A couple of weeks ago, a movie called The Conjuring came out and did big business at the box office. Despite being a project of James Wan, mastermind of the blood-splattered, torture-dependent Saw flicks, The Conjuring manufactures its scares out of atmosphere and dread rather than graphic violence and buckets of blood. Critics and audiences alike seemed amazed that a horror film with such reserve could be such a creative and financial success.
That brand of horror may never outnumber effects-driven showcases at the box office, but it has always thrived in the world of horror fiction. “Quiet horror” is a revered tradition practiced by giants such as Charles L. Grant, T.E.D. Klein, Ray Bradbury and, of course, Ramsey Campbell. Campbell has been penning quiet, devastating horror stories since the mid-1960s, and this new collection Holes for Faces (gathering stories exclusively from the 2000s) proves he still knows how to unsettle readers on a primal level.
Take “Peep,” for example, about an old man spending time with his visiting grandchildren. The kids are spoiled, prone to exasperation when their grandpa moves too slow, prone to giggling at him when his back is turned. For the most part he tolerates their impudence, but when they begin to play a seemingly innocent variation of peek-a-boo he finds himself awash in chilling memories from his childhood. Suddenly, every glimpse of a mirror and every peek around a corner are filled with dread and suspense, both of which are felt keenly by the grandfather…and the reader.
Stripping the veneer off the mundane to show the darkness at its core is a unifying thread of Holes for Faces. In “Getting It Wrong” a lonely cinema ticket taker comes to dread the ringing of the telephone; in the title story a visit to an underground tourist attraction casts a cold shadow over a family’s vacation.
The reason horror like this connects is because it lifts the genre out of distant moors and crumbling castles and drops it in the midst of our everyday lives and locations. Once it reaches your neighborhood it creeps and whispers instead of jumping and shouting; it raises the hairs on your neck instead of going for the gag reflex. Campbell is adept at drawing portraits of everyday life with a little extra dark around the edges, and that’s a skill that’s difficult to master. Consider Holes for Faces another textbook by one of our best practitioners, an essential addition to the bookshelves of horror readers and writers alike.