Book name: The Wise Friend
Author: Ramsey Campbell
Publisher: Flame Tree Press
Format: ebook, print, audiobook
Publication Date: 2020
It's my pleasure to review Ramsey Campbell's most recent novel The Wise Friend for this week's John C Adams Reviews Friday Frighteners.
Patrick Semple is a divorced, middle-aged English professor in Liverpool. He takes after his aunt Thelma, an artist, far more than his parents, who are both accountants.
Patrick struggles to retain a relationship with his son Roy and is on the receiving end of considerable hostility from his ex-wife Julia.
When Thelma dies, attention immediately turns to securing her legacy as an artist. Everyone wants a piece of her talent and reputation. Many of her most recent pictures feature mysterious figures whose gender is unclear.
Their family is fascinated by the jars of earth in her studio, which disappear before her wake. They are also uncomfortable about Thelma's split from her husband and subsequent relationship with a shadowy man called Abel.
Just after Thelma's wake, Roy (a teenager) starts dating a young woman he met at an exhibition of Thelma's work at Tate Liverpool. Bella is obsessed with Thelma's paintings, and she draws first Roy and then his father into visiting the many sites Thelma painted in her later years.
Bella is clearly searching for something in these remote places, and Patrick becomes disturbed by her motives and by the effect she has on his son.
The focus of The Wise Friend is on family, especially tensions within and between generations. A lot of the story centres around these aspects. Julia and both Patrick's parents are all pretty unlikeable so emotionally the feel is quite unpleasant.
Sometimes, the horror of being trapped in an intergenerational family that doesn't begin to understand itself is far more disturbing than any external source of terror can be. Patrick and Roy emerge as the most relatable characters, with Patrick the most frequent point-of-view character and in many ways this is his story.
I liked the flashback scenes of The Wise Friend, where Thelma was still alive immensely. Abel, the cuckoo in the nest who has wrecked her marriage to Neville, is also portrayed here. By the time of her wake he has disappeared completely. It was essential to get a glimpse at least of Thelma beyond her work, which is central to the plot, and these scenes were some of the best in the book.
The action in The Wise Friend was slow and mellow, gradually building to real narrative tension as the detail of the demonic activity underlying Thelma's choice of locations to paint and the power of the jars of earth was laid bare.
Characters such as the old woman who witnessed Thelma's fall from a high-rise block of flats flit in and out of the story. Bella, gently threatening but able to conceal her darkness enough to ensnare Roy and deceive Julia, was the most vivid character in the book.
Ramsey Campbell has written a great deal of longer fiction in addition to his short story anthologies. He can produce a crisply worded short story with ease, combining characterisation and plot in just a few thousand words.
However, he expands easily in horror novels to delve further into characterisation and many of his books feature slow-burn plots that unfold at quite a thoughtful pace. It's an aspect of his flexibility as a writer that I really admire.
The Wise Friend by Ramsey Campbell is a gentle book in respect of pacing and character development. There was plenty of space to get to know the whole family well before the story got going later on. I liked that, and it balanced well against the plot in the latter parts of the book.
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If you’ve enjoyed this review, you might be interested reading in my review of Behind Her Eyes.
Or you might like to take a look at my article about eating and drinking in horror fiction (Food for Thought).
If you fancy something different, you might like to take a chance on my review of The Dragon Token by Melanie Rawn.