Father versus son, reality versus magic and a whole lot more… modern horror master Ramsey Campbell is back.
His latest novel is The Wise Friend, a cosy title for a distinctly uneasy story that questions what we think we know is real and demonstrates just how fragile our familial relationships can be. Cue Professor Patrick Semple, the nephew of acclaimed surrealist artist Thelma Turnbill.
In a time-skipping narrative, we discover how adolescent Patrick is enthralled by his aunt’s work, portraying her unique interpretations of the world. He spends childhood breaks with Thelma, reading mind-expanding novels and playing knockout whist, all the while being encouraged by Thelma to think differently. As Patrick’s teenage imagination runs riot, he is stuck in the middle of disagreements that are occurring more frequently between his aunt and uncle, Neville. Neville feels disconnected from his wife; the ideas and influences appearing in her work are, to him, unrecognisable. She used to paint what came to her, he explains to a perceptive young Patrick, but now, instead, she goes looking and Neville feels excluded. We learn how, feeling that she’d gone as far as she could in her own imagination, Thelma volunteered to take part in a drugs trial and felt her mind open up “like a flower.” Years later, after ditching Neville for an enigmatic new man, she dies in mysterious circumstances.
Skip to adult Patrick: a father now to adolescent Roy and ex-husband to Julia; both strained relationships that nicely mirror how Neville felt about Thelma. Roy is staying with Patrick during the summer holidays. Underage clubbing and drug-taking ensue, and all Patrick wants is for his son to be open with him. When Roy shows an interest in Thelma, whose art bent towards the occult, Patrick is keen to indulge the moody teen, so they dig out Thelma’s journal and begin visiting places which were significant to her and her art. These explorations spiral into something more sinister than Patrick could ever imagine, creating in him fears of hallucinogenic (or are they?) proportions. We learn about Thelma mostly by proxy, which is a shame. I would have liked Thelma to have had more of a presence, so I got to know her first-hand and truly understand just why Patrick and, later, Roy became so fascinated with her.
Discordant dialogue with unclear subtexts and eavesdropped conversations, peppered with awkward, almost passive aggressive confrontations, mixed in with Patrick being plagued by dreams and distant voices, and we have an unsettling journey to make through The Wise Friend. To borrow a line from the text, this novel is “laden with the undiscussed.” Are we to trust Patrick, our first-person narrator? Is he reliable? He often catches glimpses of unknown things in the corner of his eye, and to be honest, after the fourth or fifth occurrence, this device lost its dramatic impact somewhat. I read it feeling constantly one step behind the characters, and trying to play catch-up with what they knew, which was sometimes a little confusing – but, perhaps this is precisely the effect Ramsey Campbell desires. And that’s not to say the story isn’t gripping. There was no doubt I was following Patrick down a particularly nasty rabbit hole, and who knew what was at the bottom. After a truly heart-stopping, pivotal incident (and there’s more than one!), Patrick is forced to carry out investigations into Thelma without Roy, who is, by now, besotted with a new girlfriend.
For me, what’s done best is what’s lurking in the background. As much as the novel concerns itself with images and messages, and the interpretation of those, there is an ever-present idea of what books can do… what they can conceal or reveal… their power. Roy’s librarian mother Julia has an ironic disapproval of books, gifting her son a tablet to read on instead. Indeed, Patrick tells us in the very first line of the novel that he wished Roy liked books less. Then there are the voices: those of strangers, of overheard conversations, the disembodied platform announcer from the train station near Patrick’s flat which is a constant presence in his life – even a sat nav and an echo become uneasy companions in Campbell’s writerly hands. He is so masterful in how he can imbue a single sentence with creeping, unfading horror (there’s a grotesque two-line description of a cow that in other books would just be description). I also loved the industrial backdrop, described sparingly and hence with great effect: the relentless arrivals and departures at the nearby train station, and the ever-spinning offshore wind turbines on the horizon made for a great setting.
In a narrative that whizzes by so fast you can barely catch your breath, The Wise Friend shows just how much we take our realities for granted. It’s an unsettling, uneasy – and therefore exhilarating – ride.