Saturday, 11 April 2009

13. Ramsey Campbell - 'Breaking Up' (2004)

'Since the day I lost you, girl
I just can't face the world
I can't help feeling kind of small'

(The Walker Brothers, 'I Need You', 1965*)

Ramsey Campbell: "I'd already written one macabre tale about a mobile phone [...] and then it occurred to me that there could be another. I suspect all this is my mental preparation for owning one of the things."

(Stephen Jones, ed., The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror Vol.16, Robinson, 2005)

Excellent story again here, a textbook study in how to gradually evoke unease; Ramsey Campbell's horror story is a horror of the everyday - viewed in terms of naturally occurring extremes: the end of a relationship, mirrored by near Arctic weather. The setting is appropriately unspecific - it could be any town in Britain.

He also uses our everyday technology to provoke chills - the mobile phone is hardly presented as a comfort or aid in any conceivable sense. Home comforts turning into nightmares is a theme very much prevalent in 1970s cinematic horror, when the uncanny began to dominate genre cinema and one senses Campbell emerges from this tradition (although I do have a collection of his tales which begins in 1962).

The scenario and detail is all plausible, and it is only at the climax that things become a tad more inexplicable, but then this element is crucial to how Campbell haunts. As in other stories previously discussed, memory is important; here it is subtly implied as a Pinteresque battleground - one evening is seen in drastically different terms by main protagonist Kerry and her older ex-suitor, Russell:

'It had been the beginning of their end. Once he'd finished shouting above the disco uproar that he was her uncle, he'd set about dancing with a violence that seemed designed to complete with everyone else in the room. She could almost see the thin figure jigging and jerking as if he'd borrowed all the artificial vigour of the strobe light, his sleeves and trousers flapping like flags in a gale. When he'd panted to a standstill he had subsided into a chair and watched her dance, his eyes flickering with resignation that might have concealed a plea. Now she could have hoped he would ask anything other than "Didn't you?"' (pp.112-3)

In the end, the human mind and its entanglements can prove as horrific as anything, as this story goes on to outline in merciless, tellingly small details. We learn relatively little about Kerry or her exact thoughts, only that she did not reciprocate Russell's rather desperate yearning. I shall not 'spoil' how precisely it develops...

Again, this is another writer who would be perfect to write for a television show with fantasy or horror themes; for example, Dr Who if that show was not so reliant on hype, pyrotechnics and gimmicks - i.e. every episode having to have such Sontarans, Daleks or Dubai. 'Breaking Up' would, I feel, be really good to use in teaching; hard-hitting, gripping and difficult to dislodge from the mind.**

* Another life-affirmingly gloomy number from Take It Easy with the Walker Brothers, this one penned by Goffin and King.

** 'I, Haruspex', both in terms of length and content would be unsuitable for any classroom use, superb as it is!


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