By the Light of My Skull is Ramsey Campbell’s newest short story collection. I always love reading Ramsey’s horror tales and this collection continues on his tradition of excellence. If forced to chose my favorites from this book, I’d pick “The Moons”, “At Lorn Hall”, Reading the Signs”, “The Wrong Game” and “Fun of the Fair”.
- “Find My Name” (2013) – A grandmother starts to hear a strange voice through the baby monitor saying ominous things about coming to take her grandson who she’s raising following the death of her daughter. She begins to suspect her daughter made a deal with a malignant entity to save her son for a period of one year. That time is nearly up. This is a modern, darker variation on the Rumplestiltskin fairy tail.
- “The Moons” (2011) – A teenage boy finds himself lost in a forested area near a beach after his mother forces him to go hang out with a family of kids nearby. He feels he doesn’t fit in with them but gains the trust of their youngest sister when he convinces everyone to go to the beach to help find her bracelet which is made up of pendants shaped like the phases of the moon. There, they encounter a strange man who offers to help them find their way home, but the boy begins to suspect he isn’t what he seems. This is another strong tale of cosmic horror by Ramsey.
- “At Lorn Hall” (2012) – To escape a thunderstorm, a man enters a rundown manor house. Inside, he finds a set of headphones and embarks on tour of the house “guided” by the recorded voice of the house’s old master whose image appears in portraits hanging in every room. His comments are eerie, and he thinks there may be someone else in the house with him staying constantly just out of view. This has become one of my all time favorite horror tales. It has great atmosphere and keeps you unsettled throughout.
- “On the Tour” (2014) – Stu was the drummer of a band called Stu and the Scousers that played around the same time as The Beatles. Now working at a vinyl shop, he spends his time telling everyone of his glory days. He quickly becomes obsessed with a tour bus that passes his house, at first reveling in what they say about him, then becoming increasingly convinced they’re mocking him. Slowly, his mind begins to become unhinged by it.
- “The Callers” (2012) – A thirteen year old boy, staying with his grandparents, discovers his grandmother’s game of Bingo is a part of something much darker.
- “Fetched” (2016) – Her husband’s obsession with seeing the view of an area from his childhood again leads his wife on a frantic search for him through a long neighbor of bungalows and interconnected high fences which block it from sight. The peculiar people they encounter who live in the neighborhood are all aggressively suspicious of them.
- “The Impression” (2014) – A boy makes a rubbing impression over a tomb that has the upturned face of Lord Ranulph Perlston engraved upon it. It seems Perlston was not a pleasant person in life, likely having killed several of his sons. An uneasy feeling follows his rubbing as he begins to see covered faces everywhere. Has Lord Perlston specter been summoned by the act?
- “The Page” (2012) – Written as a tribute to Ray Bradbury, this story follows an older man named Ewan Hargreaveson who while on vacation with his wife notices a man on the beach struggling to retrieve a page torn free of a book, caught on the wind. Ewan becomes fixated on finding the page and returning it to its owner.
- “Reading The Signs” (2013) – A man driving alone picks up another man walking down the street with a young boy perched on his shoulders. The hitchhiker says his car broke down and that they need a lift. He’s surly and seems to dislike the boy with him. To pass the time, the three of them play a disturbing game in which they make up brief sayings that start with the three letters seen on the license plates of the cars they spot along the way. The man who picked them up starts to worry he may have made a dreadful mistake the longer he spends with them. This is another masterfully eerie tale by Ramsey.
- “Know Your Code” (2016) – An elderly couple struggle with their failing memory and how to keep track of all the codes and passwords society demands today.
- “The Watched” (2014) – A twelve year old boy is convinced by a disheveled, obsessive cop to help him catch his criminal next door neighbors. The police officer uses something called a “hide” which lets him spy on the houses without being noticed, but the boy is aware of it and can see it from his house. Things take a tragic turn when the cop dies after the boy mistakenly alerts him that something is going down. Afterward, the boy keeps seeing signs that someone, or something, is still inhabiting the hide.
- “The Wrong Game” (2015) – In this novelette, Ramsey uses himself as the main character. It’s presented as a letter he’s written to the actual editor of the Dead Letters anthology where the story originally appeared. He starts off saying he isn’t sure if he has a story to submit but relates something that recently happened to him which may spark something. He tells how he received a parcel in the mail that contained a pair of playing cards. Further research into it brings back the suppressed memory of a strange man he met at a convention many years ago. The man, who called himself Malleson, was rather obnoxious as he cleared out the table where he was playing cards with his uncanny luck. It seems, Malleson has sent these cards to Ramsey long after he used them to give him a reading that day at the convention. Looking more into it takes Ramsey to the old abandoned hotel that housed that convention. This is another superbly creepy story by Mr. Campbell.
- “Her Face” (2015) – A young boy is sent by his mother to help out a woman named June who has taken over running her family store following the recent death of her mother. It’s close to Halloween, so there are several creepy masks in the front window that sometimes seem to move on there own. June seems unnerved in the place and somewhat frightened to be alone there as she deals with not having her domineering mother around to rule things anymore. This is a creepy Halloween tale that incorporates the eerieness inherent in masks well.
- “The Words Between” (2016) – An aging man returns to college and enrolls in a class on film studies. He finds himself fixated on the old, silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The world around him begins to grow hazy in his mind as words, names and phrases from the movie start poping up everywhere.
- “Fun of the Fair” (2018) – A widow who’s struggling with the loss of her husband uncovers a wooden horse head while digging in her garden and learns that the neighborhood where her house is in was once the site of a disreputable fair run by an aggressive carnival barker who came to terrible demise – but is he actually still gone? Another great one by Ramsey.
Ramsey’s Website: http://www.ramseycampbell.com
Reviewed by Matt Cowan