As you'd expect from Ramsey Campbell, GHOSTS AND GRISLY THINGS includes the most chilling, well written, powerful, and haunting horror tales you'll find out there today. While I don't think this collection of tales ranks with his best (eg, the horror masterpieces DARK COMPANIONS and THE HEIGHT OF THE SCREAM; both of which deserve to be considered as modern-day masterworks of the horror tale comparable to the best of M.R. James, Shirley Jackson, Fritz Leiber, Robert Aickman and H.P. Lovecraft), it is nonetheless one of the strongest collections since the Campbell retrospective ALONE WITH THE HORRORS.
The two vaguely positive reader reviews preceding this one just don't come close to doing justice to this book. It appears that the extraordinary, though often subtle, power of this collection of stories has eluded both reviewers. Furthermore, despite their claims to the contrary, there are no tales within concerned with vampires, classic horror creatures, or necrophilia (which one reviewer mistakenly claims to be the subject of "Through the Walls").
It's fair to say that many readers, especially those only used to very straightforward, more mainstream horror writers like Dean Koontz or Stephen King, may not get the full impact of a typical Campbell tale on the first reading. Campbell's style is unique, natural, and evocative--though free of the pretentious, heavy-handed flourishes that some writers seemingly confuse for a style. His technique can also be extremely subtle. Readers accustomed to the more in-your-face attempts at shock that pepper mainstream fiction might not even pick up on some of the more suggested elements in his work.
Campbell is not a writer who heaps redundant detail upon the reader. He often says much in just a few words--thus igniting the reader's imagination, rather than swamping it with excess and irrelevancies. His writing frequently captures the elusive and ambiguous feel of nightmares. The horror of his tales never feels obvious or familiar, unlike the stock villains and unimaginative ghoulies that too much modern horror writing relies on. His demons are enigmatic; they arise inexplicably, like incarnations of the ingrained violence or decay of a haunted landscape, or the manifestations of one's worst fears. His imagery is often grotesque, and sometimes stomach-churningly gruesome, but always conveyed with the flair of a master artist: capturing images through an elegant prose as fluid as the strokes of an Impressionist painter, rather than heaping overheated writing upon itself in some desperate effort to summon a response in the reader.
At the same time, Campbell's fiction is rooted in a thoroughly convincing and unsentimental realism. His characters and their relationships, and his settings, from run-down urban backstreets to sunny and remote countryside, ring true in a manner horror fiction rarely even aspires to. Only once such a solid foundation has been established does the nightmarish begin to intrude, as it does with such unnerving inevitability throughout Campbell's work. Indeed, nobody--with the possible exceptions of such noteworthy talents as Robert Aickman and M. John Harrison--rivals Campbell at blurring the lines between finely drawn reality and the frighteningly twisted logic, dread-filled atmosphere, and horrific, indelible imagery of nightmare.
GHOSTS AND GRISLY THINGS offers a number of excellently crafted tales that recall Campbell's best. Some of its best tales are "Missed Connection", "Root Cause", "The Alternative", "Looking Out", "Between the Floors", "The Sneering", and "Welcomeland": a selection outstanding not just in its diversity and the brilliance of individual tales therein, but as a demonstration of the range and power of which the best horror fiction is capable. If tales like those listed above fail to move, disturb, or haunt a reader, I'd submit that the problem is not with the writing at all, but with the reader. Meanwhile, a few stories, such as "Where They Lived" and "McGonagall in the Head", balance the darkness of their visions with an equally black humor.
That's not to say I think the entire collection is flawless. As stated earlier I don't think GHOSTS AND GRISLY THINGS packs the wallop of Campbell's best fiction collections. There's a couple of fairly lightweight pieces here, particularly "Going Under" and "A Street Was Chosen"--though the latter successfully invokes the feel of a playfully mean-spirited cartoon by Charles Addams or Edward Gorey. My primary gripe is probably with the last entry, the novella "Ra*e", which, though a fine, chilling tale, ranks as one of the least impressive works I've read by him. "Ra*e" reads like one of Campbell's less successful stabs at a more mainstream market for thriller/serial killer fiction, which I think is a major step down for a writer of his ability. But nonetheless, even the weakest material here is of a quality rarely matched in horror writing in general.
So overall this book is a must-read work of modern horror fiction. It also makes a fine starting point for anyone yet to read Campbell's work. Keep in mind, if you merely seek escapist thrills and cheap shocks: you need not look into this book or anything else written by Ramsey Campbell. However, if you're after well crafted stories that demonstrate how vital, imaginative, and powerful horror fiction can be, tales that will stay with you after you've read them, then you may thank yourself for checking out GHOSTS AND GRISLY THINGS.