Ramsey Campbell, along with Clive Barker and Brian Lumley, is one of England's most successful horror writers. Rising from writing teenage Lovecraft pastiches to his own psychologically realistic horror tales, along the way Campbell found the time to write four very good stories about the exploits of Ryre, a mercenary swordsman wandering a haunted and corrupt world.
The first, "The Sustenance of Hoak", like all the rest, appeared in Andrew Offutt's interesting and often very fun Swords Against Darkness anthologies from the late seventies (there are five of them and they're all worth tracking down). As befits Campbell's day job as a writer of horror tales there's more than a touch of terror to this story.
We are introduced to Ryre and his companion Glode just after they figured out what to do following the end of the war they fought in recently. Their pay was small and there was no more on the horizon. Finally, despite a bit of ridicule from their fellow mercenaries, they decided to head off for the fabled and as yet unrecovered treasure of Hoak.
Hoak is located on a continent an ocean away and in the depths of a great forest. Near their destination Ryre and Glode are set upon by bandits. While able to escape them, Glode is severely wounded and only Ryre is fit to confront the barricaded gates of Hoak and face down those within.
Once within the walls he discovers a town that wouldn't be out of place in Campbell's Lovecraftian Severn Valley tales. Everyone and everything is drab and limp. Along the main street he sees what at first he takes for a man and then realizes is large, almost limbless tree stump with a mouthless face at its summit that he assumes to be the local god. Most people seem to subsist solely on a strangely enticing liquor. By morning disturbing events have begun and Ryre allows himself to be pulled toward a monstrous confrontation.
Ryre is a fairly generic barbarian mercenary, towering in height and utterly loyal to his companion. The world and adventure Campbell sets him to, however, is exquisitely creepy and original. The unnaturalness of the town of Hoak and its mysteries are an affront to Ryre's straightforward warrior mind. Campbell describes in great detail a town where the children's faces are "pinched and old" and there "parched streets" and "senile houses".
I had never encountered Ryre until last year and I'm quite happy I did. All four Ryre stories are well plotted and together create a world that seems to be rotting away. Towns and people fade away, their personalities are stolen and people are eaten by monsters. It's a perfect world for a warrior to wage war against.
All the Ryre stories and four other heroic fantasy tales by Campbell are collected in "Far Away & Never" from Necronomicon Press. It's something I'd like to get my hands on someday but not today at $40 and up. Get cheap used copies of the Offutt's collections instead.