Flame Tree Press 2020
My previous reviews of Ramsey Campbell: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/tag/ramsey-campbell/ and https://nullimmortalis.wordpress.com/2010/08/17/ghosts-and-grisly-things-by-ramsey-campbell/
When I read this book, Covfefe permitting, my thoughts will appear in the comment stream below…
I promise no spoilers, other than those inadvertent ones that the process of real-time reviewing or hawling at the gestalt’s coalface sometimes entail. I call the latter leapfrogs.
Chapters 1 & 2
“I don’t like playing there by myself. Someone kept looking at me over the fence.”
I am already captivated, I have to say. A sense of Patrick the narrator, his son Roy, his career minded wife, his perhaps spiritually or artistically wayward aunt Thelma, now a late aunt, and her journal he ‘inherited’, her paintings (her favourite artist being Carrington), Thelma’s backstory of men and more, the interactions in Patrick’s extended family, by dint of overhearing the family’s occasions. I am favourably impressed with a Kiernan or Klein ambiance, but essentially something unique, even an otherworld atmosphere lent to me by the New Brighton railway station outside a window and its described environs of filamented towers. Or filleted? Or I may have misremembered that. And we inadvertently reach another essential feeling in what I find when gestalt real-time reviewing … “It felt as if she’d started hiding details in her work she didn’t want the rest of us to understand.” Even Campbell himself?
Mount Abraxas Press’s list of Top Ten Folk Horror books that I saw the day before I received my earlier book order for The Wise Friend: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2020/05/10/wise-choice/
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“…infected with nonsensical autocorrections…”
Transcending such texts, THIS text is pitch perfect, also transcending the fact this novel is so far a pre-Covid period piece, where our society’s previous mœurs actually still prevail, including Roy, worse for wear from various substances as a wayward student, due to arrive by train at his Dad’s (Patrick’s) place near New Brighton Station, but arrives in a lift by car with another student. Patrick is separated from Roy’s mother and we learn more about these characters and the late Aunt Thelma (Thelema?) and her paintings etc. There is also a wonderful Ramsey Campbell passage where Patrick is searching a near empty train….
And a seeming quote from a Sherlock Holmes story. It happens that I often immodestly pride myself on being the Sherlock Holmes of literary critiques. This book promises to be fertile ground for such activities, and I intend to eke it out, savour it. And I do not intend to itemise its plot from this point onward, but hopefully only divulge my own impressions of its perhaps underlying theosophical or mystical audit-trail.
Below is what I have long called ‘Yieldingtree’ in my own local wood…
“I was about to follow the path into the woods when a head reared up above the fence.”
I must say that I am absolutely awestruck by this chapter. Not only in its intrinsic subtle power as vintage Ramsey Campbell, perhaps even outdoing any other vintage. But also by its power over me in the context of this book, as Patrick and Roy explore the woods neighbouring or neighboured by Aunt Thelma’s erstwhile house. The false markers and pareidoliac faces, or real faces or voices. A horse buried upside down? But not only in the context of this book itself, but also in a log configuration like my Yieldingtree … but also in the context of my own reading this morning — That head above the fence, the wood as stated “puzzle”, and “Did she show you how turning things round worked?” and “the first of many repetitions of a solitary face.” See Twizzlehead that I read and reviewed in the normal course of my various concurrent reviews only 45 minutes ago HERE! Inadvertent mutual synergy, both works otherwise unique.
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“Wealth ankhs” “What tie miss it?” “KEE LOSE”
From Patrick’s later dreaming of the wood more as a cartoon to a woman’s polystyrene carton during a trip out with Roy to the Liverpool tower blocks from one of which Thelma Turnbill left this mortal coil, with Patrick and Roy now researching her life and art in situ. Beautiful, atmospheric descriptions by Patrick as he tells his own story. Even the meaningful waking nonsenses that he utters. And “a drive hemmed in by rhododendron bushes…”, whatever that implies?
“…marks that led from the doorway, ending close to us. At first glance I could have taken them for footprints, which made no sense.” No sense, another meaningful nonsense. And it is another inadvertent cross-reference to Sue Harper’s book (‘The Door’) today HERE — a strained connection perhaps, but like Patrick’s Ramsey-adeptly-filtered no-senses, very meaningful at least to me!
Cross-referenced to my latest review of all the short stories from the gigantic canon of William Trevor here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/22666-2/#comment-19057
“As my aunt dealt hands of knockout whist, a dark shape leapt onto the umbrella, which quivered in the breeze that had brought the shadow of a tree over the fence.”
A teenage Patrick, neither child nor grown-up, and indecisive at times which of these he wants to stay or become, is in fact staying (in the house close to the wood) with his aunt Thelma and uncle Neville, the latter who invents video games. The aunt has a painting studio in the house. And, engagingly, we learn more about not only the shifting patterns of her persona embedded within art and other arcanities but also the shifting patterns of shadows, faces, reflections, thoughts, even of ‘tall flat intruders’ or untall ones like the picture faces in the cards, whether becoming trumps in whist or not. References to Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, Shakespeare’s Tempest, Bulgakov fiction and much else of evocative charm and potential dread.
“You’re in my work even if you can’t see where.”
Again cross-referenced to a William Trevor story (The Teddy-Bears’ Picnic), just read for the first time an hour or so after reading (and writing my review above about) Chapter 6: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/22666-2/#comment-19065
Again cross-referenced with The Dark Nest, this time its story The Cough here: https://dflewisreviews.wordpress.com/2020/04/27/the-dark-nest-sue-harper/#comment-19069
“‘The deeper it is dug, the more ancient are the secrets which the excavation shall awaken’ —“
…a process, too, of plumbing mines in literature that I have long called ‘hawling’. Meanwhile, I am becoming more and more mesmerised by this book. Thelma’s handwritten notes in her journal, when we rejoin Patrick and Roy in the present as they try to cross-reference her paintings with these notes – a process of scrying a special form of pareidolia involving ungoogleable handwritten words? Leitmotifs and ‘imminent presences’ paradoxically crystallising AND diffusing the paintings that they visit in the Liverpool Tate wherein they are hung, such presences and ‘distant figures’ one of which a new character, Bella, seems to me to form in a gallery doorway at the end of this still resonating chapter.
“Leafing through the journal had reminded me of initials on the jars — MC, DF, DM or just a single letter. ‘But why did she drop them?’ Roy said.”
Chapters 8 & 9
“Any resemblance to my own task was emptily contrived. I was taking narratives apart…”
Not Fake Reviews, not even Fake News. Patrick mentions to us book references, including Fowles (who, as well the Magus, also created the ‘nemo’ as a variation on the id and ego), Murdoch and Ackroyd. Otherwise, I am merely touching base here with this entry today in my review stream. An engaging development of characters and their interaction beneath the overarching of the late Thelma. And the morphing of names, and the familiar and unfamiliar faces that would somehow transcend today’s free FaceTime or Zoom exchanges as well as this narration’s old-fashioned video calls…
Chapters 10 – 13
“That’s the way with old things. They come back in another form.”
…people, beliefs, artefacts, and here those things old and new are also communication systems.
A consuming series of events and increased knowledge on the relationships between characters, strained or otherwise, and their eventual fates, one of which fates is of tragic significance and is imparted by scam or genuine electronic call; I’ll leave you to decide which.
Another new character from the past: a second man in Thelma life called Abel (my underlinings). Note, he is an ‘Earth’ person, as is the young lady called Bella whom Roy calls Bell, ‘bell’ as we once called phoning someone as ‘giving them a bell.’ Not sure this was intended. But the scrying of intentions is perhaps similar to digging for the blurred or distant figure or intruder in Thelma’s portraits, and I feel this is also similar to my (often pretentiously) seeking a gestalt in works of literature. Preternatural rather than intentional, sometimes. A seeking I have called ‘hawling’, and Bell seems to call it ‘unearthing’…
“The night is waiting all the time.”
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“In three miles turn left on Old Station Road…”
Does this have connection with the book’s earlier wood that I remember is called Third Mile Wood? Anyway, the voice is that of a growingly autonomous phone-navigator as Patrick tests out another Thelma journal entry, casting himself as a loco genius just as once there were pre-tasters for diseased food, I guess. I feel as if I am fulfilling that rôle for this book, but I have promised no spoilers….
Graffiti and the sleepers of a derelict railway station matching not only his mood but also ours. This I sense is the book’s partway epiphany, a classic horror-atmospheric scene that, probably more than any other I have yet read, echoes today’s apparent lucid, covivid, covidual, co-Jungian dreaming. And I guess this book was planned and written out well before we even knew about such things. Pareidolia is now in overdrive, not as imagination, but for real.
On further thought, perhaps the reader is a book’s wise friend?
Chapters 15, 16 & 17
“If there was something I ought to have noticed, I couldn’t help dreading what it might be.”
…and that surely is not just the operatic Handel Bell was listening to later but also what Handel evoked, at least for me, i.e. his suites of Water Music in a pervasive sensory form affecting body and mind — when another location is reached near a secluded Spring of such water as further occult connection with Thelma’s Journal… And the latter striking scene is preceded by not only another tragic roof climb but also much workmanlike dialogue with dumps that you need to dig within so as to fill your own reading jars with this book’s earth … now mixed with water. I wonder if we have yet to find the air in the book to complete its trinity of experience?
Meanwhile, earlier, a disarming, barely noticeable: “As I climbed into my car a train in the station declared it was a train.”
I forgot fire!
Chapters 18 & 19
“Surely it was common enough to imagine that wordless noises contained words,…”
The word ‘imagine’ there perhaps used ‘inadvertently’? Anyway, this is another holding entry to my review, a touching of base. An invasion of a Beethoven symphony; yes, ‘of’ not ‘by’. Of Orfeo’s Monteverdi, too, I guess. All of this more earth to my reading jars. Another face swelling with its risings up and down. And Monk’s Cross and the cover’s inverse cross as the next loco genius connected to the Thelema journal. And further familial aggravations for Patrick and his estranged wife, and Roy and Bella. I’m also pleased that my underlining above has now borne fruit. I see not only gathering earth as soil and whatever it contains but also seeking “the earth”, as if seeking a lair? Under-motorway homeless people, nervous in their own lairs. Shades from Hades, too, a wordplay I noticed recently in ‘Pale Fire’.
Chapters 20 & 21
“Something pale reared up much closer to me — my breath. A shiver travelled through me to the flashlight, and as shadows swarmed up the walls to nest beneath the ceiling,…”
No accident that ‘warm’ is embedded in ‘swarm’, as a contrast to the chill of an abandoned hotel where “breaths grew unhealthily harsh…” Breaths as visible AIR? Yes, this hotel is next in the book’s line of loco geniuses, another classic scene for horror genre fiction enthusiasts, scenes that are adeptly becoming the literary co-vividness of today’s dream sicknesses in our real-time. REAL time. And in this hotel, the perceived “jars that housed samples of earth” evoke, by samples, the various Semples as names and people in this section of coincidences (eg Patrick’s ex wife and Roy’s mother working in the archive library), texts focussing us on the book that contains them, texts becoming part and parcel of that co-vividness of dream and genre and reality — wherein which book even an explicit ‘Bel’ rings its own bell, indeed “the tolling of a glassy bell.”
This cover image represents my own vision in 2010 of Wise Friend’s ‘windmills on the horizon’ – I saw them being built in my own seaside venue. Another facet of AIR and the power derived. Or Noel Harrison’s song?
I am now on a roll with reading this book – my eking-out or savouring it gone through the lockdown window. I wonder which character is gaslighting whom, who is the parasite or familiar of whom, and I somehow realise that the book itself may be gaslighting ME! The horror scenes and occult implications of the plot are now caricatures of themselves. In a good way. Daring me to treat them like literature. And the gradual onset of accretive coughing really bugs me more than anything. A sense that we have co-vivid dreams built in knowingly, just to taunt me. The way to treat a ‘friend’! Then I realise – upon research – that this book was first reviewed during 2019, well before Covid! A review I have not yet read, incidentally, as I try to read all books ‘clean’. (Cf my separate findings today – just before reading this set of Wise Friend chapters – regarding a Griffin work HERE) — So, I know there’s something specially weird and unsettling going on here. Including the burrow in the hotel, like the previous lair of the homeless. And the Britten opera in a seaside resort’s multiplex…
Read so far up to the end of chapter 24.
Now finished this book…
“My hands jerked up to stave her off, but they hadn’t made contact when I felt I was about to be fooled into touching her more intimately than I would be able to explain, not least to myself.”
There is so much in one sentence. And the taunting caricatures continue. Tripping up perhaps the author as well as his wise reader friend. Certainly tripping up Patrick as narrator, at least. In his battle with the windmills of his mind, windmills on the sea’s horizon at the end “growing red with sunset”, and the earlier gaslighting with scalding shower water and the red-hot toaster, the FIRE or fever of hopefully to-be-cornered Covid. Thus fire completing the trinity plus one. “Very soon I shall inhabit your world and more besides. […] Make them mine. Bring them together.” That is the gestalt Covid quote spoken at one point by Patrick’s dire opponent, that ‘intruder’’ from its ‘lair’, by dint of a constant distant figure as eventually focussed from word-pareidolia, together with that Corona in the corner of the Carrington painting I placed for whatever reason at the top of this review. And after my mentioning his ‘nemo’, Fowles now comes into his own. I had no idea earlier that his name would actually be mentioned at the end of the book. And, finally, did you notice that one of the jar labels I quoted above had my initials? Gaslit to the hilt, I feel. Somehow, in response, I need to return to the Britten opera; it having been his Midsummer Night’s Dream. “‘Childish,’ I muttered. ‘Not even puckish. Not clever at all.’” Even wise friends can fight back. Null Immortalis.
PS Having now read some other reviews of this book, who is Patrick Torrington mentioned in all of them? I thought he was Patrick Semple. Or have I missed some point? Or just been gaslit again!
Just noticed I seem to have been gaslit by my own gestalt!
John Fowles’ Quote
“The nemo is an evolutionary force, as necessary as the ego. The ego is certainty, what I am; the nemo is potentiality, what I am not. But instead of utilizing the nemo as we would utilize any other force, we allow ourselves to be terrified by it, as primitive man was terrified by lightning. We run screaming from this mysterious shape in the middle of our town, even though the real terror is not in itself, but in our terror at it.”
– John Fowles (from ‘The Necessity of Nemo’ in ‘The Aristos’ 1964)