Having the chance to read Campbell's early work, the Lovecraft/Derleth influenced short story collection The Inhabitant of the Lake and Other Unwelcome Tenants (hereafter The Inhabitant) , and his latest novel, Ghosts Know, is worthwhile and illuminating, providing a riveting reminder of his innate talent, simultaneously showing how far he has come in terms of subject matter and in honing his craft.
The Inhabitant is a small revelation, showcasing an emerging talent, one who is finding his way through almost slavish emulation of what he no doubt considered a superior talent at the time. It's his first collection, presenting some of his earliest work, ably edited by August Derleth, and published by the estimable Arkham House. A collection of ten Cthulhu Mythos stories, featuring tales with titles like "The Horror from the Bridge," "The Insects from Shaggai," and "The Render of the Veils," its most notable achievement is adding the UK as Lovecraftian terrain; at Derleth's suggestion, Campbell revised many of his original efforts, originally set in the New England, adding the cities of Brichester, Goatswood, and Clotton and the Severn Valley region to the mythos. It also adds new volumes to the Lovecraftian library, most notably The Revelations of Glaaki. The stories are typical of the mythos, dense, moody tales which move toward an inevitable confrontation with the unfathomable.
PS Publishing's version features the author's preferred subtitle, substituting "and other Unwelcome Tenants" for the original "and Less Welcome Tenants." Much like recent reissues from certain legendary rock bands it features some welcome bells and whistles. First, there are the original, unedited drafts of Campbell's stories, a special extra for Campbell completists. Another welcome inclusion are several letters from Derleth to the young Campbell, detailing the advice he provided and highlighting the depth of attention the veteran editor lavished on the fledgling writer. All in all, a very nice package, showcasing the early work of one of the genre's brightest lights.
Fast forward now from 1964 to 2011, where we find Campbell having published his (by my count) thirty second novel, Ghosts Know. The first thing you notice is Campbell's economy with words. Ghosts Know is tightly written, with Campbell making every word count. Besides forsaking wordiness, Campbell has developed his own voice, no longer content to echo/emulate one his Weird Tales heroes. The story is also exceedingly modern, focusing on the travails of a talk radio personality who becomes embroiled in a missing persons case that threatens to torpedo his career.
Although it prominently features a showman who purports to speak for the dead, the novel is decidedly non-supernatural, more of a mystery-thriller, where the narrator, Graham Wilde, may ultimately prove to be unreliable. In fact, the point of the novel is just how unreliable he may be, either due to the pressure of the situation he finds himself in, or due to his very nature.
Wilde is the contentious, bombastic host of the talk radio program called "Wilde Card." His job, as he sees it, is to stir the pot, and he is quite good at it, provoking many a heated call with his eccentric and often irrational audience. At the behest of his producers, he considers inviting Frank Jasper, a purported psychic with a stage act similar to that of John Edward, on the program. Researching Jasper, he takes in the medium's stage show, where he swiftly concludes the man is a charlatan, albeit a talented one. When Jasper appears on his show, Wilde draws upon personal knowledge about the man to embarrass him on air, using patter similar to that which Jasper utilizes in his act.
Wilde's perceived attack on Jasper earns him the enmity of his guest and some of the members of his audience. He next encounters Jasper when the psychic is hired by the family of a missing adolescent girl to help them find her; Graham is stunned when Jasper seems to suggest that he might be behind the girl's disappearance. Thus begins a nightmarish journey for Wilde as circumstantial evidence against him begins to mount, alienating his lover, his listeners, and eventually, the reader.
Campbell sows the seeds of doubt like an expert, first creating a strong bond between Wilde and readers, and then, slowly, insidiously, and relentlessly breaking it down. The book reeks of paranoia and uncertainty, right down to its very last pages, which promptly turn all prior assumptions and evidence on their head. Campbell seems to delight in creating this atmosphere of doubt, where coincidences and contradictions begin to mount so fast readers are forced to check prior chapters just to make sure they just vicariously lived through the same events. Every word has weight, but every statement can be taken more than one way.
It's gratifying to see that the talented eighteen year old short story writer of nineteen sixty four has become the accomplished novelist of 2011. As evidenced by his erudition, the consistent high level of craft displayed in his work, and the numerous genre awards he's snagged over the past several decades, the kid is all right.