Patrick Semple, the narrator of Ramsey Campbell’s new novel, is a divorced English Literature teacher/lecturer whose aunt, Thelma Turnbill, was a painter working in a mixed surrealist/mystical vein, somewhat in the mode of Leonora Carrington. Patrick’s fifteen-year-old son becomes interested in Thelma and her work when Patrick shares her journal with him, in which she left some cryptic notes about rural locations she’d got a weird sort of inspiration for her paintings from. Patrick and Roy visit one — the wood behind the house where Thelma used to live — but Roy later starts visiting them all in turn, and not with his father, but his new girlfriend Bella, whom he met at an exhibition featuring Thelma’s work. Patrick starts to worry about his son’s involvement with the occult elements that began to preoccupy his aunt towards the end of her life, and as he investigates what may be driving Roy and (even more) Bella in their quest, he starts to realise he has to find a way to stop them.
The title of this novel, The Wise Friend, made me think of Campbell’s 2012 novel of faerie horror, The Kind Folk, at first because of the propitiatory air of the title — the “Kind Folk” being anything but kind, just as the “Wise Friend”, you can tell, is going to turn out to be something other than a friend. The two books share other elements, though, too: both feature trips to a series of weird rural locations, both feature a cryptically-worded journal, and both are about the relationship between a father and son.
Exploring that relationship between a parent and a child is a perennial Campbell theme — in particular, looking at how being a parent means walking a line that can stray from protection into control. Patrick’s aunt, Thelma, with whom he often stayed, was a lot more lenient than his mother. She allowed him, for instance, to read Hunter Thompson’s Leaving Las Vegas, which shocks his mother when she finds out, because it’s about drugs. Once he’s a parent himself, Patrick is keen to make sure his son Roy knows about the dangers of drugs, but nevertheless encourages (at first) his son’s interest in Thelma’s art, something Patrick’s mother didn’t do.
But if this is a novel about that difficult line between parental protection and stifling control, then the most stifled child of all is the titular “Wise Friend”, a being created to be entirely of use to others, and to have no agency of its own, but who is determined to win that freedom, and with a vengeance.
And perhaps it’s a novel about loss, too. Patrick, after all, has lost his wife through divorce, and his aunt through her death, and perhaps the thought of losing his son, even if it’s just because Roy has quite naturally become more keen on spending time with Bella, his first girlfriend, is one loss too many. Is Patrick’s interference in Roy and Bella’s relationship inappropriate control or necessary protection? It’s one of the great strengths of Campbell’s supernatural fiction that the supernatural and the psychological are so tightly interwoven that his protagonists are usually helpless to convince anyone they’re not just having a breakdown, or (perhaps, in Patrick’s case) some sort of midlife crisis.
The Wise Friend is classic Campbell, an understated but sometimes hallucinatorily spooky exploration of the folkish occult, the dark edges of creativity, and the subtle power of the themes that weave through family generations. It’s amazing how Campbell continues to find fresh lodes of horror to mine, along with a continued inspiration in themes that have been present in his work from (or near) the beginning.
How does he do it? Perhaps Campbell’s own words can explain it best:
“Yet the mind of the mage is not restful, nor shall it sleep…”
You can read more about Campbell’s latest novel at the publisher’s site, Flame Tree Press. It’s out on April 23rd.