Atkins, Barker, and Campbell (The ABC of horror), along with Doug Bradley (the actor who played Pinhead in Clive Barker's "hellraiser" films and who provides an introduction to this book), are, in editor Angus Mackenzie's words "the Ceno-Beatles: four lads who 'spooked the world'." Is there something about Liverpool, which seems to call up more than its fair share of visionary writing? Is there something about the water in the "pool of life" (© Carl Gustav Jung)? This is the city which hosted the Science Fiction Theatre of Liverpool in the 1970s, when director Ken Campbell adapted a remarkable range of horror and science fiction classics from the epic Illuminatus! to an operatic version of Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Red Dwarf viewers know Liverpool through Craig Charles's performance as archetypal scally Lister (its writers, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, attended Liverpool University). According to Clive Barker's biography, a school visit by Ramsey Campbell encouraged him to persevere in his brand of visionary horror. The city and its surrounding regions have a remarkable place in the history of science fiction and fantastic literature, dating back at least to Olaf Stapledon, second only to H. G. Wells as a speculative writer, whose tradition has been handed down to Liverpool-born Stephen Baxter (who, although ten years younger than Ramsey Campbell, attended the same school, St Edward's Grammar, as the horror writer.)
In the same decade as Stapledon published Last and First Men (1930), the "Universal Science Circle" became the second SF fan group to be founded in Britain. Several of its early members were associated with the British Interplanetary Society, formed in 1933 by Philip E. Cleator to educate the public in the coming reality of space travel. Also involved in both bodies were Eric Frank Russell and David McIlwain (Charles Eric Maine) who published fiction in the late 1930s but who became better known after the war. John Christopher, later known for the "Tripods" SF series for children, was also part of Liverpool SF fandom in its early years. Meanwhile, in the field of supernatural and horror fiction, Gladys Gordon Trenery was born in Liverpool in 1885. As G. G. Pendarves, she wrote supernatural fiction for the pulp magazines, moving briefly to America in the late 1920s but returning around 1930 and settling in Parkgate on the Wirral. Later exponents of SF/fantasy associated with Merseyside include Douglas R. Mason, a Wallasey head teacher who was also a prolific writer of SF novels during the 1960s and 1970s, film director Alex Cox (whose SF-updating of the Jacobean play The Revenger's Tragedy is a masterpiece of cross-genre writing), and children's writer Brian Jacques.
Few of these writers of the fantastic used Liverpool and its surroundings. (Notable exceptions include G. G. Pendarve's 1937 short story "Thing of Darkness," in which "Seagate" is a thinly-disguised version of Parkgate; several novels by Douglas R. Mason set in a "Wirral City," which was sometimes an orbiting satellite, sometimes a metropolitan sprawl; and the alternate Merseybeat Liverpool in Stephen Baxter's The H-Bomb Girl .) It is Campbell, who has remained in Liverpool all his life, who has most thoroughly explored the region's literal and metaphorical undercurrents and underworlds. Every city has its undercurrent, and Liverpool's hard-bitten mixture of desolation and anarchic creativity is perhaps more ambiguous than most. Jung's "pool of life" is perhaps as much as much a cliché as the rock and roll scousers of the Beatles myth (Jung never went to Liverpool, he merely dreamed of it), but it exists because it's there, because people want it to exist, and maybe because Liverpool's dreams are darker, more troubled than most. The city looks outwards to other locations and mental states as easily as it turns inwards.
Liverpool is still capable of macabre surprises in its architecture. There is a pyramid in the disused St Andrew's Church in Rodney Street, the tomb of a nineteenth century engineer, William Mckenzie, said to be his attempt to avoid settling his deal with the devil—a winning poker hand against his soul—by not being buried in the ground after his death. The Williamson tunnels, probably a job-creation scheme of Napoleonic times, are mysterious in origin and a potential location for anything from Cthulhu-worshipping rites to resolutely secular tales of obsession. I work mid-way between these locations and have thoroughly explored neither. Each tugs at my consciousness. Neither is featured here, but Atkins' "The Mystery" (original to this collection) comes from draws upon recollections of similar architecture and all those associated with this book grew up in Liverpool. Their roots-familiarity with its streets is, (therefore) greater than mine.
Following Doug Bradley's introduction in which he recalls the Liverpool in which he and the authors grew up, Pete Atkins begins Spook City with four stories published between 1988 and 2006. Clive Barker follows with three stories (1984-1988), and Ramsey Campbell with five stories (1973-1981, plus an original essay. We are encouraged, then, to consider each writer's work en bloc rather than tease out how the anthology as a whole shows us Liverpool. Interestingly, it is Pete Atkins who offers the biggest surprise. Atkins' "Eternal Delight" (1994) begins by showing us a young drop-out student, David, disillusioned by the "betrayal" of his friends who have moved on to other, more conventional, interests, having his life remade by a monstrosity at one point described as a tangled ball of worms which enters into his body. The physical corruption which usually comes after death becomes a moral corruption as the living David is forced into horrific acts. The story is imaginative and wry, but happy with its gruesomeness. The echo between individual and collective eruptions of the appalling, a feature of so many of the stories here, resounds in "Here Comes a Candle" (1988) which features an academic from John Moores University working on politically-correct versions of nursery rhymes. If, as is often suggested, surviving nursery rhymes are the remnants of something darker, then this time the Old Muse rather predictably gets her revenge. In "Between the Cold Moon and the Earth" (2006) and the previously-unpublished "The Mystery," though, Atkins' inventiveness shifts up a gear. In the former story, another youth, Michael, listens to a story told by a former friend Carol, recently returned from America—or is it "an imaginary America"? The story she tells perhaps retells in imagery a more basic story of horror. Telling stories was the bond between them, and this is one more series of stories for Michael to take into his life with him. "The Mystery" centres on one of Liverpool's abandoned buildings, and its mixture of feral street-life, hardboiled realism and visionary uncertainty makes it one of the highlights of the book. The narrator, working for a mysterious "department," rescues ghosts from a predator. There is no life after death, but sometimes the strong (or weak)-willed hang on. Both these stories are poignant and chilling, and for me, less familiar with Atkins' fiction than I am with Barker's and Campbell's, among the delights of this book.
Clive Barker is the master of horror-grotesque, and of how horror arises from a collective unconscious rather than individual transgression. In "The Forbidden" (1985), like "Here Comes a Candle," the researches of an academic uncovers, or allows the articulation of, the dreadful. While this is a common motif in horror (central to M. R. James and much of Lovecraft, for example), it seems more than second-hand in many of these tales set in Liverpool, in which Academia and the Abyss sit next to each other. One the one hand is dinner-party shock at the realities of desolate estates, on the other is middle-class predation on the hardship of others. Helen, the academic of "The Forbidden," explores the underclass in the worst of "sink" estates, finding urban despair in the semiotics of graffiti. Tracing urban myths of horrific murder to a "first cause," Helen's uncovering of clues—the portrait in an abandoned house, the buzzing, the Biblical echoes of the slogan "sweets to the sweet" (also echoing a song from The Searchers, as popular as The Beatles in Merseybeat days) moves towards the appearance of the Candyman and Helen's acceptance of her own fate. (“The Forbidden” as well as Ramsey Campbell’s “Mackintosh Willy,” appears in the 2008 Comma Press anthology The Book of Liverpool) and is noted there as a story “about what we collectively choose to forget, and what we can’t help but remember”.)
"Dread" (1984) is supposed to be partly based on Barker's university days although, interestingly, it is the feel of bright but bored students taking intellectual games to appalling conclusions that we experience, rather than any sense of place in what is (like much of Barker) a highly visual story. (There is place, but invested in other locations such as the crumbling houses the students live in.) Stephen, part of a generation of rootless students looking for gurus, is taken up by the older student Quaid, who specialises in deconstructing and destroying the comforting narratives of his victims. Only their "secret fear" is real. But Quaid himself also has a secret fear, and when the pupil is transformed into the teacher, desire and terror (and knowledge and inarticulate, psychotic drives) become the same thing. In "Coming to Grief," Miriam returns to Liverpool for her mother's funeral. Walking a path around a quarry feared in childhood, she finds it somehow, disappointingly, safe, not realising that the bricks of the protection wall are unstable. Walking the "bogey-walk" a second time to meet her friend Judy, Miriam literally confronts her grief. The pun in the title is as sharp as the metaphor of the crumbling wall.
If Barker pushes horror as far as it can go in one direction, Campbell does it in another. Indeed, "Coming to Liverpool," which begins his section, is not even fiction, but a previously-unpublished biographical piece, a companion to the introduction to the restored (1983) The Face That Must Die in which his unsettling relationship with his mother was recounted. "Coming to Liverpool" seems to be an attempt to lay to rest the ghost raised in the first account, showing how his parents met, and telling his own early biography obliquely. Thanks to the inclusion of letters and his mother's own attempts at fiction, this is the most disturbing item in the book; however much Campbell has rearranged and shaped this essay it is rooted in the reality of disappointed and devastated lives. Campbell has often noted how much his earlier stories are attempts to map his own inner state upon an exterior setting; so that the "Bricester" stories of his youthful Lovecraft phase are doing exactly the same things as Lovecraft did by mapping the ghoul-haunted Miskatonic valley upon the New England in which he lived and where his fiction was rooted. Lovecraft became a guide rather than a model to be pastiched, and one of the many fascinating things about Campbell's fiction is the way Liverpool almost grudgingly forces its way through this fictional coating. The very early "Bricester" stories locate the town in the Severn Valley, although even in Campbell's first book Bricester has a Bold Street where the post office is and other locations like "Mercy Hill" offer clues for the reader.
So the problem for Spook City here is which of many stories could be included. Early stories such as "The Cellars" (1967; perhaps the first Campbell story to overtly reference Liverpool), or "The Interloper" (1973, but written 1963-68; in which strange echoes of the famous Cavern Club appear), must have been considered. The somewhat later "The Man in the Underpass" (1975) and "Mackintosh Willy" (1979) are frequently reprinted, but not dulled by familiarity. The former brings Aztec gods (or at least their habits) to Tuebrook; the latter extrapolates from graffiti in a bus shelter. Each clearly is set in place and time, arising from real fears, sometimes elaborated, sometimes not. Like Barker's "The Forbidden," what's written (or rather, read) becomes what's there; fears are externalised. "Concussion," (1973) is perhaps less known and a more interesting choice than many of its competitor stories, being a timeslip (even a science fiction) story oscillating between past and future. Like many of Campbell's stories, it crosses the Mersey to explore the Wirral, that suburban "dormitory" area which stands in uneasy relationship to Liverpool as both enemy (where the bosses live), aspiration (where successful Liverpudlians retire to), or rival (express a sociological cliché about Liverpool, and Birkenhead shares it.) "Through the Walls" (1985) expresses the tensions of family life, the fear of madness and of transgression rather than the actual transgression itself. Part of Hugh Pears's mental disintegration, for which there is a reason eventually given, but which reason we are, I think, not meant to quite believe, is the disintegration of his relationship with his children. The sound of a crash outside his home raises a moment of protective terror: "Not the children!" But he later becomes disturbed by his own reaction to his pre-pubescent daughter's potential sexuality. Harm to children is a frequent feature of horror—it is in the previous Campbell stories mentioned, and also Barker's "The Forbidden" and Atkins's "Between the Cold Moon and the Earth" and "The Mystery"—and can be simply a kind of "last taboo" in an age where the taboos of previous eras (transgressions of class, say, or sexual preference) have long been dispensed with. Here, it's less such an easy cliché than a profoundly uneasy anxiety; about domestic bonds, time, the loss of innocence. Or even more; where anxiety becomes obsession. "Calling Card" (1981) displays Campbell's macabre sense of humour as well as his ability to enter into a thoroughly domestic setting and present the interior dislocation of a protagonist (in this case a lonely old woman in the festive season) gradually taking shape in the outer world.
It's Campbell who is the master of locality, of particular space. It's true that I know his localities more than those of either Atkins or Barker, but it seems to me that fine as those two writers are, of the three Campbell best evokes the reality of the Merseyside region, thanks to his technique of unsettling with wry humour as much as horror. Despite this regionalism, it also seems to me that Campbell is a more universal writer that Atkins or even Barker, simply because he has got under the skin of the city, or the city has got under his skin, in a way that the other two only achieve in flashes (Clive Barker with "The Forbidden," for example). Nevertheless, this can hardly be a criticism, because one of the underlying strengths of Spook City is the very different ways using the dark fantastic to explore the uneasy spirit of a place can be brought into being.
Andy Sawyer is librarian of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection at the University of Liverpool Library, Course Director of the MA in Science Fiction Studies offered by the School of English, and a widely-published critic. He is Reviews Editor of Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction. He recently co-edited (with David Ketterer) Plan for Chaos, a previously-unpublished novel by John Wyndham. He is the 2008 recipient of the Clareson Award for services to science fiction.