Ramsey Campbell is a multiple-award winning, esteemed horror author, and his latest novel, Ghosts Know, shows off his considerable writing skills in a tour-de-force study of paranoia run amok. The book hearkens back to another of Campbell’s studies of mental illness, The Face That Must Die, and the subtle ambiguity present in Ghosts Know owes much to the spectral stories of Henry James. There is but a whiff of the supernatural in the story; the narrative instead focuses on demons of the mind. The first person narrator of the tale, Graham Wilde, is a tormented soul, and the degree to which that torment is self-inflicted is up to the reader to decide.
Graham is the talk radio host of a show entitled “Wilde Card”, an aptly named program since Graham’s trademark trait is to be provocative. The people who call in to chat with him sometimes push the boundaries of political correctness, and the host is more than happy to push a few buttons in return. His followers don’t always catch the subtext of his sardonic humor, but the popularity of the broadcast has made him a ratings favorite. Encouraged by his producers, and an overture from their rival, the BBC, Graham seizes the opportunity to capitalize on the persona: to metaphorically take it to the next level. When Frank Jasper, a psychic of some repute, is invited into the studio for an on-air conversation, Graham is determined to expose the guest as a fraud. He goes for the jugular, employing personal knowledge as a weapon to discredit the professed seer. Taking a page from Frank’s patter, Graham makes leading queries during the interview, which is basically cerebral cueing. When the psychic is rather humiliated by the exchange, Graham’s emotional downfall is set. Mr. Wilde has been taking a tightrope walk on the wild side with a safety net and once he alienates Frank Jasper, the net is removed.
A missing teen-aged girl who later dies under suspicious circumstances also factors into the plot. Frank implies that Wilde, who had met the adolescent when her class visited his station, knows more than he’s telling about her. Now, it’s Graham Wilde who is placed on the defensive. Evidence supports Jasper’s implications, sending Wilde deep into a persecution complex. When dealing with his employers or the police, his apprehensive attitude makes the exchanges seem like interrogations and perhaps they are. Graham willingly submits to an on-the-air lie detector test that asks pointed questions about the teenager, although the results are inconclusive. Author Campbell nicely plays upon the ambiguous outcome of the inquiry. Again, the mental instability of the protagonist is highlighted in his responses to the test questions, but his guilt isn’t substantiated.
The cerebral unraveling of Wilde is beautifully paced and what initially appears to be quirky behavior escalates into a febrile furor of distrust. The distortions of reality become increasingly prevalent and pronounced: “Sunlight grabs me by the scalp as the door shuts with a muffled thump like the punch in someone’s gut. The top of my head is already crawling with heat and rage, but the insubstantial pressure of the light is worse. I sprint across the road, cursing a furious screech of brakes, into the shadow of the hotel. All the people I encounter on my way home give me more than a glance or try to avoiding looking at me.”
In Ghosts Know, Ramsey Campbell reaffirms his status as a master of horror. Given the title of the novel, it’s fair to ask if there are indeed any specters lurking in the pages. The answer is unclear, but one thing is certain: With Graham Wilde, Ramsey Campbell has created a truly haunted–and haunting–character.
Ghosts Know by Ramsey Campbell is now available from TOR Books.