'The Wise Friend' by the legendary horror author, Ramsey Campbell, is one of those dark, creeping tales that you can feel coming from around the corner. Instinctively, you know that just ahead out of sight, something bad awaits.. and you feel both averse to discovering what it is and in a hurry to get it over with.
This book is that scraping sound of something sharp.. but ragged.. being drawn along the inside of your walls as you pace along the outside listening.
It has been so many years since I've read a Ramsey Campbell story, I'd forgotten what it was truly like. I'd retained the summary of feelings. His name continued to stand out in my head as a hugely influential master of horror.. having helped shape my taste in the genre as a teen, but I'd never read a full novel of his that I can recall. They'd always been short stories included in other anthologies. Though, even here.. he'd been impactful.
I certainly wasn't disappointed by this title either, which is loosely about the story of a man who'd discovered as a teen that his aunt at the time had possibly been visiting magical sites which had affected her paintings in a startling way. Now, years later as an adult, his son and his son's girlfriend have become fascinated with the late aunt's work and both have been going back and visiting those sites themselves.
The result is a slow build of cold fear, the kind you want to turn the lights on and chase away. Even as you begin to see what's actually happening about midway through the novel, you realize that isn't really what matters. The story is definitely about the journey and the helplessness you feel along the way.. the absolute uncertainty as to how things will turn out at the end, despite the wealth of knowledge you've garnered.
I've seen mentioned, here and there, that this book is difficult to get into.. but I challenge that statement. What initially gives that impression is the sheer density of Campbell's writing style. Though the story is of average length, there's so much more depth packed into the occurances than one typically sees in modern fiction.
Reading 'The Wise Friend' was like flexing a muscle I rarely use.. like re-learning the motor functions of a limb that's been numb for too long. It made me realize how much current works have just made me a bit of a lazy reader. Even compared to my science or philosophy titles, things are just written in a much simpler, more direct manner today.. and Campbell still knows how to weave a tale expertly in that traditional structure.
If you're a fan of classic 20th century horror authors like Stephen King, Harlan Ellison, and Richard Matheson, you do not want to miss this book. It's a fantastic glimpse of what the strength of a writer can really exemplify. There's less time spent on how a character looks and dresses to fill a page.. and more time invested in how they make others feel.. how those others might be affected by their very surroundings.. even their own memories.. at times.
Honestly, I can't say enough good things about this book. I have been humbled by reading it and feel as if I'll look on modern horror stories with refreshed eyes.