Daily Thought: The Power of Imagination and Horror

Ramsey Campbell in the preface to S.T. Joshi’s study of his work (Ramsey Campbell and Modern Horror Fiction) relates a story of how Fright and Imagination left their mark on his life and writing:

“…it was another image that set me on the course I was to make my career: the cover of an issue of Weird Tales. It was the November 1952 issue. I saw it in a sunlit window of a newsagent’s in Seabank Road in Southport, a train ride up the coast from Liverpool, and I must have been seven years old. I had never wanted to own anything so much. I couldn’t imagine what dread pleasures might lurk behind such a cover, but owning the picture would have been enough—a painting of a terrified bird or birdlike creature cowering beneath a luminous green sky while two monstrosities with immense human skulls for heads and very little in the way of bodies advanced towards it across a black desert. I pleaded with my mother—the price was only a shilling— but was judged far too young. It took me a decade to locate a copy of the issue, only to find that the cover depicted a vulture perched on a rib-cage near two half-buried skulls while two greenish skeletons, possibly ambulatory, hovered in the background. It seems clear that on that summer day in 1953 my imagination was dissatisfied with the image and so dreamed something stranger into existence, an approach it has taken to reality ever since.”1 (p. 13-14)

This notion of “imagination” being dissatisfied with certain images in life or thought and displacing them with a stranger reality hits the mark with most weird tales. The best weird tales seem to displace our normalized worlds of life and literature replacing them with that indefinable resonance of the power of Mind over the universe of death and horror that defines the genre as a whole. A painter I have always admired, Patrick Woodruff in one of his essay (have to find it!) once suggested that he painted with such ferocity the nightmares of his mind to objectify and imagine the demons that invisibly impinged upon his life.

Art is a form of demonology for Woodruff, a way of displacing the overpowering horror of existence by objectifying and thereby dissolving the emotional power of the unknown with an image of imagination. I have always seen the best cosmic horror in this way as putting a stamp on the demons of our collective nightmares, of tapping into the emotive force of the unknown dimensions surrounding us that our brain for the most part filters out due to our ancient natural and selective processes. The invisible realms of reality and the Real are still there but our brain does not allow us direct access so that the objects of our mind give us an indirect and imaginative access to them by way of fright, fear, and horror: putting a mask on our demon world image thereby dissolving its power over our life and minds.


  1.  Joshi, S.T. Ramsey Campbell and Modern Horror Fiction (Liverpool Science Fiction Texts and Studies, 23) . Liverpool University Press; 1 edition (January 7, 2001)