Among comprehensive horror readers and writers for the last 30 years or so, either Ramsey Campbell or Thomas Ligotti are more referred to as the best living horror writers than anyone else. Since they have this status in the genre, people have preconceived ideas of what a leading horror writer should deliver and I think they often end up judging them unfairly for not writing the sort of horror the reader would prefer and sees as the "proper" version of the genre. I didn't want to fall into this trap.
Campbell is someone you really want to get into because he has stuck firmly with the genre since the 60s, he has a very wide taste in horror, he has edited several anthologies, he appears in countless anthologies himself and seems to have at least one story included in all of those series devoted to the best new short horror fiction every single year. I enjoy a lot of his opinions you'll often see since he is always asked to contribute to all sorts of projects about horror across different mediums.
This book is often cited as the best introduction to Campbell, it is his choice of his own short stories from his first 30 years of output. There was a book called Dark Feasts that was an earlier attempt at the same thing but I don't think he was satisfied with it.
Most of the stories are set in modern urban Britain, roughly in the classic ghost story formula where a supernatural occurrence is gradually revealed. I've had the misfortune to live in the type of places these stories are usually set, I think they can present a problem because a lot of the old ghost stories were set in highly aesthetic locations and I think this is an important part of their appeal; so I think these modern locations work best at their most decayed or in abnormally beautiful modern architecture that has the right sensory qualities that can enhance a supernatural feeling. I think the settings usually aren't that stimulating, but there are enough good ones to let you know he is perfectly capable of them.
My other main problem is one shared with perhaps the greater bulk of modern horror: the almost obligatory emphasis on characters regardless of how interesting or important they are in the context of making the main concern of the story work. Campbell is quite good at sad and slightly odd people but a lot of the time I found the character details excessive and not really contributing anything to the main thrust of the stories.
Other small things is that I think he used "as slow as a nightmare" in more than one sentence, which is a bit too distinct to reuse. I also didn't like that he obviously puts things into stories that are annoyances and hates of his own, there is a place for that sort of thing, but I think it sticks out a bit much in these types of stories.
Celebrated stories like "Mackintosh Willy" and "The Chimney" are good, you can find these in numerous anthologies. Stories I think really deserve a mention are "End Of A Summers Day" because in a very short time it shows quite a unique upsetting happening that leaves you full of thoughts; "Call First" is a very nicely done traditional scary short; "The Fit" I think is more filled out than most, with fairy tale and sexual elements and some nicely composed imagery; my favourite is probably "The Brood" because it has one of the most satisfying urban locations, the character detail is just at the right level and the horror itself is visually described several times in a way that keeps your imagination going and keep guessing at what you are seeing, probably the scariest in the book.
Campbell is very skilled in many ways, he doesn't blunder in a lot of the places a lot of even my favourite horror writers do, but I'm sorry to say most of the time I was lukewarm or even bored by most of the stories. None of the stories are actually bad, all of them have good qualities, but I only found roughly 10 of the somewhere close to 40 stories satisfying. I think the hype around this book is excessive when I found it decent but not really satisfying.
But even if this had once been the best introduction to Campbell, he has filled the 20 years since with more short stories, next to a pile of novels nearing 30. So I couldn't judge him on this book and since he is in so many anthologies I'll be reading many more of his works before I decide if I want to try out his novels.
((The star rating represents how much I want you to buy this item and should not be taken as a measurement of artistic merit))