Tuesday, March 30, 2010
I've been a fan of RC since I was 14. I found a cheap paperback in a pharmacy in York, PA called The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants and right away fell in love with his style and his clever re-imaginings of themes from Lovecraft. I still, almost three decades later, look forward to new Ramsey Campbell books. This one falls into a comfortable old formula, nipped from HPL: an ancient evil unsuspected by most has coexisted with the citizens of Liverpool for millennia. Because its origins lie in the ancient pool from which the city drew its name, the evil force or race or elemental or whatever it is is associated with water. As is his wont, Campbell sets about describing water and rain and wells and puddles and similar whatnot in his paranoid style. Characters mis-perceive damp spots on walls as squat mis-shapen figures in the corner, or they see puddles on the sidewalks as the sploshy remains of soft footprints. Campbell also dips repeatedly into a wellspring of water-related puns and figures, showing off the literary chops which earned him all those awards. Of course when Campbell builds up like this you know the characters aren't actually mis-perceiving things: there is something spooky going on which they fail to understand.
Gavin Meadows is a tour guide who tells tales of Liverpool's unsavory past: murders, occultists, mysterious stories are his focus. One day his conspiratorially minded father joins the tour and then disappears. At the same time Gavin's services are found lacking and he is let go. With a missing parent and free time on his hands, Gavin starts to follow in his father's footsteps, looking for research materials about peculiar historical figures which have suddenly disappeared from libraries, investigating unearthed tunnels dug centuries before, and learning new tidbits about stories he'd long used to baffle and amuse tourists. But Gavin has little idea what is surging beneath the town, and finds himself totally unmoored and at sea.
I would give Children of the Pool 3 stars out of 5. The opening fifth is some of Campbell's finest prose, but Gavin's character changes too quickly from sure and sympathetic to unreliable and unlikeable. Some of the obscurities in the prose and the mis-apprehended dialogue exchanges between characters--a Campbell trademark--are more trouble sorting out than they're worth. He's used a similar story line a dozen times, most recently in The Darkest Part of the Woods, with branches, trunks, roots, and leaves in place of drops, rivulets, streams, and pools, and at times his tricks are too apparent and time-worn. This one reeks a bit too much of HPL pastiche: I thought Ramsey had buried that tendency ages ago, but Creatures of the Pool is all "The Rats in the Walls," "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward," and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth." (There's even an antediluvian manuscript uncovered in the library which uses HPL's favorite adjectives to drive home this point). And if, as I did, you guess the ending early, then you must endure a long chase in a dark labyrinth already knowing what is likely to be the outcome. But an OK novel by Ramsey Campbell is still worth checking out. He's been on a hot streak of late, and who can blast him for having fun with his own passion for the genre?
Of course new readers unfamiliar with Campbell and his stylistic tricks might enjoy it and discover a body of work really worth checking out for fans of ghostly tales with a literary bent.