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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Kind Folk by Ramsey Campbell: a review

THE KIND FOLK by Ramsey Campbell
Review by Gary Fry

One of my most enjoyable reading experiences occurred when I was about 18 and I devoured Algernon Blackwood’s “Ancient Sorceries” in one sitting. The prose purred (in-joke, folks) and the whole thing left me with that satiated feeling in my belly, which only literary fiction can achieve, the sensation that folk who only ever watch films will never understand.
Anyway, fond memories lingered, but then a few years ago, I reread it. They say it’s dangerous to go back and thus it proved. I enjoyed the novella all over again, but it didn’t do what it did on that first reading. Oh, I don’t know: maybe I was just “in the mood” back then.

In any case, ever since that day, I’ve been seeking similar reading experiences. Lots of authors “do it” for me: the exotic jauntiness of Martin Amis; the bullish insistence of Lovecraft; the cheery gravity of Stephen King; and a bunch of other fine folk. But there’s one author whose prose has always captivated me, and his name is Ramsey Campbell.

I have so many memorable experiences of reading Campbell’s fiction, but I’ll name only a few here: the elevator scenes in The Overnight; the descent into the house in Thieving Fear; and pretty much all of The Grin of the Dark. There are plenty more, and I certainly disagree with anyone who believes his early work is stronger. I find much of the recent stuff every bit as powerful, and – perhaps more significantly – far more artful in execution.

Take The Kind Folk. The prose is elegant and suggestive, never lapsing into transparency or cliché. Campbell’s mature style is a symphony of many techniques developed over a long career. The reader is never quite sure what’s happening in a later Campbell novel. Dialogue stated explicitly may be snatched back by the author in the following line. A character’s perception may indeed look like that, but a moment later, we’re told how wrong s/he is. Such crafty technique and sleight-of-hand destabilises the narrative, rendering it fluid and elusive, sneaky and disarming. Effects accumulate; the sum of a certain phrase is determined by all that has gone before it, and that takes careful, literarily adroit work.

The plot, too, has its implications, its latent metaphors and interpretative possibilities. Who hasn’t felt as Luke feels throughout the book, as if he’s merely a collection of mimicked gestures acquired from people he’s known? Is Campbell suggesting that all people, outside of a book, are just imitations of others – that we’re all like the Kind Folk? Or maybe the book is autobiographical, with the Folk representing artists, who live deeply in the world and dredge up truths for those in search of them. These were certainly thoughts I had while reading, but they might not be what the author intended. But yes, I know that I’m allowed my own interpretations and that they’re no less valid than the creator's. I'm sure others will come up with different meanings, but that's testament to the reticence and richness of the novel.

There are many more things to admire in this decidedly quiet book: one lengthy scene of dialogue, during which Campbell has several people conversing without any speaker attribution. It’s like spinning plates and is quite a feat…until again, the author plays another trick on us (just as the Kind Folk play tricks on Luke). Another fine scene involves a child speaking a single word repeatedly, but only one character – as well as us, the privileged readers – hearing it that way. Creepy as hell. Then there’s the many throwaway phrases, finely judged imagery that adds to the whole mass: five electricity cables populated by birds that resemble, in the author’s words, notes on a musical stave. The issue with the things’ hands. An oversized eye that is more than that, merely its tremendous pupil… Every pared down line seems natural and yet skilfully laboured over, the work of a careful writer in full command of his craft.

And so we return to “Ancient Sorceries” and my treasured reading experience so many years ago. For all their linguistic brilliance, few of my favourite authors can evoke similar moods in me, a delicate, mysterious aura that is near-hypnotic. But Campbell does this regularly. I felt this while reading The Grin of the Dark (“This guy is seriously warped!” I recall saying to my partner while reading the novel in my back garden a few years ago. When she looked at me askance, I added, “No, I mean, in a good way. He’s a fucking genius.”); I also experienced it during the descent into the house in Thieving Fear and while occupying that elevator in The Overnight. I guess what I’m saying is that, as great as his early work is, little of it is as strange, as beautiful and as compelling as this later stuff, the material Campbell produces now his mastery of craft grows stronger. The chills are more subtle but run deeper, last longer.

I loved The Kind Folk; like so much of what the author has always produced, it’s a unique reading experience. So hey, don’t bother waiting for the movie; get hold of the book now: http://www.pspublishing.co.uk/the-kind-folk-hc-ramsey-campbell-1411-p.asp

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