Ramsey Campbell has three books in my personal selection of all-time favourite novels. There’s the (relatively) recent Grin of the Dark, which I reviewed in a previous Mewsings, though I’ve only read that one once (it’s on my long list of want-to-re-reads). The House on Nazareth Hill is another favourite, read several times. But The Influence, which may well have been the second Ramsey Campbell book I ever read (The Hungry Moon was first), is, I think, my absolute favourite (though Nazareth Hill really is so very close). I remember reading The Influence over a period of about three days, that first time, totally gripped by the closely intertwining narratives and subtly cliffhanging chapter endings. From reading other people’s comments about it, it doesn’t seem to be generally considered among Campbell’s best, but to me it sums up all the reasons I keep reading him, and it draws me back to itself, being one of those rare books that gets better, and gives more, on each reading.
The basic premise is simple. Two generations of the Faraday family have been quietly terrorised by the ageing Queenie, a supremely strong-willed, Victorian-minded spinster, who has, in the past, succeeded in convincing at least two of the younger Faraday generation that she has slightly witchy powers. Queenie dies (much to everyone’s secret relief), but not before developing something of a bond with the first of the new generation of Faradays, eight-year-old Rowan. Then Rowan makes a new friend whose influence starts making her act in ways that remind the more sensitive members of the family of the newly-departed Queenie.
One of the best things about The Influence is how its supernatural horror elements combine with Campbell’s very honest, very intimate view of his characters to heighten the difficulties of their already complicated human situations. The Faraday family, though it doesn’t exactly have screaming relatives locked up in the attic, does have enough hints of mental disturbance (a pedophile cousin, a sister who’s had something of a breakdown) to tint their experience of the supernatural with enough self-doubt and emotional isolation to give it a very real edge.
This isn’t to say, though, that all the supernatural elements are of the subtle, ghostly variety. (Though they are all very skilfully handled.) One of the things that lingered from my first reading of the book was the long, nightmare journey young Rowan takes at one point in the narrative, which is pure, paranoid-hallucinogenic Campbell territory. (Though, again, it could also be read as a heightening of the realistic situation, as Rowan’s view of the world is, at the time, skewed enough by trauma and fear to make it seem that strange a place.)
But this isn’t a book that plays games with its reader; it has its feet firmly planted in the supernatural. It’s just that the supernatural is so intimately tied in with the psychological that it works seamlessly, and simultaneously, as both. The dual-image cover of the paperback copy I own (despite the fact it depicts a Rowan about twice the age she is in the story — see pic at top of this post) is a good metaphor for the book itself, in this sense. At any one point in The Influence, you know you’re reading a ghostly, supernatural horror novel, but a slight shift in perspective reveals it to be addressing just the sort of concerns that a non-supernatural family novel could be about — the fear of hereditary taints (madness, or simply meanness) emerging in a child, the fear a parent has of hurting their child, to the extent of feeling guilt about the hereditary, genetic, and historical baggage a parent lumbers their vulnerable child with simply by having brought them into the world through this particular family. So, at any one moment, you can see the ghostly, grinning skull, and the human face at the same time.
And this is what I think fantasy can do, when it’s used so skilfully alongside such very real characters: it can bring out the subtleties of the human situation in ways a realistic novel never can. Campbell’s best fiction is, for me, his most rooted in recognisable human beings, who already have enough to deal with in their own lives, even their own minds, without having to put up with the incursions of the supernatural that, ultimately, serve to confront them with those very same inner difficulties.
The result is a book that keeps its meaning well after you close the covers. It’s not just a selection of thrills, but a statement about what it means to be human. The Influence is all about the fine lines that exist between heredity and individuality, between emotional openness and emotional manipulation, between very human fears & self-doubts and the dangers of madness. It’s about the vulnerability of children, and the fears of parents (and vice versa). It really ought to be valued more in the Campbell canon, and was deservedly reprinted recently in a super-luxury edition by Centipede Press, complete with some wonderfully haunting J K Potter photos.