The Wise Friend
In The Wise Friend, David Allkins goes on Ramsey Campbell’s creepy trip to places where the traveller may find that they are not alone…
English Literature professor Patrick Torrington has found the journal of his aunt Thelma Turnbill – an acclaimed surrealist artist with an interest in the occult – who died after a fall from a tower block. It lists the places she visited, and he decides to visit them to connect with his teenage son Roy. When Roy finds a new girlfriend called Bella, the two continue to visit the locations in Thelma’s journal. But Patrick is beginning to suspect that something strange is going on, and that his aunt’s interest in the occult may have led to something older and darker – and related to Roy and Bella’s interest in traveling to the sites. Thelma’s paintings had a recurrent theme of a hidden figure, and Patrick wonders if something similar is coming after his family.
While Campbell’s Three Births of Daoloth trilogy can be seen as a progression of the work of H.P. Lovecraft, this novel is in the tradition of another influential writer, M. R. James. Admittedly the most obvious point of reference is the protagonist being involved in academia; however, Campbell brings James’ skill in conveying the sense of being watched, and the growing conviction that something is following the characters.
The choice of the settings – woods, abandoned tower blocks, hotels, and train stations – adds to this. Campbell is able to give these places a sense of wrong-ness through the perceptions of the narrator and his choice of description and language. The details and hints are what make it frightening.
In this scene, for example, Patrick sees a girl on a swing, behind a fence, who starts to talk to him while he and Roy are about to enter Third Mile Wood:
‘I was about to follow the path into the woods when a head reared up above the fence.
It belonged to a child on a swing in the back garden, but the sight reminded me of a remark Roy had made at Thelma’s wake. I was making to ask him about it when the little girl sailed up again. Her pigtails were the last of her to vanish, and she left her voice behind. ‘You’ll get lost in the puzzle,’ she said.
I wasn’t sure if I’d heard correctly. ‘Are you talking to us?’
Her voice reappeared before she did, pigtails flailing. ‘Get lost in the woods.’
The use of the language, ‘a head reared up’, the strange comments, the association back to Thelma’s death. All these touches turn this simple scene into one of foreboding. Anybody can make something sound scary when it’s designed to be (like a rotting zombie), or keep stressing in prose how frightening something is. Campbell’s trick is to give the impression of something being wrong when you know it should just be something ordinary: he gives the reader enough hints to make them uneasy.
By choosing to write in the first person, Campbell raises the additional question of what is really happening in the narrative. Is Patrick being shadowed by a supernatural presence, or are the ‘signs’ he increasingly observes just related to his own paranoia and possible mental collapse? This growing ambiguity adds another level to the story, making the possibilities of the outcome even more disturbing.
In territory very relevant to Horrified, the novel also relates to English occultists and their relationship to the land. This is territory Campbell has explored before, in the novel Ancient Images (1989), but here it’s used to add to the sense of the past intruding on the present and the weight of accumulated history. The use of older documentation is another pleasing reference to M. R. James and also H. P. Lovecraft – characters confessing their knowledge of magic – and in the idea of a search for knowledge opening up a can of worms.
Speaking of references, the ones brought up in-text are interesting choices that relate to the themes of the story. The art of Leonora Carrington, The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov, 1967), the film I Married a Witch (USA, Rene Clair, 1942): Patrick is preparing lectures on the idea of magic in contemporary mainstream literature. These stood out to me simply because the story is bothering to refer to cultural works produced before 1977.
The Wise Friend may not be among the most radical or expansive of Ramsey Campbell’s works. However, it is a skilled, chilling story that keeps you interested and gives you chills from the implications and possibilities inherent in what is happening. A worthy addition to the range of English supernatural horror fiction.
The Wise Friend is available via Flame Tree Publishing