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The Darkest Part of the Woods

by Ramsey Campbell

(PS Publishing, £55.00/$80, 349 pages, limited edition slipcased hardback, also available as hardback priced £35.00/$55, published April 2002.)

Holidaying in Australia at Easter, I found an American edition of a book by Ramsey Campbell that had an enthusiastic blurb-quote from Interzone on the back, albeit for a cover scandifferent book entirely. I can remember being visited by a distinct sensation of unease, but I couldn't pin it down. Something about the triangulation of places, perhaps: with Merseyside's finest ending up in a Melbourne bookstore, having taken the scenic route via the States. What was it? Only a few seconds later I realised that the quote in question had been written by me, and that I'd been searching for a reason why the words sounded so familiar.

I mention this only because it's an adequate representation of two matters concerning Ramsey Campbell. Much later in this review I will touch upon the second matter, but the first, I would say, is the reader's reaction. When Campbell is at the top of his game, there is often a moment of stunned acceptance -- a fluttering in the solar plexus, perhaps -- when you begin to realise what exactly is going on. And it's never pretty. Sure, you were following the plot, but you didn't quite understand the significance of (for example) that letter; and the result is like a flood of ink through your sternum. Black ink, naturally; for I maintain that Campbell is the finest writer of horror fiction in Britain. Or to put it another way, when asked to define a perfect horror movie, a friend of mine once said, half-seriously, half-joking, that it should be ninety minutes of that feeling you get when you think you've lost your car keys. I liked that a lot. Let's apply that to Ramsey Campbell's work. Let's open The Darkest Part of the Woods and throw our car keys out of the window. Let's return to the author's fictional Brichester.

The Prices live near the woods; and although it takes some of the family longer to realise it than others, the woods are the most important factors in their lives. Beginning with the elders, the grandfather is in a nursing home on account of his mental health problems; they are the consequence of experiments -- part scientific, part occult -- undertaken much earlier. And how he reveres those trees, and that mound! The very first scene of the book sees Lennox and some other patients making a break for the foliage. The grandmother figure (Margo) is an artist with some problems with her career -- some of which are wood related (a fantastic scene at an exhibition's first night). As we move down the family tree, no pun intended, keep an eye on the names that Campbell has used. Subtle sometimes, explicit at others, the names of the younger generation often ring with references to nature. We have (not related to the Prices) children called Laurel and Willow. The main character's name is Heather. She has a sister, who returns from America -- seriously underweight and pregnant with a child whose father is briefly a mystery -- is called Sylvie. Sam is Heather's son, and a young man with rather more problems on his mind than the average teenager.

Heather does her best to fight the strange occurrences invading their collective life -- nerve-rending storms; the appearance of a "stick" man; a Christmas tree with sinister intentions; the fact that her son suffers amnesia as soon as he travels too far from the woods -- but even the most stalwart of sensible people must eventually see that there is evil abroad. She investigates further into the general area, and discovers some shocking historical facts. Sylvie and Sam locate an abode beneath the earth, and a very old book therein. And suddenly, in the characters' firmaments, the air is rich with portents. The reader might have seen some of the revelations coming, but it is a joy when Campbell forces his characters to accept the enormity of what is going on around them. The description of this kind of internal epiphany is the second reason that I mentioned the bookstore anecdote above. I think there is often a point in Campbell's longer fiction when the characters have to accept, not just an unpleasant reality that runs counter to their lives to date, but the full weight of a new belief system -- a new cosmogony, almost.

I have been unable to locate the precise sentence, but I am pretty certain that it was the American writer Howard Waldrop who said that as a writer he was only prepared to do 50% of the work -- implying that a book is as much the reader's responsibility as its creator's. It's a principle, I would contend, for which Ramsey Campbell would have a lot of time. And never more so than in The Darkest Part of the Woods. Some of the dialogue suggests that the characters find honest communication unedifying; it wriggles well on the paper, but the reader is challenged on every single page. I believe this to be a good thing. Stylistically, there is no writer like Campbell (though some have tried) and this book is a rich mix of well-written horror and analyses of family dynamics. It's the author's first supernatural novel in some years, and it has been a pleasure to welcome him home.

Review by David Mathew

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