FELLSTONES by Ramsey Campbell
Flame Tree Press, HB, £20.00
Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
Traditional British horror has a different feel to it than many other forms of the genre. In the same way that crime novels have their police procedurals, gory blood-spattered crime and ‘cosy’ varieties, horror has varieties as well. Cosy crime is often set in isolated country places rather than big cities. It doesn’t mean the plot is not littered with corpses – it probably is. Similarly, cosy horror takes place in isolated places such as an unspoiled English village with a dark menace lurking beneath the ordinariness unseen by those who pass through. Fellstones is one such.
Michael Paul Dunstan grew up in Fellstones. He was taken in by Winifred and Rafe Staveley after his parents were killed in a road accident. His room was in the attic, reached only by a ladder, and as he had perfect pitch, they encouraged him to pursue a singing career. While initially enjoying singing, he became embarrassed when his voice broke during a performance and refused to sing in the choir again. He further disappointed them by choosing the history of music as his degree subject. He has deliberately kept away from Fellstones since leaving university as he felt he was being manipulated to follow a path he didn’t want.
As the novel opens, he is Paul Dunstan, working in a book/music shop in Liverpool, the same place where his girlfriend, Caren, also works. He is reasonably content until Adele Staveley turns up in the shop, suggesting that her parents are ill and would like to see him. It is guilt that takes him back to Fellstones. Some things are the same. There are seven monoliths of the village green, and the villagers welcome him back with, he thinks, too much enthusiasm. The Staveleys, who insist on calling him Michael, are not as close to death’s door as Adele led him to believe. They are manipulative, finding reasons for him to stay, such as suckering him into drinking too much and then persuading him to return for their festival, all of which strains his relationship with Caren and his job.
Paul is sure there is some ulterior motive – he cannot remember a festival in the village before, and the Staveleys are insisting it is a tradition. He tries to find out more about the history of the village and gradually unravels the rationale behind the Staveleys’ obsessions.
As with many of Campbell’s novels, the tension builds slowly as the situation darkens. Paul is the weak link in the story as he is not rebellious enough to break out of the shadow the Staveleys are casting. While he has shown sparks of resistance, they are not enough to prevent him from being suckered into a situation he cannot control. To some extent, this is a misplaced sense of loyalty to the couple who took him into their home when his parents died, even though this has sinister overtones. While we discover why they want Paul as the centre of their festival, there is no sense of what can happen if he fails to respond to their manipulations.
Although Fellstones is not one of his best in my opinion, any book from Ramsey Campbell is worth reading.