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We've rowed out of the Mersey and under the first bridge across the Pool that gives the town its name. Against a sky that would be as black as the water except for countless stars, a figure wobbles over the unenclosed bridge from the Heath into Litherpool. Perhaps he's returning from the deer park north of Lytherpol. He may have gone in search of country air, away from the outbreak of plague in Chapel-street, unless he wanted to escape the presence of so many animals, most of them alive, in the seven narrow thoroughfares of Liuerpul. Now he's heading towards the Castle, where a sentry transforms the end of a yawn into a challenge all the sterner for its unauthoritative genesis. Beyond the Castle the streets are unlit except for a lantern at the stone cross beside the stocks on the ridge where Castle-street meets Juggler-street, and a second lantern in front of the cross at the far end of the latter. The villagers who attended church beside the upper reaches of the Pool have gone home to Everton, and the winding line of fitful lights has vanished from the slope, although others flicker above the marsh around the Pool. He may be able to keep his bearings by the squeals of pigs in the churchyard at the foot ofChapel-street, or the challenge of the watch at the end of each street, if they aren't too busy fighting one another. Perhaps they'll behave themselves for the bellman when he calls ten o'clock. By then the wanderer should be in his house and cursing as he tries to wield a flint and steel. But we're in the Pool, where we ought to be careful not to snag the oars on fragments of the wrecked ship that lodged in its marshy bed.
We aren't, of course. The Pool was drained long before any of us was born. We're walking where it used to be, along Frog Lane or, if you feel more old-fashioned, Frog's-lane, alongside which the ribs of half-built ships would once have loomed over us. They weren't the only reminders of the Pool. Local people dread storms at high tide, because the cellars flood. Behind us in Paradise Street where the bridge was, the muddy road is often blocked by families driven out of their subterranean accommodations together with their beds and other furniture. The swamp alongside Frog Lane has been drained, and dark twisted streets lead to the Theatre Royal. Even if animals are no longer slaughtered in the streets, the ways to the theatre reek of refuse from the market that occupies the square in front of it. Perhaps we can hear ducks squabbling in the square, though at this time of night the uproar may belong to crowds of young delinquents. Even if they're penniless, they're eager to watch the show. Fights seem to have been taken for granted, since the newspapers seldom named-
"Why are you calling it Frog Lane? It's Whitechapel."
"Jack the Ripper did his women in Whitechapel."
"That's the one in London. I'm asking the feller what's this got to do with frogs."
"The atrocities," says someone else.
I've opened my mouth to answer the original question, which came from a large woman who looks as if she would be more at home with knitting and bingo, when I'm distracted by the comment. "Which atrocities are those?" I wonder aloud.
The tour party gaze at me, and I can't identify who made the reference. Was he behind one of the barriers surrounding roadworks in Whitechapel? As a puddle ripples in the cracked uneven pavement outside a pizza joint someone says "Don't you ever talk about anything nice?"
He's even more American than the pizza place, where a girl behind the counter is reading The Drowned World. His wide face topped by a bristling hint of reddish hair looks clenched with earnestness, which has reduced his nose to a disproportionate stub. Most of his mouth is playing straight to less than an inch of wry grin. Despite or because of the steely glare of the streetlamps, his pale eyes are muddily introverted. "Are you on the wrong walk, son?" says the talkative woman, who outdoes him for ruddiness and bulk of face and hair. "We signed up for murders. It's called the Liverghoul Tour."
"Don't you think there's more to your history than that?"
"Plenty. More than, no offence, you Yanks are ever going to catch up with."
"We don't like people putting Scousers down," says her companion, rubbing the small of her large back, though he seems too young by several decades to be her husband or anything along those lines. "Enough of your lot make a living out of murders," he tells the American.
"Jack came first," the woman insists. "He's a legend, and maybe he was a Scouser."
The rest of the party are staying clear of the argument. They're an average assortment-a couple who constantly lag behind, a handful who seem to think they need to impress me with their willingness to learn, a man who produces yet another vaguely relevant question whenever I pause for breath-but even he is resting his attention on the sluggish ripples in the puddle presumably left by this morning's summer downpour. "We'll come to the Ripper," I promise.
I lead everybody to the end of Whitechapel once buses of various competitive companies have finished swinging uphill on Roe Street across our path. St John's Lane climbs past gardens where a churchyard used to be and meets Roe Street once more at the site of the Fall-well, a name that acquired a different significance once the stone surround crumbled and children sent onto the Great Heath to fetch water fell in. Opposite the junction, behind the Royal Court Theatre, a Holiday Inn raises its brow signed in green handwriting. As I wait for the last of the party to catch up there's a thunder of luggage, and a trainload of commuters begin to descend the steps from Lime Street Station. Some can't elude the woman whose boyfriend has always left her short of money for the train home. The blurred hollow voice of a busker in the subway to the trains beneath St George's Hall is singing about the sea. The Hall was where Virginia Woolf's uncle went mad while trying Florence Maybrick for the poisoning of her husband. After the judge found her guilty, a mob a thousand strong chased his carriage up the hill to Everton. Presumably none of them could have known that a hundred years later James Maybrick would be identified as Jack the Ripper, and I'm about to tell my audience how this happened when the Beatles commence singing about the town where I was born.
At least, my mobile does, having made itself felt in my breast pocket. The caller isn't owning up to a number. "Gavin Meadows," I say. "Liverghoul Tours."
"I'm hoping you're somewhere close."
"Just the far side of the gardens, Lucinda. Why?"
She hasn't answered when a voice more distant than hers reveals the nature of the problem. "Don't tell me," I say and return the mobile to my pocket. "Next stop the library," I announce.
Neither the American nor the homicide enthusiast seems to care for the prospect. "We didn't join up to read books," she protests. "We like walking, us."
"Maybe he wants to check his facts," says the American.
I won't bother to respond to that. I lead the way behind St George's Hall, which towers above us like a white whale. In the middle of the broad path greenish dignitaries gesture from plinths higher than our heads. A breeze mounts the slope of the gardens, twitching raindrops out of shrubs and awakening a shoal of shadows to swarm over a drunk or an addict who's beached on a bench under a tree. Beyond the gardens William Brown Street is massively classical except for scraps of modern architecture patched in among the columned porticoes. Straight ahead, between the art gallery and the museum, a bicycle is chained like a suffragette to the railings outside the library. As we cross the street I read the slogan along the horizontal bar, LEAVE LIVERPOOL ALIVE! I'm all too aware that the legend on the other side is www. ruinedcity.com. "Someone's been getting some exercise," the loquacious woman remarks.
The door to the library slides aside to admit me and my unwelcome American sidekick. The others follow us into the lobby, and I indicate the fiction library with an upturned hand. "Seats for everyone, or if you want to browse while I leave you for just a few minutes ..."
I might as well not have spoken. A voice can be heard down the main staircase from four floors up. As the murder fan makes for it the doors back away from her and stand wide enough to be inviting everyone else to join her at the foot of the stairs. By the time I do they're listening to the impassioned monologue with the kind of shocked amusement they might have expected my tour to provide. "What's up with him?" says the woman who led the detour. "Where'd they let him out of?"
"Nowhere," I say. "He's my father."
Excerpted from Creatures of the Pool by Ramsey Campbell Copyright © 2009 by Ramsey Campbell. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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I'm amazed this may be this book's first review here. More so, I'm amazed that many fellow Americans appear unawares of "Britain's most respected living horror writer," Ramsey Campbell (Oxford Co. to Eng. Lit). Perhaps he's overshadowed by best-sellers like Stephen King, Peter Straub, Dan Simmons, or even other UK writers like Clive Barker or Neil Gaiman (I do enjoy them, too). Or perhaps the 'horror' genre itself leaves a bad taste for most mainstream audiences; in a field plagued with too many unintelligent gross-outs, or bad quality, "scary" films- it's easy to dismiss horror's integrity altogether. Yet Campbell's decade-spanning canon of work exemplifies how the scary tale can be done correctly & effectively- being both absurdly comical and terrifyingly tragic- entertaining and dreadful.
Campbell's newest book, The Creatures of the Pool, is one of his best and most frightening. It mixes a dazzling display of historical research & imagination- from Liverpool's urban legends, conspiracy theories, strange reports- all concocting into a succinct, nightmarish journey. The story follows a Liverpool tour-guider, specializing in the city's most gruesome sites & stories: from the mysteries & debates over Jack the Ripper, to the frog-like phenomena of Springheel Jack. Soon we're driven deep down to everything that 'Creatures of the Pool' suggests- but in the most elegant, imaginative, suggestive way. There are no overt, on-the-nose descriptions of gore; instead the terror lurks, present and suggested- our fears rising from their tombs and chasms of Liverpool's amphibious, monstrous heritage.
What happens when our protagonist's father unearths evidence of inhuman life, secretly buried & living underground? Well, I won't give away any of the book's exciting twists or reversals, but I will say it's one of Campbell's most gripping, focused, and engaging works. We're never bored with wondering where the story could go; there are too many maddening, over-arching problems and super-objectives for our protagonist to solve (terrifyingly written in a first person we can't help but identify with).
Campbell gives horror a flavor of intelligent integrity by provoking our imagination to paint the paranoia, dread, and madness from our own personal crypt of imagery. One of Campbell's strongest qualities comes from his more 'insane' or 'psychotic' characters; their dialogue is written so convincingly & believably mad that it's both funny and scary. When juxtaposed by more 'loving' or 'rational' characters' perspectives, the madness soon engulfs the reader like a nightmare- forcing us to confront with suspicion all of our assumed realities, truths, and biases, with our doubts, fantasies, illusions, and hallucinations. The maelstrom journey of Creates of the Pool succeeds with what all good horror aims to do: terrify.
I'm only disappointed with the US edition's bland cover. It doesn't encapsulate the exciting nightmare of the story at all. We can't help judge some books by their cover, and with a title like "Creatures of the Pool," we can't help but imagine something silly or predictable with a picture of a purple-tinted marsh & moon. Where's the stalking, monstrous shapes or figures- the paranoid doubt and fear for our safety? I can only promise both the prose and story entertain much more.
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