The British author Ramsey Campbell has long been my favorite writer of horror, and one of his novellas — Needing Ghosts — has the unusual distinction of being the only story I’ve ever read that made me doubt my sanity when I finished it. I’ve always had a hard time keeping up with all of his writing, however, and so it was only recently that I got around to reading his 2013 novel Ghosts Know.
Broadly speaking, almost all of Campbell’s novels can usually be divided into two categories: supernatural horror and non-supernatural murder/thriller. The former includes Campbell’s Ancient Images (1989) and The Grin of the Dark (2007), while the latter includes The Count of Eleven (1992) and The Seven Days of Cain (2011).
Ghosts Know is somewhat unique in that it not only straddles the two categories, but it is also a genuine mystery novel, something that I have not seen from Campbell before.
Graham Wilde is the host of the talk radio program Wilde Card, featuring a lively and often argumentative and controversial discussion about political and societal issues. As the novel begins, Graham’s star is rising: the BBC has expressed interest in hiring him to do a show. When his current employer asks him to up the conflict on air, Graham brings on Frank Jasper, a professional psychic, to interview him about his show and his alleged psychic powers. Graham manages to humiliate the psychic, and that particular show is so popular that it seems certain that it is a career-making move.
However, Jasper returns to the studio not long afterward. He has been hired by the family of a missing teenage girl to help find her, and his psychic “readings” have told him that there is evidence to be found at the radio station. On air, Graham himself is connected to the disappearance, and soon he finds that his employer, his girlfriend, and the community as a whole has turned against him. Inexorably, he begins to lose everything important in his life, and before the end his life itself will be in jeopardy. What is the relationship between Graham, Jasper, and the missing girl — and can Graham find out in time to save himself?
Ghosts Know feels very much like a modern telling of the story of Job: Graham, starting at the top of his game, has his whole life stripped away from him. One of Ramsey Campbell’s greatest strengths is the ability to build and maintain what I would call social tension throughout his tales, and it is never more on display than here. Every dialogue is a painful mixture of awkward and hostile, and increasingly so as the story progresses. The best I can describe them is as the conversational equivalent of pulling teeth. You know the sort of conversations that you overhear where you wish you could just leave the room to get away from them? He can write them perfectly. This is something that Campbell has done for a long time in his stories, but in most of his work the characters start with serious flaws; Graham falls from a place of success and happiness, and it makes his failing interactions with others that much more agonizing.
It was once said of Campbell early in his career that, for him, it is “the words that count.” This is true of all of his writing: he is a master of putting together masterful sentences. In reading his stories, I occasionally stop to marvel at how cleverly and elegantly he can assemble a sentence. He can also manipulate the reader with these words like a master magician performs misdirection; in hindsight, it is surprising that he didn’t write mystery stories much earlier in his career.
Curiously, Ghosts Know is one of the most poorly reviewed books of his on Amazon, with only 2 1/2 stars out of five. One reason for this is apparently that it wasn’t what people were expecting:
I got this around Halloween, expecting to read a ghost story. In fact, it’s neither a ghost story nor a horror story–unless you consider the reader’s horror when s/he realizes it’s a contrived and tedious story about a self-absorbed radio talk show guy.*yawn* We never find out who these ghosts are and what they know–except maybe not to expect their appearance in this silly yarn.
It is true that, knowing Campbell’s other work, one would expect a book titled Ghosts Know would have a lot more overtly supernatural phenomena. One can, in fact, read the entire book without believing in any sort of ghost or spirit involvement whatsoever. But Campbell is much more clever than that! Much like the classic movie The Sixth Sense, it is really rewarding to go back and reconsider many of the events in light of the ending revelations. I suspect that Campbell is hinting at something somewhat profound about the existence or non-existence of psychics.
I have noted in the past that I tend to prefer Ramsey Campbell’s short stories, simply because it is hard to maintain Campbell’s style of dread throughout an entire novel. Ghosts Know, however, worked really well for me, and I would say that it is now my second favorite novel written by him.
My favorite is still Ancient Images, which I need to go back and read again so I can blog about it!