Ramsey Campbell’s new novel is his most straightforward in years, though that’s not to say it’s without surprises. In lieu of the protagonist type that has dominated his recent books—men who find their grip on reality slipping and the integrity of their identities crumbling—he presents us with Graham Wilde, a confident and articulate talk show host with a Manchester-based current-events radio program, “Wilde Card.” The motto of his show is “a phone-in, not a drone-in,” and that means Graham gets his share of crank-callers dialing up to vent their bigotry and prejudices in semi-profane tirades. He does his best to contain their bile by calling them out on their misinformation and irrational opinions, and that often earns him a smack down from his audience-pleasing producers for perceived mistreatment of callers.
To inject a little zest into his program, the station’s execs encourage Graham to invite Frank Jasper, a showboating stage psychic-cum-spirit-medium, onto the show. Graham takes in a performance of Frank’s before the broadcast, and it only reinforces his skeptical belief that the man is a charlatan who manipulates his victims into believing that he is delivering to them communications from the dear departed that are anything more than their own wishful thinking. In the course of trying to discredit Jasper on his program, Graham realizes that the seemingly cosmopolitan psychic is actually a local whom he went to school with. Dredging up the memory of an incident from the past, Graham pulls the same sort of verbal sleight-of-hand that Frank uses to dupe his believers, to show just how easily the technique can be used to fool someone.
Big mistake. Almost immediately, callers rally to Frank’s defense, accusing Graham of trickery. The more gullible among them suggest that Graham’s demonstration may prove that he has the psychic gift himself. The incident pits Graham and Frank against one another, and their adversarial relationship comes to a head over a missing-persons case involving an adolescent girl that Frank has been called in to help with. Frank insinuates that Graham may have had contact with the missing girl, and when Graham protests complete ignorance of her, Frank is able to produce a photo inscribed to her from Graham in a scrapbook she kept. Though Graham eventually realizes he signed the photo for her school class’s visit to the studio, where she was justan anonymous face in the crowd, the discovery casts doubt on his honesty and potentially incriminates him in her disappearance. A series of tense encounters with the girl’s family and belligerent boyfriend sends Graham stumbling over a succession of clues, all of which suggest—at least to his public—that he may know more about the disappearance than he is letting on.
Campbell’s technique here is crafty and clever. The reader naturally gravitates towards likeable Graham, the point-of-view character, especially as he plays off slick, exploitative Frank. But with each increasingly inexplicable coincidence that implicates him, we begin to wonder how much we really know about him. We’re not reassured when Graham’s self-examination begins turning up as many questions as answers about his role in events. Campbell ultimately has us wondering whether Graham conjures our trust much the same way that Frank conjures assurances from the spirit world: by playing on our wishful thinking, as shaped by the spin he puts on events.
This uncertainty keeps the novel suspenseful and unpredictable, right up to a bombshell revelation in the closing pages. Campbell accentuates it with his usual dexterous play with words and communication. No other writer in contemporary horror and dark fantasy is as attuned to the nuances and snares of language as he is. Throughout the novel, characters repeatedly misinterpret one another’s words, or find hidden meanings in statements that seem blandly obvious on the surface. Conversations turn into interrogations, the simple statements are fraught with ambiguity, and people who are wholeheartedly in agreement find their different interpretations of what each is saying drawing them into arguments with one another. Campbell seems to be suggesting that, in a world where the simple tools by which we impose meaning on reality and convey it to others prove unreliable or inconclusive, then small wonder that the irrational, illogical, and even the supernatural can find purchase in it.
PS Publishing Ltd is a UK based company. An award winning small press specialising in the very best science fiction, horror, fantasy, crime, and speculative fiction from established names and up and coming authors.