Inside the New Gothic: “Reading the Signs” by Ramsey Campbell

The Gothic is the most enduring literary tradition in history but in recent years friendly ghosts and vegetarian vampires threaten its foundations. The New Gothic is a collection of short stories which revisits to the core archetypes of the Gothic, the rambling, secret-filled building, the stranger seeking answers, the black-hearted tyrant, and reminds us not to embrace but to fear the darkness.

In ‘Reading the Signs,’ Ramsey Campbell, a master of the form who needs no introduction, turns a drive in the country into a nightmarish experience. You’ll never look at seatbelts the same way…

The terraced streets were deserted. The low sky appeared to have squashed every colour besides grey out of the ranks of narrow houses. The wan glare of the streetlamps blackened the window frames and the curtains that blinded the panes, the front doors that opened onto the street. He glimpsed movement among the vehicles parked half on the pavement, but it was only a cloud of fumes seeping from under the hood of a car. Beyond the car the road bent sharply, and, when it straightened, he saw somebody trudging ahead.

Even from several hundred yards away, Vernon saw the walker was unusually tall. As he put on speed for fear that the man might turn aside before Vernon could ask for directions, he became aware that the fellow’s head was disconcertingly small. It turned to peer towards the car, and the upper portion of the body slipped askew. The light of the next streetlamp found it as it righted itself, and Vernon realised that a child was perched on the man’s shoulders. He was relieved to see it but unnerved by having imagined anything else. He could only hope that he was safe to drive — that he wasn’t too much in need of sleep.

The boy had regained his hold on the man’s shoulders by the time Vernon drew alongside. The small face looked scrubbed shiny, gleaming under the streetlamp, and the wide eyes were alert despite the hour. His long nose twitched, perhaps with nerves, as his lips pinched inwards. The father’s long face had been dragged thinner by the weight of his jowls, and his dull tired eyes were underscored by skin that looked bruised, while his loose lips drooped under a bulbous nose…

For the rest, get The New Gothic from Stone Skin Press.

The Oxford Companion to English Literature describes Ramsey Campbell as “Britain’s most respected living horror writer.” He has been given more awards than any other writer in the field, including the Grand Master Award of the World Horror Convention, the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Horror Writers Association and the Living Legend Award of the International Horror Guild. Among his novels are The Face That Must Die, Incarnate, Midnight Sun, The Count of Eleven, Silent Children, The Darkest Part of the Woods, The Overnight, Secret Story, The Grin of the Dark, Ghosts Know, and The Kind Folk. Forthcoming are Bad Thoughts and Thirteen Days at Sunset Beach. His collections include Waking Nightmares, Alone with the Horrors, Ghosts and Grisly Things, Told by the Dead, and Just Behind You, and his non-fiction is collected as Ramsey Campbell, Probably. His regular columns appear in Prism, Dead Reckonings, and Video Watchdog, and he is the president of the Society of Fantastic Films. Ramsey Campbell lives on Merseyside with his wife, Jenny. His pleasures include classical music, good food and wine, and whatever’s in that pipe. You can find him online at

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