I’ve been trying to get together enough focus to start reading fiction regularly again, and there was no better way to spark that interest and begin 2020 than by reading one of my favorite authors of all time, Ramsey Campbell. At the end of 2019, Flame Tree Press released a new edition of one of Campbell’s classic novels from 1988, The Influence.
If you’re unfamiliar with Campbell’s work, he is a master of establishing an atmosphere of creeping dread. His stories are about the thing that moves out of the corner of your eye, that figure you think you see outside your window that may have just been a tree after all, that feeling you have when you’re sure you closed the basement door, but it is somehow open nevertheless. Though not all of his novels follow quite the same pattern, The Influence is a perfect example of this style, and a great tale of slowly encroaching horror.
When Queenie passes away of old age, the Faraday family involuntarily breathes a sigh of relief. Queenie, the matriarch of the family, had been cruel and abusive to her daughters, and had set her attention upon her 11-year-old granddaughter Rowan just before her death. The relief that Rowan’s mother Alison feels, however, quickly turns to discomfort. Alison’s sister Hermione is horrified when she learns that Queenie was buried with a locket containing a lock of Rowan’s hair, and she wants to exhume the body and reclaim the locket. And Rowan herself starts to become more distant, unfriendly, even snobbish — eerily reminiscent of her late grandmother.
Alison at first disregards any notion that Queenie has some influence from beyond the grave. But as strange incidents and coincidences begin to pile up, she starts to worry that Queenie’s fear of death has driven her to endure in some form and have an influence on young Rowan. But will Alison’s realization come too late for Rowan’s life and soul?
The Influence is a very unsettling novel, especially due to the fact that a young girl is the focus of the peril. It is a slow burn for about 2/3rds of its length, as I described above, and then an event happens that changes the nature of the story dramatically and makes the book impossible to put down.
I’ve often thought to myself that Campbell’s novels tend to end rather quickly — there’s only so much creeping dread that can be sustained, and once the main threat is revealed, and the fear of the unknown is gone, the dread begins to deflate like a slowly leaking balloon. But The Influence manages to keep its intensity for the whole final 3rd of the book, leading to a climax that is absolutely riveting and almost poetic. It’s one of the few Ramsey Campbell novels that I could see readily being adapted into a movie, and in fact a Spanish movie adaptation was released on Netflix in 2019; it is on my “to watch” list.
I’ve noted in earlier posts that part of the discomfort of Campbell’s novels comes from the callous interactions of the characters involved. Some of the real horror in his stories is the self-centered cruelty that people can inflict on each other, often because they are too preoccupied with their own problems to see what’s happening to others. In The Influence, we also see the pain and cruelty that family members can inflict on each other, and not just Queenie’s influence on her daughters and granddaughters. It is a really powerful and affecting theme of the novel, and heightens the emotional impact considerably.
Not all horrors are of the psychological kind, however. I had to marvel at one small scene that just showed how good Campbell is at thinking up situations where people are vulnerable and which connect immediately with the reader. In this scene, a person working at night on a ladder has a rather unpleasant encounter. The idea of being attacked when on a ladder, when you’re exposed and precarious, is a brilliant one that I hadn’t encountered before.
I’m actually quite surprised that I hadn’t read The Influence in its original printing, as I have been pretty diligent in snapping up all the Ramsey Campbell I can find! So I’m grateful to Flame Tree Press for reprinting this lovely tale for me and a new generation of horror lovers to enjoy.