(2020) Ramsey Campbell, Flame Tree Press, £9.95 / US$14.95, pbk, 247pp, ISBN 978-1-787-58403-7
Patrick Torrington’s aunt Thelma was a successful artist whose late work turned towards the occult. While staying with her in his teens he found evidence that she used to visit magical sites. As an adult, he discovers her journal of her explorations, and his teenage son Roy becomes fascinated too. His experiences at the sites scare Patrick away from them, but Roy carries on the search, together with his new girlfriend. Can Patrick convince his son that his increasingly terrible suspicions are real, or will what they’ve helped to rouse take a new hold on the world?
Okay, I admit it, I’m biased. I’ve been a huge fan of Ramsey Campbell’s work ever since I read his short story “The Brood” in Kirby McCauley’s horror anthology Dark Forces which came out in 1980, which apart from containing Stephen King’s novella “The Mist”, was a veritable who’s who of horror writers at that time, with the only notable absentees being Peter Straub and James Herbert. I’m quite willing to debate that Campbell is the greatest horror short story writer ever. Why? Because he’s hit the mark more times, and done it longer than any other horror writer living or dead, and he’s not too shabby a novelist either. The book shelves of Hunter Towers are littered with his novels starting with The Doll Who Ate His Mother right through to his recent, triumphant “Brichester Mythos Trilogy” comprising of The Searching Dead, Born to the Dark and The Way of the Worm. His latest, The Wise Friend, shows him to be in top form, and for a writer who can switch between different types of horror from the supernatural to psychological, I’m pleased to report that he’s very much in his cosmic horror mode, reminiscent of his great novel, Midnight Sun.
Right from the start Campbell gets the sense of unease rising within the reader as a little girl remarks that someone is looking at her over the garden fence, but given the height of the fence, that can’t possibly be true, can it? Likewise as our hero, Patrick recalls his aunt’s funeral we are aware of a strange, disturbing figure on the edge of proceedings. This is just the start of a journey into a world where things are not what they seem. Patrick is divorced, trying hard to be a good, but not overbearing father, to his son Roy and so is happy to accompany Roy on some trips to visit places that inspired his late aunt, Thelma. She, as alluded to above, was a famous artist, even though her later work became rather strange, and difficult to interpret, unless you could look at them in the way she intended and see the hidden meaning within. And this viewing also includes a figure that keeps recurring in her work. But was this work a creation, or her rendering of something she had encountered?
The story is told from Patrick’s viewpoint, with occasional flashbacks to his younger self and his encounters with his aunt. Through his eyes we view a world that is almost a magic realism one in that Campbell builds on layers of description to view give us something that is more than real, it is hyper real, but can it be trusted? Can anything, and anyone be trusted as Patrick’s worldview slides into concern, suspicion, distrust, and possibly paranoia where even the most mundane things can be laced with menace as Patrick learns more about the places which inspired his aunt, and fears for the life of his son, and even fate of the world, if Roy continues on his quest accompanied by his strange girlfriend Bella.
Told over 29 chapters, The Wise Friend is a masterclass of unease and narrative drive, and pretty much un-putdownable. Recommended.
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