell even manages to inject some dark humor here and there, such as in Heading Home, where the title, it is gradually revealed, is quite literal. And in Baby, an old alcoholic is relentlessly followed by the baby carriage once used by the bag lady he murdered.
Out of the twenty-one stories in Dark Companions, there were really only two that I didn’t care for, both near the back of the volume. The big revelation at the end of Conversion, as well as the second person point-of-view (an unusual choice), felt a little too gimmicky. And The Chimney, after a pretty solid set-up, doesn’t quite deliver on the menacing possibilities of its premise. Even these were enjoyable enough though, and as always, Campbell’s dazzling way with words makes each story a gem to read. These two just didn’t quite have the sparkle of the others. But for my money, two semi-duds out of twenty-one stories makes this collection a real treasure chest for fans of British horror stories in general and Ramsey Campbell fans in particular. If you can find it, this collection is not to be missed!