The oddest thing to happen in my reading life occurred when I was thirteen. I remember it right down to the very evening. I was in my bedroom with Lord of the Rings, lost in it, evening air coming through the window open behind my head, as it was high summer. But suddenly I wasn’t quite lost in it. Something huge and narrowing happened to my imagination almost instantly. I could no longer get lost inside the book with the ease and joy I once did. I was on the outside looking in. The book became an artefact to observe, rather than a place to inhabit. It became shapes and shadows. Looking back now, I think I dissociated, pretty much permanently, and it took me years to get anywhere as close to that imaginative Eden.
However, there were momentary transportations back into that zone, whose unconditional welcome my imagination seemed to have permanently lost. These were provided by horror fiction, particularly work by two British writers, Clive Barker and my great obsession, my captain, Ramsey Campbell. Campbell’s short stories, set in strange oppressive suburban limbos, so accurately described that I felt his presence with me whenever I walked through liminal places like supermarket carparks at dusk, spoke to me like nothing else. I knew the alienation he got at. I still do. It is alienation in a minor key. A burbling weirdness out in the regions, away from all centres. The story I’ve selected, ‘The Other Side’, is vintage Campbell. A schoolteacher with a seething, alienated fear of the children he teaches, and a vision, through binoculars, of a clownish, capering figure, a mime, dancing in the ruins of a burned tenement on the other side of the river, where the children come from. The figure knows it is being watched, and the more it is watched, the more horrifyingly familiar it becomes.
First published in the World Fantasy Convention Programme, 1986. Collected in Waking Nightmares,1991, Tor Books and Alone with the Horrors, Arkham House, 1993