The Severn Valley is the setting of several fictional towns and other locations created by horror writer Ramsey Campbell. Part of the Cthulhu Mythos begun by H. P. Lovecraft, the fictional milieu is arguably the most detailed mythos setting outside of Lovecraft Country itself.
In his early writings, Campbell used the setting of Lovecraft's stories, in the fictional New England area of the Miskatonic River valley. Fellow Lovecraftian writer August Derleth suggested that instead of copying the older works, Campbell should instead use a setting that he knew personally: his hometown of Liverpool. Campbell's creation of Severn Valley is a reflection of the English countryside that he knew well. By the mid-60s, Campbell acknowledges that "my invented town of Brichester, originally intended as the Severn Valley equivalent of Lovecraft's Arkham, was Liverpool by now in all but name."
The River Severn is an actual river in Wales and western England. Campbell's stories mention various real-world locales, including the Cotswold Hills, "The Church in High Street" Berkeley, and the A38 road. "The Room in the Castle" These references place "Campbell Country" in the southern part of Gloucestershire, roughly between the cities of Gloucester and Bristol. This area is more correctly referred to as the Vale of Berkeley or the Severn Estuary; the real-world Severn Valley refers to an area around fifty miles (80 km) further north.
Campbell invented his locales, when, as a 15-year-old Lovecraft fan, he submitted Lovecraftian pastiches, set in Lovecraft's New England, to Arkham House's August Derleth. "Derleth told me to abandon my attempts to set my work in Massachusetts," Campbell wrote in the introduction to his collection Cold Print, and he accordingly rewrote his stories with an English setting. His short story "The Tomb-Herd", for example, was originally set in Lovecraft's Kingsport, Massachusetts. It was transposed to the Cotswold town of Temphill when it appeared as "The Church in High Street", Campbell's first published story, in the 1962 Arkham House anthology Dark Mind, Dark Heart.
In that story, Campbell refers to hints "of actual worship of trans-spatial beings still practiced in such towns as Camside, Brichester, Severnford, Goatswood, and Temphill," indicating that he had already conceived of most of the principal locations of his Severn Valley setting. At the time, the teenage Campbell had never been to the actual Severn Valley; the imaginary landscapes he described may relate more to the post-World War II Merseyside scenes he was familiar with. He recalled in an interview:
|“||There was probably a period when I was reading and trying to imitate Lovecraft, whilst equally exploring what was then a considerably ruined Merseyside landscape. Whole slews of ruined streets, which I was perfectly happy to wander through on my way to odd, out of the way cinemas. And because I saw the city all around me as this kind of gothic, almost supernatural landscape, I think a lot of that fed into my writing.||„|
|~ Cold Print (website), "A Demon by Daylight"|
Campbell's first collection of short stories, The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants (1964), was filled with stories that take place in the Severn Valley setting, including "The Room in the Castle", "The Horror From the Bridge", "The Insects from Shaggai", "The Render of the Veils", "The Inhabitant of the Lake", "The Moon-Lens", "The Mine on Yuggoth", "The Plain of Sound", and "The Stone on the Island". His next collection, Demons by Daylight (1973), though described by Campbell as a conscious effort to throw off Lovecraft's influence, again used this Cthulhu Mythos-linked setting for several tales: "Potential", "The Sentinels", "The Interloper", "The Enchanted Fruit", "Made in Goatswood", and a metafictional examination of Campbell's own Lovecraftian beginnings called "The Franklyn Paragraphs".
After Demons by Daylight, Campbell returned to the Severn Valley sporadically, in such works as "Dolls" (in 1986's Scared Stiff), "The Tugging" (The Disciples of Cthulhu 1996), and the 2003 novel The Darkest Part of the Woods. In 1995 he contributed a rather tongue-in-cheek story set in the Severn Valley, "The Horror Under Warrendown", to an anthology of horror fiction called Made in Goatswood.
Made in Goatswood
Made in Goatswood, edited by Scott David Aniolowski, and published by Chaosium, is a collection of stories by various writers set in Campbell's fictionalized Gloucestershire. Contributors to the anthology include A. A. Attanasio, Richard A. Lupoff, and Robert M. Price.
Some of the major sites of Campbell's Severn Valley include Brichester, Goatswood, Temphill, Severnford, Clotton, and Camside.
Brichester is the main town of Campbell's Severn Valley, the setting of several tales and often a background element of stories that take place elsewhere. (It plays the same role in Campbell's stories that Arkham does in Lovecraft's.) "These days Brichester has an impressively mundane surface," Campbell writes in "The Franklyn Paragraphs", "but I still sense that it may crack."
"The Enchanted Fruit" portrays "the daily press of Brichester, the false harsh rainbow of packed cars", and "churches robbed of dignity by plummeting iron balls" (though the protagonist recalls "streets where some lone house had struck him speechless with its silent pride, the noble bearing of its age and history").
Brichester has a wide variety of media outlets. "The Moon-Lens" refers to the Brichester Weekly News. "The Tugging" establishes that the town also has a daily —The Brichester Herald, advertised as "Brichester's Evening Voice"— as well as a radio station, Radio Brichester. A reporter for the Herald, Ingels, is that story's main character. He complains at one point that the town lacks a TV studio. "The Franklyn Paragraphs" gives Brichester a horror fanzine, Spirited.
"Cold Print" refers to Brichester's Ultimate Press, who are described as publishing an important manuscript, once written by the medieval heretic Johannes Henricus Pott, Pott's untitled manuscript is mentioned in "The Mine on Yuggoth". a new 12th volume of the Revelations of Glaaki, and an entire line of bondage-related pornography. Brichester also has the True Light Press, mentioned in "The Franklyn Paragraphs," which turns out to be Roland Franklyn's self-publishing operation.
Brichester Central Library appears in "The Franklyn Paragraphs", where Errol Undercliffe notes of it, "You couldn't get farther from a Lovecraft setting." It does, however, carry a copy of Roland Franklyn's We Pass From View—as well as Ramsey Campbell's The Inhabitant of the Lake.
"Potential" opens at the town's Cooperative Hall, site of "Brichester's First Be-In-Free Flowers and Bells!" (The name of one of the bands that plays the be-in, the Faveolate Collosi, alludes to Campbell's story "The Mine on Yuggoth".) The Co-operative Social Club is also referred to in "The Interloper".
While "The Enchanted Fruit" mentions "the hard bleached University smashing and swallowing ornate facades", in The Darkest Part of the Woods, Brichester University's architecture is more traditional, with a "long, lofty Gothic facade, and high pointed windows." An "echoing vaulted sandstone corridor" leads from "the towering front doors of the university."
One of the first mentions of Brichester University is in "The Horror From the Bridge", where it's said "they were familiar with things whose existence is not recognized by science." In that story, Philip Chesterton, formerly a librarian for the British Museum, takes a job at the university's library in 1901 in order to keep an eye on strange events near Clotton. The library once kept copies, in a locked case, of "the Necronomicon, Revelations of Glaaki, De Vermis Mysteriis, and other titles as ominous", but in the 1960s "a Muslim student... spray(ed) them with lighter fluid and set fire to them", destroying them completely.
In "The Mine on Yuggoth", Brichester native Edward Taylor enrolled in the university in 1918, where he "led a witch cult, centering around a stone slab in the woods off the Severnford road." Taylor, along with other participants including "the artist Nevil Craughan, and the occultist Henry Fisher", were subsequently expelled.
There is a science-fiction shop, Worlds Unlimited, near the University campus "in the dilapidated Victorian streets which have become the student quarter" (The Darkest Part of the Woods, Chapter 3-4). In the same neighborhood is the Scholar's Rest: "Beneath a jauntily sagging slate roof the squat sandstone building faced the university campus... Each window of the pub held a swelling like a great blind eye... (T)he dim low-timbered interior was lined with old books." The pub's strongest ale is called Witch's Brew (The Darkest Part of the Woods, Chapter 10). Another near-campus dining option is Peace & Beans, a vegetarian restaurant with "rough wooden tables" and a clientele of "students and a few health-conscious oldsters."
Mercy Hill, a Brichester neighbourhood with "ribs of terraced streets" stands out in Campbell's world for its "mundanity", as he describes the scene in "The Franklyn Paragraphs":
|“||In the streets, couples were taking their ice-creams for a walk; toward the Hill, tennis-balls were punctuating their pauses, girls were leaping, bowls were clicking, and from behind the houses, a procession was bearing trays of cakes to the pavilion.||„|
In the same story, however, at the "bottom of Mercy Hill" is Dee Terrace, the address of the house of Roland Franklyn, which is described as "look(ing) like Satan was in residence":
|“||(A)n extra room had been added on the left, and its windows had been blocked out with newer brick; all the curtains, except those of one ground-floor window draped in green, were black. The house looked deserted, the more so for its garden, which could not have been tended for years; grass and weeds grew knee-high.||„|
Mercy Hill is mentioned in "The Horror From the Bridge" as the site of a 19th-century prison. In "The Moon-Lens", Mercy Hill Hospital is the name of the institution where, in 1961, Roy Leakey seeks mercy killing from Dr. James Linwood, an advocate of euthanasia. The story "The Mine on Yuggoth" records that Edward Taylor was taken to Mercy Hill Hospital, shortly after his failed 1924 ascent of the Devil's Steps, and ever since then, his X-ray scans have been placed in a restricted file.
Franklyn is buried in the graveyard next to Mercy Hill Hospital, where:
|“||(w)illows, their branches glowing stippled curves, were spaced carefully toward the Hill out of which the cemetery was carved; in the hill itself were catacombs, black behind ivy or railings, and straight above stood the hospital, a grey reminder of hope or despair... The avenues were guarded by broken-nosed angels yearning heavenward; one showed a leprous patch where her left eye and cheek had sloughed away. Urns stood here and there like empty glasses at a sick bed.||„|
The seedier side of town is known as Lower Brichester, a neighborhood described in "The Franklyn Paragraphs" as "the sort of miniature cosmopolis one finds in most major English towns: three-story houses full of errant lodgers, curtains as varied as flags at a conference but more faded, the occasional smashed pane, and the frequent furtive watchers." While in "The Tugging", a tale with an apocalyptic theme, the neighborhood is depicted as being in an advanced state of dereliction:
|“||Dogs scrabbled clattering in gouged shop-fronts, an uprooted streetlamp lay across a road, humped earth was scattered with disembowelled mattresses, their entrails fluttering feebly. He passed houses where one window was completely blinded with brick, the next still open and filmy with a drooping curtain... (W)hole streets were derelict... gaping houses and uneven pavements... Houses went by, shoulder to shoulder, ribs open to the sky, red-brick fronts revealing their jumble of shattered walls and staircases.||„|
The observer finds himself sympathizing with the district's "abandonment, and indifference to time".
In "The Franklyn Paragraphs", Lower Brichester's Pitt Street is the former address of Errol Undercliffe (1937-1967), a writer who specializes in "contemporary treatments of traditional macabre themes." In "The Tugging", it's the location of the Brichester Arts Lab, a program run by Annabel Pringle that practices "associational painting"—a technique that uses free association to discover images, starting with suggestions from the I Ching.
"Cold Print" takes place in Lower Brichester, at a bookshop known only in the story as American Books Bought and Sold. This store was the site of a manifestation of the entity Y'golonac.
North of Brichester is the body of water referred to in "The Inhabitant of the Lake", named as both Deepwater Falls and Deepwater Lake in Robert M. Price's short story "In Search of Lake Monsters". Supposedly once an impact-crater, the lake is overlooked by a row of houses called Lakeside Terrace, built to serve as dwellings for a small cult who worshiped the extraterrestrial being Glaaki. Led by one Thomas Lee, and remaining at the lake from 1790 until shortly after 1865, the cult received the Revelations of Glaaki as dream-sendings, and soon published an expurgated nine-volume set from an original 11-volume manuscript. Long after the cult's disappearance, local painter, Thomas Cartwright, took up residence at Lakeview Terrace, where he worked on the painting The Thing in the Lake, before his mysterious demise.
The Devil's Steps
As described in "The Mine on Yuggoth", the Devil's Steps are a "rock formation beyond Brichester" which:
|“||stretched fully 200 feet up in a series of steps to a plateau; from some way off the illusion of a giant staircase was complete, and legend has it that Satan came from the sky to walk the earth by way of those steps... In the center of the plateau stood three stone towers joined by narrow catwalks of black metal between the roofs... The (central) tower is approximately 30 ft. in height, windowless, and with a strangely angled doorway opening on a staircase leading into darkness.||„|
At the top of the main tower is a dimensional gate to the planet Yuggoth. The towers are surrounded by an "alien species" of fungus, with "a grey stem covered with twining leaves" that uncurl toward approaching visitors.
Goatswood, first described in the short story "The Moon-Lens", is an isolated town surrounded by woods to the east of Brichester. The narrator of that story is struck by the town's atmosphere: "The close-set dull-red roofs, the narrow streets, the encircling forests—all seemed somehow furtive." As in Lovecraft's Innsmouth, the residents of Goatswood have a distinctive, offputting appearance; a typical resident is described as "revoltingly goatlike," resembling "a medieval woodcut of a satyr," and clad in "grotesquely voluminous" garments. Instead of worshiping a race of monsters from the sea (the Deep Ones), however, they worship Shub-Niggurath.
The most prominent feature of Goatswood is the titular Moon-Lens: A "metal pylon, 50 feet high, rose from the center of the square. At the top (is)... a large convex lens surrounded by an arrangement of mirrors, and all hinged on a pivot attached to the ground by taut ropes." It's said, by perhaps an unreliable character, to have originally been built by the Romans.
Goatswood is sometimes an unavoidable connection on the train route from Exham to Brichester. The infrequent visitors to Goatswood, "The Moon Lens" reveals, eat at the Station Cafe and stay at the Central Hotel.
In a later story, "Made in Goatswood", the village has more to offer to outsiders: a curiosity shop with a toad-like proprietor whose "hands were brown and crinkled as the paper in which he wrapped the parcels," selling disturbing lawn ornaments; a fruit stand in a "canvas stall like a shrine" where fruit resembling peaches are offered by a girl whose "eyelids lowered wickedly." There's even a red light district, Fitzroy Street, on the edge of town:
|“||Before the woods closed in, a last street of dingy houses lay exhausted between gardens high with grass, uneven with rocks, and, on the corner, a newspaper-shop, its cramped windows full of yellow cards; baked mud preserved the tracks of cars.||„|
"The Franklyn Paragraphs" mentions a number of places visited by "the circle of young men" around occultist Roland Franklyn; Goatswood is among them.
In the "woods toward Goatswood" is a clearing, according to "The Insects from Shaggai", where a meteorite once fell in the 17th century; a coven that subsequently worshiped there was executed by real-life witchfinder Matthew Hopkins. Within the clearing is a mysterious gray cone, home to the titular creatures; the story "The Moon-Lens" also alludes to this artefact.
These woods are also featured in "The Enchanted Fruit", whose protagonist at first finds them enticing; "Each corridor of trees seemed made to be explored, each green shadow promised mystery;" and later forbidding; "A screen of leaves seemed secretive; parted, it revealed only vistas of dim branches." In the forest, he finds a tree whose "rich trunk, dark yet warm, stood alone on a mound of autumn built high from the edge of the glade;" he eats the fruit of this tree, "large as apples, soft and shaped as peaches", to his immediate delight and eventual regret.
Temphill is the main setting for "The Church in High Street", Campbell's first published story in the Severn Valley. There it is described as a "decaying Cotswold town" and "a place of ill repute." Describing the town, the narrator notes that:
|“||around the blackened hotel at the center of Temphill, the buildings were often greatly dilapidated... gabled dwellings, often with broken windows, and patchily unpainted fronts, but still inhabited. Here scattered unkempt children stared resignedly from dusty front steps or played in pools of orange mud on a patch of wasted ground, while the older tenants sat in twilit rooms.||„|
The church of the title is set on a hill near the center of town, around which the town was built. It is said to exist "conterminously" with a temple of Yog-Sothoth. It is described:
|“||The steps... rose between green ruins of brick walls, to the black steeple of a church, among pallid gravestones... The tottering gravestones, overgrown with repulsively decaying vegetation, cast curious shadows over the fungus-strewn grass.||„|
Those who penetrate the catacombs beneath the church; reached via a trap door beneath the first set of pews; find themselves unaccountably unable to leave the town, as if the streets were turning back on themselves.
In "The Church on High Street", Temphill is home to John Clothier, "a man possessed of an extraordinary amount of ancient knowledge," and formerly Albert Young, a young man working on a "book on witchcraft and witchcraft lore." In the subsequent story "The Horror From the Bridge," Temphill is where James Phipps acquires "extremely rare chemicals," as well as his mysterious wife.
"The Franklyn Paragraphs" lists Temphill as one of the places that "the circle of young men" around Roland Franklyn visit. Franklyn's widow, complaining about the horrors he had put her through, says: "He took me down to Temphill, and made me watch those things dancing on the graves."
Severnford, a community on the River Severn, almost directly northwest of Brichester, is described in "The Plain of Sound" as a dull place to visit:
|“||Once one leaves behind the central area of Severnford, where a group of archaic buildings is preserved, and comes to the surrounding red-brick houses, there is little to interest the sight-seer. Much of Severnford is dockland, and even the country beyond is not noticeably pleasant to the forced hiker... (S)ome of the roads are noticeably rough.||„|
The forced is a reference to the fact there is only one bus-route daily from Severnford to Brichester, which leaves in the morning. If visitors miss it, walking may be the only alternative. It's a full morning's walk away, and the route is not well-marked.
One attraction is the Inn at Severnford, a facility in central Severnford which is said to be "one of the oldest (inns) in England". However, in 1958 it was found to be "temporarily" closed to the public, reportedly because of repeated vandalism.
Severnford and its outskirts are the main setting of Campbell's "The Room in the Castle", in which the Anglican church in Severnford is noted for having "a stone carving depicting an angel holding a large star-shaped object in front of a cowering toad-like object."
The castle of the title is a ruined mansion on the outskirts of town, past Cotton Row: "It was set on the crest of the hill, three walls still standing, though the roof had long ago collapsed. A lone tower stood like a charred finger against the pale sky." It was once the home of Sir Gilbert Morley, described as an "18th-century warlock" who imprisoned the Great Old One Byatis in the castle's basement.
Campbell returned to Severnford in the story "Potential", a setting in which "(t)he streets were lit by gas-lamps, reflected flickering in windows set in dark moist stone." The climactic scene of that story is set in a disused Severnford pub called The Riverside, used as a sort of clubhouse by cultists who listen to Penderecki and read Roland Franklyn and Ultimate Press pornography. There is a suggestion that the Severnford authorities are complicit in the cult's activities: "Oh, the police know about this," one cult member says. "They're used to it by now, they don't interfere."
About two-and-a-half miles (by foot) out of Severnford, after passing a "thickly overgrown forest, where (one) would certainly have become further lost," and crossing "montonous fields (without) seeing a building or another human being," one comes to "an area of grassy hillocks," followed by a region of "miniature valleys". It is in one of these that the title phenomenon of "The Plain of Sound" was encountered, next to a house once inhabited by former Brichester University professor Arnold Hird. This peculiar phenomenon can become a gateway into the Gulf of S'glhuo.
In the story "The Faces at Pine Dunes", Severnford is named by the fictional book Witchcraft in England as one of several centers of witchcraft activity—apparently the only place in the Severn Valley so listed.
The Island beyond Severnford
The Island beyond Severnford is referred to in the title of the story "The Stone on the Island". Notes found in the story describe it:
|“||Approx. 200 feet across. roughly circular. Little vegetation except short grass. Ruins of Roman temple to unnamed deity at the center of island (top of slight hill). Opp. side of hill from Severnford, about 35 ft. down, artificial hollow extending back 10 ft. and containing stone.
Island continuously site of worship. Poss. pre-Roman nature deity (stone predates Roman occupation); the Roman temple built. In medieval times witch supposed to live on island. In 17th cen. witch-cult met there and invoked water elementals. In all cases stone avoided. Circa. 1790, witch-cult disbanded, but stray believers continued to visit.
In the 19th century, the island became associated with a series of shocking mutilations. Victims, only some of whom survive the ordeal, began with witch-cult follower Joseph Norton in 1803, followed by Severnford clergyman Nevill Rayner in 1826, an unnamed prostitute in 1866, who was taken to Brichester Central Hospital, a local folk customs investigator named Alan Thorpe in 1870, a Brichester University student in 1930, and Mercy Hill paranormal researcher Dr. Stanley Nash and his son Michael (the latest victim) in 1962.
"The island beyond Severnford" is visited by Franklyn's circle in "The Franklyn Paragraphs". The island is reachable via: "a small hut" "on the edge of the docks" that advertises, "Hire a boat and see the Severn at its best!" ("The Stone on the Island").
Clotton, the scene of Campbell's "Dunwich Horror" pastiche, "The Horror From the Bridge", is a small town set where the river Ton flows into the Severn. Only a "few leaning red-brick houses... remain of the uptown section of the once-prosperous town;" the rest of the town was deliberately destroyed in 1931, for reasons explained in the story. In "The Horror Under Warrendown," Clotton is mentioned as "a small settlement which appeared to be largely abandoned, its few occupied houses huddling together on each side of a river." The story notes the town's "stagnant almost reptilian smell and chilly haze."
The town's most noteworthy feature, also dating to 1931, is a "20-foot high concrete building...on the bank of the Ton", with an "eldritch sign clumsily engraved on each wall", carvings that "were blurred by moss and weather."
The town was once home to James Phipps, "a gaunt pallid-faced man, with jet-black hair, and long bony hands" who died in 1898, aged well over a century, and his son Lionel Phipps (1806-1931). Both were odd individuals given to "unorthodox scientific researches" and nocturnal excavation. They lived on Riverside Alley, "a little-tenanted street within sight of a bridge over the Ton".
Outside of Clotton, according to "The Horror From the Bridge", there is a "pit on a patch of waste ground on what used to be Canning Road, near the river," containing "roughly-cut steps, each carrying a carven five-pointed sign, which led down into abysmal darkness."
In "The Franklyn Paragraphs", which mentions Clotton as another place visited by the Franklyn circle, Franklyn's widow notes that "we went down the steps below Clotton."
Camside is home to the occultist Henry Fisher, who summons the Outer God Daoloth in the story "The Render of the Veils". Fisher was expelled from Brichester University in "The Mine on Yuggoth". The town's paper, the Camside Observer, is mentioned in that story, as well as in "The Room in the Castle", which also notes that the town was the home of James Phipps, until he was expelled in 1800 for practicing weird science, resettling in Clotton.
In "The Mine on Yuggoth", Edward Taylor is committed to the Camside Home for the Mentally Disturbed in 1924, after his ascent of the Devil's Steps.
In "The Horror Under Warrendown", written for the 1995 Severn Valley anthology Made in Goatswood, Campbell introduced Warrendown, a village off the main road between Birmingham and Brichester. (Clotton, the story notes, is between Brichester and Warrendown.) The narrator describes it as:
|“||an insignificant huddle of buildings miles from anywhere.... Where the road descended to the level of the village it showed me that the outermost cottages were so squat they appeared to have collapsed or to be sinking into the earth of the unpaved road. Thatch obscured their squinting windows.... At the center of Warrendown the cottages, some of which I took to be shops without signs, crowded towards the road as if forced by the mounds behind them, mounds as broad as the cottages but lower, covered with thatch or grass. Past the center the buildings were more sunken; more than one had collapsed, while others were so overgrown that only glimpses through the half-obscured unglazed windows of movements, ill-defined and sluggish, suggested that they were inhabited.||„|
Near the edge of the village, which is only half a mile wide, there is a school, described as "one long mound fattened by a pelt of thatch, grass, and moss." The school is connected to a rotting, half-ruined church that "once possessed a tower, the overgrown stones of which were scattered beyond the edge of the village." Inside the church, "the dozen or so pews on either side of the aisle, each pew broad enough to accommodate a large family, were only bloated green with moss and weeds; but the altar before them had been levered up, leaning its back against the rear wall of the church and exposing the underside of its stone." Where the altar used to be is the entrance to a system of tunnels that lead to the entity referred to in the story's title.
The air in the village is filled with a "rotten vegetable sweetness". The inhabitants, like those of Lovecraft's Innsmouth, share a "look", but while the people of Innsmouth resemble frogs, those of Warrendown call to mind rabbits, with "plump yet flattish face(s)" that sometimes appear furry, "swollen" eyes, "bestial" teeth, and outsized ears and feet.