Ghosts Know by Ramsey Campbell (2011): What initially seems to be a horror novel soon turns into a murder mystery, with prickly first-person narrator Graham Wilde both the amateur investigator and the prime suspect. Wilde, the host of a Manchester call-in radio show when the novel opens, soon finds himself drawn into the world of “psychic investigators” and into the mysterious disappearance of a female teenager, Kylie Goodchild, who was ostensibly trying to track down Wilde on the night she disappeared.
Wilde’s painful childhood has left him with anger-management issues that flare up verbally at unfortunate times. But he’s also rightfully angry at a self-proclaimed psychic who inserts himself into the police investigation — and then points the finger at Wilde, who’s become a vociferous critic of such psychics. Wilde demonstrates on a couple of occasions the tricks people such as John Edward use to “read” an audience. And the psychic here, Frank Jarvis, turns out to be an especially odious charlatan whose tricks, Wilde believes with mounting frustration, should be transparent to all.
Campbell’s use of first-person narration is solid here, and periodically leads us to question how much we actually trust Wilde and what he’s telling us. Such narration also leads to a slightly different narrative voice for Campbell, whose off-beat descriptions of things have to be tailored to his narrator’s relatively straightforward way of observing the world. Wilde is much more verbally inclined than he is to the visual, which makes perfect sense given his job.
The mystery aspect of the novel plays scrupulously fair with the reader. It helps, of course, to realize this is a murder mystery, but once one goes back to the relevant earlier sections of the novel, upon the revelation of the culprit, the whole thing has indeed been laid out fairly. There’s a decent helping of humour here, both bleak and not-so-bleak. Wilde’s callers sometimes seem to be completely addled, while Wilde, when angered, sometimes verges on Yosemite Sam-level outrage that he can barely contain.
As with many of Campbell’s works, this one deals in large part with the scars, physical and psychic, of childhood, and the ways in which they have shaped the adults the children become. And one last twist towards the end of the novel comes like a kick in the stomach. Highly recommended.
The Watchers Out of Time by August Derleth and H.P. Lovecraft (Collected 1974): Besides collecting and keeping in print the stories and letters of H.P. Lovecraft for 30 years at the small press he co-founded, Arkham House, August Derleth also published the work of many other fantasy and horror greats while also maintaining a thriving writing career himself. He’s one of fantasy literature’s most indispensable figures for Arkham House alone.
Derleth also extrapolated a number of stories from notes, fragments, and sections of letters left by H.P. Lovecraft. This collection actually lists Lovecraft as the primary author (as Derleth himself would have), though there’s little here that’s actually written by Lovecraft. And I’ve actually read enough pastiches and homages derived from Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book to recognize a couple of examples here.
The bad news is that Derleth’s odd love of italics, especially for the concluding paragraph of a story in which terrible things are revealed, is displayed here. Boy, I hate that, and I’m not alone.
The good news is that while Derleth lacks Lovecraft’s weird imagination, he can sometimes make up for this with a superior sense of how to depict rural settings and rural residents. Derleth, a regional Wisconsin writer when he wasn’t Lovecraft’s posthumous Boswell, has a fine eye for natural description. Even a slight story like the first one collected here, “Wentworth’s Day”, benefits from that studied and accurate creation of an isolated rural world.
Other than a story or two too many about Lovecraft’s Innsmouthian hybrid human-amphibians, this is a solid collection. It’s also weirdly soothing, which is not something I’d say about Lovecraft’s work. The one real debit here is that Derleth’s last work, which gives the collection its title, appears here unfinished as it was on Derleth’s death in the early 1970’s. Given Derleth’s own work finishing up Lovecraft, surely someone could have paid Ramsey Campbell or Brian Lumley — two discoveries of Derleth in the 1960’s who are still popular and active writers today — to complete the story. Preferably without concluding italics and exclamation marks. Recommended.