Cthulhu’s Self-Help Guidelines

Told by the Dead by Ramsey Campbell, containing the following stories: “Return Journey” (2000) “Twice by Fire” (1998) “Agatha’s Ghost” (1999) “Little Ones” (1999) “The Last Hand” (1975) “Facing It” (1995) “Never to be Heard” (1998) “The Previous Tenant” (1975) “Becoming Visible” (1999) “No End of Fun” (2002) “After the Queen” (1977) “Tatters” (2001) “Accident Zone” (1995) “The Entertainment” (1999) “Dead Letters” (1978) “All for Sale” (2001) “No Strings” (2000) “The Worst Fog of the Year” (1990) “The Retrospective” (2002) “Slow” (1985) “Worse than Bones” (2001) “No Story In It” (2000) and “The Word” (1997) (2003):

I think this may be Campbell’s best first-time-reprinted collection in his now-50-years-and-counting career. It’s a bit of a retrospective, as the stories were written between 1968 and 2001 but weren’t collected in any of his other collections. There’s a story in here called “The Retrospective.” Oh ho!

Campbell’s writerly voice (as Poppy Z. Brite notes in her generous introduction) has remained strangely constant even as his prose has richened and deepened — a 1968 Campbell story is recognizably by him, the early emulation of H.P. Lovecraft’s prose style already pretty much gone by the time Campbell was in his mid-20’s.

The world seems distorted by the narrative voice — but often in Campbell, distortion is objective and not subjective within the story. Terrible things are breaking through into one’s perceptions. It’s a career-spanning signature that renders the Lovecraftian idea of reality being attacked in descriptive rather than expositional terms.

Thankfully, Campbell has a sense of humour as well (and indeed wrote pretty much the only funny serial killer novel I can think of, The Count of Eleven, in which humour and sadness feed off each other in illuminating ways). “The Word” is probably the funniest story here, but it also follows the first-person descent of its unlikeable narrator into madness. Or perhaps not.

All within a story involving science-fiction conventions, self-help gurus, and New-Age ‘wisdom.’ Somehow it all ends up being one of the scarier investigations of the long-lived sub-genre of The Forbidden Book that I can think of. I mean, what if the Necronomicon came disguised as The Celestine Prophecy? What if the Necronomicon always comes disguised as The Celestine Prophecy (or The Shack, or The Secret, or…)…?

Other standouts here include “The Retrospective”, in which going home turns out to be a bad idea; “The Entertainment”, in which figures a senior citizens’ home with peculiar ideas about nightly entertainment for its residents; and “Never to be Heard”, in which choral music plays a singular part. Places that turn out to be places one shouldn’t have gone include trains, highways, schools, carnivals, old movie houses, and, of course, one’s boring job. Highly recommended.

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