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, the Living Legend Award of the International Horror Guild and the World Fantasy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2015 he was made an Honorary Fellow of Liverpool John Moores University for outstanding services to literature.

Ramsey Campbell lives on Merseyside with his wife Jenny. His pleasures include classical music, good food and wine, and whatever’s in that pipe.

by Ramsey Campbell

They were the last people Douglas expected to see in the village pub, but their appearance could hardly have been better timed.

“Good Lord,” he called, “Ken! Maureen! Come and help persuade Barb to drive up to Sentinel Hill.”

“Doug,” Barbara said uneasily, looking to the newcomers for help but finding none: they’d hurried to the table through the sawdust, eager as children kicking sand. She searched the pub: farmers’ faces propped on elbows like florid gargoyles, puffing clouds of pipe-smoke which buoyed up a last moth circling the oil-lamp on invisible elastic: ten miles from home and not a face to which she could look for aid.

“Barb, don’t be anti-social,” Doug reproved. “This is Ken and Maureen; I met them at the science-fiction convention. You two want to go up on the hill, don’t you?”

“If the young lady’s driving I don’t see why not,” Ken said, “but first I must buy you a drink.”

He took their orders and Maureen sat opposite Barbara, setting a transistor radio between them.

“Why don’t you want to go?” she asked Barbara. “You won’t be scared with Doug, surely. The hill’s got a terrific atmosphere, more so than this pub.”

Barbara thought of Sentinel Hill. They’d driven past at dusk on their way to the pub: the sloughed stone faces mobile with shadow; a few cars, uniformly grey, from which their passengers had climbed to count the stones and count again and descend baffled; a child at the centre of the circle prancing awkwardly and, as she’d slowed to let Doug watch, turning to her cardboard demon’s face. “I can’t see any sense in going,” she told Maureen. “It’s warm in here, but it’ll be icy cold up there this time of year.”

“I’m sure Doug will keep you warm,” Maureen said.

Barbara watched Ken returning from the bar, his arms beneath the tray supple as a waiter’s “Ken moves beautifully,” she said to Douglas.

“You can judge better than I.” That morning he’d awoken to rhythmic thuds in the next room; he’d strode across her bedroom, past the framed embroidery, the flowers in a cut-glass vase fragile as the chime of the bell her mother used to denote dinner, and found her leaping, graceful as a fountain, before a propped ballet manual. She hadn’t noticed him; he’d tiptoed back to his side of the bed and The Eighth Pan Book of Horror Stores. “Barb says you move beautifully,” he told Ken.

“I shall find a way to repay the compliment.”

“How did you two meet?” asked Maureen.

“Quite by accident,” Douglas said. “Someone invited me to what I thought was an all-night party, only it turned out to be a musical evening. Six weeks ago, that was. I suppose the Brichester SF Group was up in arms about that diatribe in the Herald, Ken?”

“These days we ignore the critics. Let’s face it, only fans appreciate sf. Mundanes never will. At least, it’ll never be appreciated as literature while the critics insist on setting it apart from the mainstream.”

“I’m a fantasy man myself.”

“I wish he’d read something else,” Barbara said, looking away as the moth toppled inside the oil-lamp: a flare, a wisp of smoke. “Not that science fiction’s any better.”

“Don’t start that again,” Douglas warned.

“Fantasy’s indistinguishable from sf? At the Convention you’d be shot at dawn!” Ken said. “I don’t mind fantasy, but I do wish people wouldn’t call it sf. Still, it explains why you’re drawn to the hill, Doug.”

“Not drawn,” Douglas said, glancing sharply at Barbara, “just interested.”

“It’s like Rollright,” Maureen interrupted. “Do you remember that girl at the Convention talking about the Druid circle at Rollright?” Douglas thought he did: they had found her asleep on a bed in Dave Kyle’s room, her hands full of change for one of the card-playing writers. It had been Douglas’ first Convention; the first night he’d staggered sickly from the Liverpool Group’s party, and the next day he’d had to sidle out from lectures as the stage began to slip below his vision. On the Saturday he’d met Ken and Maureen in the Brichester Group’s room, and then had gone early to bed, hearing someone putting his fist through a pane, the thud of a bottle, what sounded like a mob breaking down a bedroom door. It must have been the strangeness of it all. Even in the horror fans he’d never recognized his visions, the thrill of slipping into its niche the last of a set of magazines. The membranous wings against the moon, the face which peered back from the pool, the pale stone steps descending into darkness. He’d thought when he’d met Barbara that he could reflect his images in her. He was still trying.

“If you’re a science-fiction reader,” Barbara was saying to Ken, “you won’t be interested in Sentinel Hill.”

“Fan, dear, not reader.” He was lifting the last of his beer to Maureen’s lips. “I don’t want to seem hidebound,” he said.

Maureen caught his hand and wiped her mouth. “Come on, you two, drink up,” she called, “I want to play my radio.”

Ken pulled her to her feet and led her toward the door. Their shadows drew across the farmers and refreshed them: gargoyles, yes, but protective as a church. “Don’t let’s go tonight,” Barbara whispered. “Let’s go home instead.”

“We will, of course, afterwards. Your parents are away all weekend, after all.” Douglas stood; above his head a flake of ash fluttered in the oil-lamp. “We don’t want to seem unfriendly,” he said.

Beyond the houses in the square outside the pub stretched a field, iced by the moon, sharp as the surface of December air which instantly moulded to her. If they invited Ken and Maureen to her home for Christmas Eve next week perhaps the others wouldn’t mind their driving back to Exham now, but no doubt Ken and Maureen would be otherwise occupied. She’d tried her best; she didn’t want to make a scene. “Would you really rather not go to the hill?” Douglas asked.

“I don’t want to spoil the evening for everyone. I’m the only one who can drive.”

In the back seat Maureen switched on the radio. Singing, the car swung about and rushed headlong from the village, its lights touching small high empty windows, projecting a tilted ploughshare on a barn. Ahead, Barbara saw avenues of bleached trees sweep to meet them, immediately engulfed by shadow, thrashing as they passed. On the road stones gleamed like toads; one hopped. She wasn’t sure how far ahead the hill would rise. “I don’t like the name,” she said.

“What name?” Douglas enquired abstractedly, moving his arm along the back of the seat.

“Oh, Doug. Sentinel Hill.”

“I shouldn’t think you would,” Maureen said. “They’re supposed to guard the hill against anyone who doesn’t make a sacrifice to them.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Barbara declared; the bloodless trees waved wildly, a sinister greeting. “I suppose I’ve been brought up apart from such things. Who guard? A sacrifice to whom?”

“The Sentinels. You remember, Doug, that girl was saying they make pilgrimages to Rollright from Birmingham on Walpurgisnacht. I gather something like that happens here. Have you been to a Convention, Barbara?”

“She hasn’t yet but I hope she will next year,” Douglas said.

“I thought next Easter you might come up to Exham,” said Barbara, “to stay with us.”

The highest twigs pulled free of the moon like strands of cobweb, and the hill swelled up before her. Above the depression into which her car slowed as if summoned, the ring of shapes stood white and waiting. She could no longer play for time. She turned the car so that it was poised for the road; the headlamps spotlighted a gate into a field opposite, one bar comfortingly askew, pale uncombed grass beyond, barbed wire atop the gate silver as tips of lightning. “I’ll leave the engine running,” she said. “We won’t be long.”

“Think of the petrol,” Douglas expostulated.

“I don’t want the engine to catch cold.”

“I shall have my radio for protection,” decided Maureen, and dragged Ken toward the figures.
Over the tinny jangle and the announcer’s voice Barbara heard Ken: “I hope we’re not going to stay all night, this seems a bit futile to me.” The radio faded; soon it would be inside the circle. Barbara felt obscurely disturbed; it seemed like an insult, a blasphemy. Nonsense. The Sentinels were relics, no more.

Douglas took her hand and began to climb. He caught her glancing back; but all he could see was the car, thumping like his heart, and a gate. He felt deliciously unnerved. The moon stood above the circle like the beginnings of a face; ominously still against the tethered trees, the Sentinels surveyed the countryside. On one side of the circle, silhouettes of branches rippled like unquiet muscles; opposite, a figure held its stumps before it like a dog beneath the moon, begging or about to pounce. He hoped Barbara felt frightened too. He wanted her to grip his hand until it hurt.

They met the others in the centre of the ring. Their coats were shaken by the wind, the girls’ headscarves blew out like flats. “It’s senseless to call them the Sentinels,” Barbara said, “when some of them are facing inward.”

Maureen surveyed the circle, the rough ambiguous hump each back presented. “I don’t know where you get that,” she called above the radio. “They’re all facing outward.”

“But as we came up I thought – Oh, well. Doug must be affecting me.”

“There is a story, though, that you can’t count them,” Maureen continued, craning on tiptoe, clutching Ken’s shoulder for support. “Eighteen, I make it.”

“Seventeen, surely,” Ken argued. “You must have counted twice.”

“I have eighteen too,” Douglas said. “Barb?”

“Oh, I don’t know. You’re all pretty close, I’m sure. Yes, yes, eighteen. No, nineteen.”

“We must split up and go round,” Maureen said. “Me and Ken, you and Barbara. Here’s where we start.” She ran and crowned one figures with the radio. At once a voice sang from its erased mouth.

They followed her, bruising the moon-painted turf. “We’ll go anti-clockwise,” Douglas said. “One. Two.” The radio’s song streamed away on the wind. The Sentinels waited to be discovered. From the road they hadn’t looked like this to Barbara; each face set back in a cracked cowl, fragments of the cheeks emerging from shadow like petrified sponge; beneath the cowl, the folds and ridges of what once might have been a cloak, from which protruded hands or wrists held high like the parodied paws of an animal. The heads came up to Barbara’s shoulder. “What were they supposed to be?” she asked, instantly regretting.

“Six. Seven. I don’t know. Not human, anyway. Look at those pores. As though they’d suck your soul out. Or something might crawl from one of them.” He thought he remembered a story like that. “Now, Barb, I didn’t mean it. I was only joking.” He embraced her.

She closed her eyes. Not here, she thought, but she opened her mouth. Behind her eyelids floated fear; the moon was steady, waiting patiently, old as the Sentinels. They swayed. Something supported her. Two hands clutched her waist. She struggled and looked down. They were stone stumps. She choked; for a timeless second she was wedged, caught. She slipped on the turf and was free.

“I’m sorry I brought you,” Douglas said. Ken and Maureen passed them, counting: “Now then, we’re winning!” Maureen laughed.

The next face was blank as the moon, except for the eyes. They must have been deep indeed; in one a hollow spider rattled in a cobweb, like a loose eye. “Do we count this?” Douglas wondered, pointing.

Inside the circle, behind the figure, a bud of stone grew from the earth. She couldn’t see what it was meant to be. Douglas drew her to stand by the Sentinel while he tried to connect the protrusion with the figures. Unwillingly she glanced at what stood by her shoulder. From this angle she thought she saw the hint of a mouth; it was grinning. The head was about to turn; the eye would come first, the cobwebbed eye rolling in glee. “Come on, Doug,” she said unevenly. “The others want to go.”

“Seventeen, eighteen,” Douglas finished, touching the stone on which the radio was balanced. Beneath the moon the radio’s light had dimmed.

“Same as me,” Maureen told Ken triumphantly. “What did you have, Barbara?”

But Barbara was listening for some sound which should have underlaid the radio’s. She stared down the hill toward the road. The gate was gone. “The car!” she cried, and ran.

She climbed out of the driving seat as they pelted down. “It’s dead,” she said; she seemed on the edge of weeping. She gripped Douglas’ hand; he thrust his fingers through hers, happy.

“I trust you’re suitably frightened,” Ken said to Maureen.

“One hysterical female will do, I should think.”

“I’m not given to melodramatics.” Barbara gripped Douglas’ fingers between her own. “There’s nothing more frustrating than a dead car, that’s all. Can you fix engines, Ken?”

“Haven’t the faintest, I’m sorry to say. We don’t feel the need for a car. We only met you tonight because we took the first bus we saw.”

“I hope it won’t be too cold in the car.” Barbara pulled at Douglas’ hand.

“You’re joking! We must spend the night on the hill.”

“Well, my God,” Ken muttered.

“Poor Ken,” said Maureen. “I know we could be safe in bed. Never mind, we must take advantage of the atmosphere, at least for a while.”

As they climbed, Barbara looked for a ring on Maureen’s finger; there was none. She realised Maureen didn’t care about appearances, even flaunted them; it seemed cheap, somehow. She’d changed her own ring over for the weekend. If she saw a car approaching she’d run to it for help. With the engine, she meant. It couldn’t be long before they’d be back in Exham. Her thoughts returned there; she’d thought her embroidery was sewn upon her mind, but the threads had pulled free; she couldn’t blot out the approaching silent figures, nor Maureen’s voice: “What’s happened to my radio?”

Although they were close now, the music was no louder. They reached the crest of the hill, and the music vanished with the light from within. For a moment the radio stood mute, an absurd crown. Then something moved; it must have been the wind. The radio toppled to the turf.

“Well, that is annoying. It really is. I’m sure I haven’t used up all that battery,” Maureen said.

The car and radio were dead; the gate was swallowed. The moon poured vitality into the Sentinels; they seemed closer now, threateningly still against the surrounding restless woods. Barbara urged Douglas away from the figures. “I’m cold,” she told him. “Please, Doug. Let’s stay in the car.”

But Douglas was otherwise alert, to something like the soughing of the trees, yet not. Voices whispering. A chorused hiss: consonants which spat hostility, forming words which he could almost understand. He whirled. It was the radio. Before the others could turn, he had smashed the radio with his heel.

“Doug!” Barbara cried. He saw her hand flash. His cheek blazed, hot as crimson. His fist clenched, then slackened. While she’d thought she was preserving sanity she had lashed out at her own fears. She met his eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said. She clutched his hand; he didn’t respond.

“It’s all right.” But it wasn’t: once his mother had slapped his face when he’d shrieked at an autumn leaf which had leapt on his coverlet like a spider. In those days she’d made him sell his magazines as soon as he’d filled a shelf – just as Barbara might, he thought. He didn’t want a mother or a nurse.

“It’s damn well not all right,” Ken said. “Eleven quid that cost. There wasn’t eleven quid’s worth of bloody static in that radio.”

“I’ll pay, don’t worry.”

“Never mind, Ken, it was a lovely present,” Maureen interrupted. “We can always get another. Don’t let’s quarrel.” She crossed to Douglas. “Where was that stone you didn’t know whether to count?”

“Over here.” Barbara stood near the edge of the circle, biting her lip, staring at the turf. Ken followed them.

“Oh, yes. There’s another one opposite, I think.” Maureen turned back to Ken. “Talk to Barb,” she called. “Doug and I are telling ghost stories.”

“Well, if that’s the way it goes, I’ll look after Barb,” Ken said, kicking the radio, which had drawn electricity from the moon.

“I don’t need looking after!” But Barbara didn’t move away. Behind her a shape held up its hands.

“I didn’t really want to show you anything,” Maureen whispered. The head at her elbow seemed intent. “I didn’t want your friend to overhear. I know why you smashed the radio. I felt it too.”

“We’ll be all right,” Douglas whispered back. “There’s four of us. Listen, if you feel this way, maybe we really should stay in the car.”

“You were waiting for me?” A smile fluttered across Maureen’s mouth. She moved to place him against the wind, which had begun to flap more strongly about them. “Don’t you realise I’m terrified to death? I couldn’t show it either. Doug – I keep seeing something running round the edge of the circle.”

“What?” He’d raised his voice; he stared at each figure.

“Not now,” she hissed. “It’s never there when I look at it directly.”

“Listen,” he said intensely, “I’ve read about this sort of thing. It might be safer to stay within the circle.”

“Oh, God, I don’t know. I don’t know.” Her eyes roamed. “Look!” she cried.

Something pale had moved; he had thought it was a tree. The branches had now almost grasped the sinking moon. He peered about the circle. It was still; only the trees between swayed as if possessed. “There is something,” he whispered, wanting not to tell Maureen, to protect her. “I’m sure one of the figures has gone. It’s the one I had trouble with counting.”

Before he could stop her, she was shouting against the hectic wind: “You two, quick! Is the circle complete?” She twisted on her axis. The countryside tossed as if in the throes of a nightmare. Ken was yelling: “One, damn it, two, damn it…” Then Barbara shrieked: “No!”

Maureen hid her face on Douglas’ chest. “I know what she’s seen,” she mumbled. “I don’t know which it was. One of the figures isn’t stone.” She was trembling. Douglas put his arm about her shoulders.

Ken saw them; his face darkened. He pulled Barbara to him. She thrust him away and backed to the edge of the circle, her fists high. Behind her she was mimicked. Then she saw Maureen and Douglas. She cried out wordlessly and turned. Before they realised, she was stumbling down the hill towards the car.

“She’s made it,” Douglas said in Maureen’s ear, stroking her hair, trying to caress courage into her. “If we can follow – ” But she was still shaking. He knew what was wrong; they had to pass between the Sentinels, and he didn’t dare to search for what she had seen. The trees were leaping for the moon; the wind was thrusting him towards the Sentinels. He glanced about wildly for Ken. Ken was stooping by the radio, standing up with what he’d found: a razor-sharp fragment of metal.

Then the car started.

Maureen’s head turned. Together they ran to the edge of the circle. “We must make it,” he told her. “Close your eyes and cling to me.” But she hadn’t closed them when she screamed.

In the road below, the car had conjured forth the gate like an image of escape. They could see Barbara, tiny in the window from which light streamed forth like mist, intent on the dashboard, too intent to notice through the other window the figure squatting like a watchdog.

“The face,” Maureen sobbed, clutching Douglas.

Douglas hurled her away, to Ken, who’d dropped the shard of metal. “What face?” Ken muttered. “I can’t see.”

“Oh God,” Douglas shouted. “Barbara!” The car whipped about, losing the gate, and skidded into the road. A tunnel of trees sprang forth, into which it plunged. The figure ran alongside, skipping high.

Douglas slithered down the grass, ran panting up the road, falling on stones, running onwards. Ahead the tunnel of light dwindled; Barbara had gone. Only the last light of the car and, as it turned a corner, the shape which leapt easily onto the roof.

The others found Douglas kneeling in the road. When they spoke he met their eyes, and they were silent. Together they stared ahead into the night, waiting for the sound.

hungry influence searching dead

hungry moon influence searching dead