A Wise Friend Author: Ramsey Campbell Publisher: Flame Tree Press
Page count: 256pp Release date: 23rd April 2020
Academic professor Patrick Torrington has his son Roy staying with him, and as always happens when teenager Roy and his Dad get together, the subject of ‘Thelma’ the strange family member, Patrick’s aunt, comes up. She was a renowned artist whose later works turned towards the occult.Thelma has recently passed away – fallen off a block of flats.For father and son, Patrick and Roy, Thelma means so much more than it does to Patrick’s ex wife Julia. Like most stories, this curiosity about Thelma leads the pair into investigation of her art, and her past. Secrets lie at the heart of this family, and Thelma’s unique artwork.The hidden ghost in the closet for this family is ‘Aunt Thelma’ and her surreal paintings, which lead to weird visions.There is a clear heritage and tradition of horror stories linked to art; from Dorian Gray to Clive Barker’s symbiotic methods, to Apartment 16 by Adam Nevill, the William Blake inspired killer ‘Red Dragon’ and Lovecraft. In a recent review, John Llewelyn Probert compares its influences to Machen or MR James, and it is easy to see why. Between the use of art, and the style of narrative, there is a classic storytelling vibe that harkens back to traditional horror such as The Omen.Campbell has clearly spent time with a teen, or two, considering the accurate ‘whiny’ nature of Roy at the beginning. Authenticity knows no bounds, when it comes to Campbell’s dedicated research! In the early stages of the book, it isn’t quite clear if Patrick, in particular is experiencing a a form of Pareidolia, or really seeing faces within etchings, wood or other surfaces.Imagery of greenness, nature and the wood feeling alive offsets a creepiness that pervades the text, inspiring a deep sense of foreboding, as something, or someone, seems to crawl out of the metaphorical earth into reality.This is folk/ritual horror at its best; Place feels central to this book, and in the urban areas, the blocks of flats where Thelma fell off, feel like a grotesque lovechild of Ira Levin’s ‘Rosemary’s Baby and J. G. Ballard’s ‘High Rise’, a sense of wrongness infecting the area.Throughout the novel, there are hints of voices heard outside our sphere, images that the eye cannot see clearly, and in the chapters with Patrick as a boy with his aunt, we realise that he has seen much more than he would acknowledge to himself.It’s clear Patrick is uncomfortable with Roy’s growing obsession with his great aunt Thelma. But like the proverbial dog with a bone, Roy won’t let go, and has a partner in crime, his new girlfriend, Bella.Amidst the supernatural elements there’s a feeling that perhaps Campbell is writing of ‘gaslighting’, with the victim being the unusual and unexpected one. Most writers at some point have witnessed such behaviour, and it’s a theme throughout the book that Patrick doubts what is happening frequently.There’s a certain part, almost three quarters in, when he makes a discovery and then it all seems to click, and looking back at what you’ve read is beyond creepy. That knowledge of what’s likely happening sends shivers down the reader’s spine.The supernatural elements have become clearer and I personally, had a horrible feeling that I knew where this was going.as the novel nears the finish, the imagery and ‘sights’ become much more graphic and frightening.If we ever needed proof that Ramsey Campbell is the British Godfather of Horror * not the swim with the fishes type * then it’s here, in this incredibly researched, disturbing book.