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The Lonely Lands

THE LONELY LANDS by Ramsey Campbell

Flame Tree Press, p/b, £9.95

Reviewed by Pauline Morgan

One of the activities that seemed to be very common during the Covid lockdowns, if the reports are correct, was that people took the opportunity to write the novel they have always been meaning to. Few of those would have written about the pandemic itself as their authorship was an escape from the situation. However, Ramsey Campbell is not shy about dealing with current topics. In The Lonely Lands, he has embraced the pandemic and woven it into a tale of love and loss. And, yes, as this is from a Grand Master of Horror, it is also horror.

            Joe Hunter worked in a library until he met Olivia. She owned a shop called Made of Memories. It sold items from the past and were bought because they brought back memories to the customers. Joe and Olivia had a chance encounter in the library, but it was the model of the Yellow Submarine he saw in the shop window that brought them together. After their marriage, they ran the shop together.

            As the lockdown began to ease, everything changed. On their way back from shopping, Joe and Olivia see a man stealing from the florists next door to their shop. Despite the anti-mask march between them and the shop, Olivia managed to get across the road to confront him. Joe, pushing the shopping trolley, couldn’t cross the road before the thief had lowered his mask and coughed in Olivia’s face. A few weeks later, Olivia was dead. That’s where the nightmare for Joe begins.

            As a child, Joe’s grandfather had told him that if you thought bad things about someone who had died, they would come back and haunt you. He already feels guilty about the old man’s death. He believed that his ineptness in kicking a football that injured his grandfather’s leg was the cause of the stroke and the ill health that eventually killed him. He had nightmares about his dead grandfather coming back. He feels guilt, too, about Olivia’s death – that he couldn’t be with her in the hospital when she died, that he hadn’t got across the road fast enough to save her.

            Joe’s grief drives the rest of the novel. He dreams of places and events where he and Olivia were happy, and they turn into nightmares. He becomes convinced that he is actually making contact with her and needs her to be in her happy place – watching the sunset from the balcony of their honeymoon hotel. He believes that her contentment is threatened. In dreams and in life, he hears the sound of his grandfather’s awkward gait pursuing him. The situation is not helped by the antagonism he experiences from Olivia’s parents (they did not want him to marry her) and the fact that the thief whom he believes caused her death only gets a suspended sentence.

            Many of us have had those anxiety dreams where they start out safe and ordinary but degenerate into the odd, surreal and frustratingly impossible, such as being lost in a maze. Those that Joe experiences are similar, but in them, he is pursued by his grandfather, and he feels the compulsion to keep him away from Olivia. When he awakes, the experience still seems very real, as if he has actually found his way into the twilight area between life and death, and he has to keep Olivia safe and the manifestation of his grandfather from her. It spills over into his waking life.

            Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if all this is only in Joe’s mind or if the supernatural horror of the events has broken through into the real world. The effect is the same. The story-telling is immaculate, leaving the reader to decide on the actuality of the events described. The Lonely Lands is a masterpiece to be put alongside the best of Campbell’s writing. Enjoy is not a word that sits easily against a book that deals with issues that many people have had to cope with in recent years, but it is easy to appreciate the writing skill that Campbell employs in treating a sensitive subject sympathetically while still maintaining his skill and melding the surreal horror with contemporary issues in a way that only he can. Recommended.

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