Ramsey Campbell is a master of the kind of tangled, snaring horror that reminds us all we’re in a living trap that we can’t escape. In The Wise Friend, this is woven into a terrifying cat-and-mouse with half-seen horrors, in a sort of exploded Gothic landscape; a series of isolated, beautiful, but haunted locations replacing the usual stone edifices of the genre. These places are no less claustrophobic and oppressive, though, as the main character chases ghosts and his wayward child down a path to the unspeakable.
Patrick is middle-aged and divorced, and trying to play catch-up parent to his dour and rebellious son, Roy. Eager to connect and too quick to accede, he indulges Roy’s interest in Patrick’s dead aunt, Thelma, a renowned artist. Towards the end of her life, her art turned dark, fantastical and twisted, until she killed herself. Patrick and Roy revisit the places that influenced this latter period of Thelma’s life and, in the course of their shared search, encounter Bella, a young woman that Roy becomes consumed with.
So begins a struggle between Patrick and increasingly unnerving forces, a mystery that leads him inexorably into darkness as he tries to convince himself he can keep control of his current life and the evils from his youth that should never have been revisited.
It’s a close, character-focussed story, lyrical and lush in its descriptions of the art and landscapes wherein the horrors lie. The creeps are both subtle, and only glimpsed in the shadows, but also flagrant and in your face as Patrick faces off with the mysterious Bella over her influence on his son. A book about powerlessness, its chilling resolution isn’t as straightforward as you think.
I love Campbell’s writing and The Wise Friend is an excellent addition to his amazing body of work. Heartily, enthusiastically recommend.
Flame Tree Press provided an ARC in return for an honest review.