THE WISE FRIEND by Ramsey Campbell
Flame Tree Press p/b, £9.63
Reviewed by H T Scott
Ramsey Campbell is one of those writers whose stories are quietly menacing. He has a way of making his reader look over their shoulder, just to check there’s nothing there. Personally I really enjoy his short stories much more than his novels, mainly because I don’t have to check over my shoulder so much with them. However, his latest book is compelling in a way only Ramsey Campbell can do and I finished it pretty quickly.
Thelma’s family are left wondering why after her untimely suicide. It appears that the successful artist has taken her own life but no one can quite believe it. Her nephew Patrick takes it particularly hard, he was very close to Thelma, spending time with her in the holidays, as a boy. He remembers their long walks in Third Mile wood and the close bond that they nurtured.
Years later when Patricks son Roy comes to stay with him, it’s Roy who finds a diary of Thelma’s stuffed behind some books on his dad’s shelves. Patrick tells Roy that it’s nothing and maybe he should have given it to the biographer writing about Thelma. Roy starts to read the diary and becomes intrigued by the entries they seem somehow elusive. They mention places Thelma has visited, dates and someone whom she only refers to as ‘A’. Roy suggests that he and his father visit the same places to try to gain some insight into Thelma’s world and also why she had pushed away her husband in favour of ‘a new man’.
At first, Patrick thinks Roy may be onto something, so they work together to visit the sites mentioned in Thelma’s diary. It becomes apparent that Thelma was not the woman they thought she was, evidence of her collecting artefacts from each of the locations they’ve so far visited indicates an occult fascination. Things start to unnerve Patrick when they visit the location of her death. A witness, Miss Dennison tells Patrick and Roy about the day Thelma jumped from the roof of the tower block opposite where she lives. She tells them about the jars that fell first and Thelma after. Patrick remembers the jars she kept in her studio and how one night, as a boy, he heard her talking to someone and how he waited for his aunt to go to bed before he snuck a look in the studio only to find it empty. Patrick starts to remember more about his boyhood stays with his aunt and how on more than one occasion he felt he was being watched. Patrick remembers that during his walks in Third Mile wood he thought he saw a figure, a shadow, something in the trees.
Realising that whatever Thelma was doing is best left in the past Patrick tells Roy that he thinks they should stop investigating the places in the diary. Roy disagrees with his father and continues visiting the sites with his girlfriend Bella. With each new discovery, Roy makes Patrick becomes more and more concerned about his sons’ safety. It’s clear that they have opened themselves to the same danger that Thelma did.
Campbell has written a story that will give you the heebie-jeebies. That, in my opinion, is what a good horror writer should do for his reader. The way Campbell keeps drip-feeding his reader just enough information to compel you to read on is well done. I also liked the suspense throughout the novel was understated and tenuous. Mr Campbell, if you are reading this, thanks for unnerving me, making me think I was not alone (even though I was) and scaring me so much that I keep reading your books. As an added bonus the Q & A section, in front of the book, with the author was a particularly nice touch.