As I've noted countless times on this blog, Ramsey Campbell is my favorite horror writer of all time. He is a wizard with words, and the subtle horror of his stories carry a punch that lasts long after you finish reading them. The tales often read and feel like an extended nightmare, and more than one has kept me up at night -- I can think of no other author who still has the ability to do that.
So when I saw that a recent novel of his was finally released as a mass-market paperback in the States, I didn't hesitate to buy it:
Creatures of the Pool is another great, atmospheric tale, and ranks among my favorite of Ramsey's novels. The only criticism I have of it, and it is a mild one, is that is follows a similar trajectory to a number of his other recent stories.
The "Pool" of the title is Liverpool, England, a city officially founded in 1207 and which has spawned a lot of history and legends during its long lifetime. The novel's protagonist, Gavin Meadows, makes his living as a tour guide of the city, giving both conventional historical walking tours as well as evening "ghost" tours, featuring the darker and weirder legends of the region. Throughout the novel, and Gavin's tours, we are introduced to many strange stories about "The Pool", some entirely created by Ramsey, some "true", or at least reported as such. (For instance, James Maybrick of Liverpool is one of the candidates for having been Jack the Ripper.) The blurring between legend and fact permeates the tale, and indeed is one of the major themes; we're often left to wonder how much of Gavin's knowledge and experiences are real.
Like the characters in many of Campbell's stories, Gavin is burdened with a significant amount of personal baggage. As the novel begins, one of Gavin's tours is interrupted when he receives a call that his father Deryck is causing a disturbance at the public library. Gavin inherited his knowledge of Liverpool from his father, the latter of whom is now retired and pursuing his own personal research project into the city's history. At the library, Deryck is throwing a tirade because he believes that the librarians have hidden a book carrying the key to a dark secret of Liverpool's history.
Gavin has regularly dismissed his father's claims of a secret conspiracy about the city. It is well-known that a labyrinthine series of tunnels had been dug beneath it, but Deryck's hints about inhuman residents of those tunnels, residents that had crawled out of the slime of the original pool of Liverpool, seemed quite absurd. But when Deryck vanishes, Gavin's frantic search for his father leads him to suspect that the stories may in fact be true -- and that the surface-dwelling residents of the city may not be entirely human themselves.
The novel is wonderfully atmospheric; the diverse and odd legends about the city of Liverpool fit together like pieces of a large and twisted puzzle. As Gavin becomes increasingly desperate to find his father, he comes into increasing conflict with the residents of the city, and his relationships with his mother and girlfriend become more strained. Are they all part of the conspiracy? It becomes less clear as the story progresses. It is constantly raining in the city, and water manages to get into protected places and destroy hidden documents in a manner that belies coincidence.
For those familiar with Lovecraft, Creatures of the Pool will seem somewhat reminiscent of The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Both stories involve a city with a long and dark past, seemingly subhuman and amphibious residents, and a main character who finds himself increasingly connected to the mysteries he uncovers. I can imagine that 'Pool is an unofficial tribute to Lovecraft's story.
I really enjoyed the novel, and consider it one of Campbell's best; however, the overall storyline felt oddly similar to Campbell's earlier work, such as The Grin of the Dark (2007). Both novels follow a character who becomes increasingly unstable while pursuing a historical mystery. Though the similarities more or less end there, 'Pool feels a bit like an echo of the earlier novel. (And 'Grin, as I noted in my post about it, was reminiscent of earlier work itself.)
This is a minor quibble, and Creatures of the Pool is a wonderfully dark, subtle and atmospheric horror story. Ramsey Campbell definitely deserves a wider audience for his fiction.