Friday, March 9, 2012

Sins and Portents

The Long Lost by Ramsey Campbell (1993): Married couple David and Joelle Owain take a weekend trip to Wales from their home in Chester, a suburb of Liverpool. While David is of Welsh background, he doesn't speak the language -- really, they're just doing the bed-and-breakfast thing. But while hiking around, they find an abandoned village, and beyond the abandoned village, a small island that they can walk to when the tide's out.

And on the small island, a small house, and in the small house an old woman who seems somewhat addled and in need of help. And she says she's a distant relative of David's, and shows him a photograph that seems to confirm this. So after checking with local authorities, they take Gwendolyn back to Chester with them, and install her in a retirement home near their house.

Needless to say, bad things start to happen soon thereafter, for pretty much everyone in the Owain's social circle. But they seem to be doing the bad things themselves. Meanwhile, Gwendolyn (if you want to have fun, go look up the possible meanings of the Welsh name 'Gwendolyn' or 'Gwendolen'), while occasionally socializing with the other residents and with the Owains and their friends, mainly stays in her room and waits.

While The Long Lost is a tale of supernatural horror, that horror plays itself out in the terrible things people can do to other people, especially loved ones. And many of these horrors may simply arise from happenstance. In this way, The Long Lost is a companion piece to Campbell's earlier Obsession, in which the source of what seems to be evil turns out to be far murkier than either the reader or the characters assume. Where does sin come from, and how much blame does any person assume for being unable to resist it?

There are several lengthy setpieces of wrenching horror in the later stages of the novel, made more horrific by Campbell's skill at creating sympathetic victims and perpetrators. And as is perhaps proper in a novel dealing with Wales, birthplace of seminal, often mystical horror writer Arthur Machen, the climax of the novel is more of a mystery than anything that has come before as the mystic and the sublime move into the forefront. Those seeking horror with a clearcut resolution are warned to stay away. Highly recommended.

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