Fellstones, a village “up near the lakes” named for the seven stones standing in its green, is where Michael Dunstan spent most of his childhood, living with his adoptive parents, music teachers Rafe and Winifred Staveley, and their (unmusical) daughter Adele. Michael was adopted by the couple when, at the age of five, his parents were killed in a car accident — an accident he has felt guilty about ever since, as they were coming to collect him (from the Staveleys) at the time. The couple, though, were only too glad to take him in, because Michael is a musical prodigy, with a pitch-perfect singing voice and a flawless memory for music. But Michael never liked the performance aspect of his gift, and came to resent the pressure from his adoptive parents to devote himself entirely to music. After getting into university to study English (rather than the College of Music the Staveleys expected him to go to), he cut himself off from them altogether, reverting his name to Paul Dunstan (Paul being his middle name), to avoid their finding him.
As Ramsey Campbell’s latest novel opens, Paul is running the music department at a branch of the chain bookshop Texts, and in a relationship with a fellow employee, Caren. It’s here Adele approaches him suddenly one day, asking him to put differences aside and visit the Staveleys once more. They’re getting old, and (she implies) perhaps haven’t much longer to live — but of course, when he gets there they’re in perfect health. It was a subtle ruse, the first of many to draw him back to Fellstones.
The Staveleys want him to attend the Fellstones festival, an event he doesn’t recall from the time he grew up there. The festival, though, was never an annual event — it aligns with a somewhat more obscure cycle — and, the Staveleys tell him, the festival did occur in his childhood. Or, rather, it almost did. It was due to occur, but his refusal to sing in it meant, for some reason, it had to be cancelled. It was shortly after this his parents died.
Paul (whom the Staveleys continue to call “Michael”, meaning the novel is shot through with a subtle tug-of-war over his identity) allows himself to be persuaded — first out of politeness, but increasingly because of a series of events that conspire to keep him in, or returning to, Fellstones as the day of the festival approaches. Meanwhile, he comes to learn about the nearby ruin of Starward Hall, and the 17th century magus Bartholomew Kingseen who once lived there, and who dreamed of using a power from the darker reaches of the heavens to grant himself immortality.
Family, in both its positive and negative aspects, has always been one of Campbell’s most enduring themes, as has that teetering point between longing to be part of something and fear of the loss of one’s individuality. That latter theme is often presented, in Campbell’s fiction, in terms of the draw of some personality-absorbing supernatural entity (in the concluding volume of his Three Births of Daoloth trilogy, for instance) or a cult (as in his early novel The Nameless), but here cult and family are at their most indistinguishable. The techniques the Staveleys use to bring Paul back into the fold — a combination of lovebombing and guilt-tripping — are straight out of the cult recruitment playbook, as is their need to cut him off from all other relationships, such as with his girlfriend Caren. All done subtly, of course.
Subtly, so Paul won’t just walk away. But the question of why he doesn’t consider walking away — at least until it’s too late for him to do so — remains a bit of a puzzle. Although he is the only point-of-view character, we never really get a glimpse of how he feels about the situation of reuniting with his adoptive parents — who, we know, he left because they “were too determined to turn me into one of them… Too much like them and not enough like me.” But there isn’t really much of that “enough like me” in Paul’s current life to enable him to resist them. His job at Texts (which verges, really, on another sort of cult, with its morning sales mantras of “Boost your books… Books must boom… Goods are good”) is clearly a battle to retain some sort of self-expression in a world of commercialised dumbing-down, while his relationship with Caren is far too easily relinquished for it ever to have meant anything. (Underlined by her complete lack of understanding for what Paul must be going through when his adoptive family make contact with him again after many years.)
It’s only near the end, I think, that (in a moment that relies on context, so hopefully this isn’t a spoiler) we get a glimpse of the deeper reaches of Paul’s inner life and why he has allowed himself to be so easily taken in again:
“How could he be any more powerless? All his life since early childhood has led here; it’s what he has always been for.”
And this, for me, is the height of horror in a novel that certainly has its fair share of the cosmic weird — Adele’s tales of “Mr Jellyfingers” and his friends not least among them.
Music as a source of contact with the supernatural has featured in Campbell’s work before (in one of my favourite of his short stories, “Never to be Heard”), as well as in works of the classic writers of the genre, such as Algernon Blackwood’s The Human Chord. The mix of Michael/Paul’s being adopted, alongside an air of folk horror about this novel, chimes in with Campbell’s The Kind Folk, while the theme of loss of identity, and in particular having one’s creative talent taken over by forces from one’s past, was a significant element in Campbell’s 2021 novel, the non-supernatural, dark anxiety-comedy Somebody’s Voice.
But, I have to say, the one cultural connection that kept popping into my head throughout the novel was my favourite line from (in my opinion) Christopher Guest’s best mockumentary, A Mighty Wind:
“I have come to understand as an adult… that there had been abuse in my family. But it was mostly musical in nature.”