Commentary Commentary RSS Reviews Podcasts_Audio Podcasts RSS Blog Links Archives Indexes

Ramsey Campbell
Secret Stories
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2006

PS Publishing
UK Trade Hardcover First
ISBN 0-904-61951-7
Publication Date: 09-30-2005
419 Pages ; £25
Date Reviewed: 02-03-06

Ramsey Campbell
PS Publishing
Deluxe slipcased hardcover First
ISBN 0-904-61951-7
Publication Date: 09-30-2005
419 Pages ; £40

Index: Mystery  Horror  General Fiction

Each of us has a public face, which is by and large acceptable to the public. Oh, we might make an off-color joke here, or let slip an unkind, unnecessary word there, but put us in a room together and nobody really crosses the line. We each have a private face as well, a self that may or may not be acceptable to public. Some of us might be overly fussy, say, or some of us might be a bit self-important. We might be self-doubting to an almost crippling degree in private. Or we might be something much, much worse.

Public and private faces present their most unflattering selves in Ramsey Campbell's 'Secret Stories'. Campbell's latest novel is a pitch-black comedy and a discomforting psychological thriller. Campbell cranks up the tension and the embarrassment factor smoothly, ruthlessly, almost unbearably. Art, pretense and misogyny are all on display here, shoved front and center before our please-spare-me-any-more eyes. Campbell isn't satisfied with simple, external effects. He doesn't just make you shiver. He gets under your skin and makes you cringe, and not just at his fiction, but at your own reaction to his fiction.

Dudley "Dud" Smith has more than his share of secrets. He's a quiet man, the one who works at the Employment Center, trying to help the out-of-work find jobs. He's a dweeb, through and through, who still lives with his mother. He's uncomfortable around women, to the degree that it proves problematic for his job. When a woman comes in seeking work as a "dancer", he manages to let himself be trapped by her discomfort into a confrontation. She accuses him of calling her a prostitute, though Dudley is clearly so uncomfortable with even the mere thought of this that he cannot think it, let alone utter it. The stage is set for retribution. But Dudley has worse problems.

He is, after all, a writer. He has a cache of secret stories that he has never shown anyone. His mother, however, knows about them. She's read them on his computer while he was at work. They're creepy mystery-thrillers, about a man who kills women in the cowardly ways, for example, by pushing one in front of a train. Kathy, Dud's mother, thinks the stories are rather good, and on a whim, sends one in to a contest. Dud's story wins the contest, and now Kathy is forced to tell her son that she's read his stories, sent one in and got it published. Everything should be fine, she reasons. What she doesn't know is that the reason Dudley has never shown anyone his stories is that they are non-fiction. Dudley's been killing women for years. Now his story is going to be told.

'Secret Stories' is exceptionally well-written and plotted on all levels. As ever, Campbell is a consummate prose writer. Every page presents sentences that cling to the mind. Though he usually writes novels of the supernatural and does so superbly well, the same ambiguous prose style that makes his paranormal thrillers so creepy works equally well in a totally psychological setting. Campbell is a poet of absences. It's what's not said that often matters the most, what’s held back that comes to the forefront. With each word, he seems to cut precisely to the center of his characters' minds.

But he does quite a bit more than simply write great prose. The plotting and exposition are expertly handled. Stories within stories that prove not to be stories at all, but rather revisions of the truth, are layered with wheedling lies and half-hearted truths. Campbell tells his tale in a fairly straightforward manner, but there are a few wonderful effects he uses with judicious care that create superb thrills. He tells the story in a filmic manner, overlapping timelines from different points of view and letting his characters speak aloud to themselves but not to those around them. We're inside and outside of everyone's head. We're witnessing the truth while telling the lies. And all the while, we're insanely proud of our ability to lie, to pass off our fictions as the truth.

One of Campbell's primary efforts in 'Secret Stories' is his work to make the reader cringe. This novel is a buffet of cringe-worthy moments. Dudley's attitude towards women is decidedly bad. But Campbell ramps up to this quite slowly, and gets us to empathize with Dudley, and even his mother, so that when something bad happens, we can't help but feel just a little bit of Dudley's joy, much to our own dismay. Campbell effectively makes the readers afraid of their own reactions. This goes doubly for the humor in the novel. This is shrivel-and-laugh material par excellence. Campbell is genuinely funny, but he's interested in humor that is deeply disturbing.

Keeping the novel from tilting dangerously out of kilter is the character of Patricia, the intrepid reporter who investigates Dudley's background as part of the portrait of the contest winner. But even Patricia is compromised, uncertain of herself. Campbell if fiercely fair, unsparingly and alarmingly precise in his portraits. His is a world of self-loathing. But Patricia has enough of a feeling of actual self-worth to provide a counterpoint to Dudley's more disturbing sense of self-adequacy.

'Secret Stories' is the kind of novel that some readers will find far too unsettling to read. It rides the line of humor, horror and terror so ambiguously, so unpleasantly that many will not know how to take it, or even if they do know how to take it, will not enjoy the experience. And Campbell does protract a scene here and there, giving more when less might have been better. Or so you might think, until you stumble across some utterly amazing sentence. What's quite interesting is how well Campbell's unique style of writing, so well-suited for conveying a sense of supernatural dread, translates to the purely psychological terrain he explores in 'Secret Stories'. On a word-by-word prose level, this novel displays such a fine skill at peeling back the skins we wear, readers will wonder if they’ve even felt the scalpel that Campbell wields. Everyone has secret stories. And everyone who reads 'Secret Stories' will recall their own with a queasy feeling that may be joy or may be terror. Reading Ramsey Campbell, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between the two emotions.

Review Archive
All Reviews alphabetized by author.

General Fiction
Non-Genre, general fiction and literature.

Supernatural fiction, supernatural horror and non-supernatural horror.

Science Fiction
Science fiction, science fantasy, speculative fiction, alternate history.

Fantasy, surrealism and magic realism.

Crime, thrillers, mystery, suspense.

Non-Fiction, True Crime, Forteana, Reference.


Archives Indexes How to use the Agony Column Contact Us About Us