Ramsey Campbell has long been acknowledged among those who know modern horror as a true master. Despite his critical success, he remains largely and unfortunately unknown to the mass audience. If given the chance, his latest novel--PACT OF THE FATHERS -- would probably win those masses over. It's a delicious updating of that venerable crowd-pleaser, the gothic novel.
Whether dealing with the psychological or the supernatural, Campbell has endeared himself to horror fans with a convincing and chilling grimness. His realistic portrayals of the horrors of urban and personal disintegration force the reader to consider that which is too disturbing to consider. But, let's face it, this is not the stuff (usually) on which best-sellerdom is launched.
With PACT OF THE FATHERS Campbell loses none of his literary touch, but abandons much of his trademark grimness in this gothic romp. He takes what is far from his strongest plot and turns it into a compelling page-turner keyed on winning characterization, deft dialogue, and the occasional surprise.
Daniella Logan is the university-student daughter of film mogul Teddy Logan. Logan, an American, started his movie empire in England with a series of Hammer-type horror flicks. He later turned to "uplifting," crowd-pleasing dramas often derived from Biblical tales. Teddy dies suddenly in an automobile accident while driving under the influence of alcohol -- even though this is one bad habit Logan was never known to indulge. The evening after the funeral, Daniella visits her father's grave and discovers a group of black robed men arrayed it and performing some weird ritual.
coverDaniella is a contemporary gothic heroine, of course, not some defenseless heiress locked up in a castle. Although she is an heiress of sorts, she's independent, spunky, intelligent, lovely, and a modern incarnation of Nancy Drew determined to discover the meaning of the assembly at the grave. She soon discovers other mysterious clues and determines to discover more.
Before it's all over, Daniella -- in pursuit of a missing box, a similarly missing book, and answers about the grave-group -- has life-threatening encounters in the family mansion, discovers her potential inheritance may have been squandered by some poor financial judgment on her father's part (of course, should she die before attaining the proper age, there are other inheritors), is either avoided or ignored by the police and her father's circle of successful friends (the single helpful soul meets with extremely foul play), discovers a strange dagger at her father's grave, is threatened by a bunch of punk girls who hang out at the cemetery, and (back in that family mansion) has the dagger disappear on her, winds up in jail for assaulting a police officer, and is incarcerated against her will in an insane asylum. She also meets up with Mark, an independent, spunky, intelligent, handsome modern incarnation of -- well, not Ned Nickerson. Think Bob Woodward as a cool movie journalist rather than with a political beat. Sparks fly but are quickly doused when she learns his true identity.
After a thrilling escape from one of her tangles, she flees to a Greek Island and takes refuge as the guest of the aging but still glamorous Nana Babouris. Teddy made her a star and Nana made Teddy a successful producer. Campbell inserts chapters concerning the island-sojourn in the midst of those with linear progression, thus heightening a sense of suspense.
On the off-chance that Tor/Forge changes the cover copy that gives the book's main secret (although the title itself is something of a giveaway), I will go no further. (Although I suspect you and I would have figured it all out fairly early anyway.) Suffice to say the robed assemblage are indeed a wicked bunch and their supposedly ancient beliefs involve murderous suppression of the present.
Okay, the plot is far from Campbell's strongest and PACT has more in common with Barbara Micheals/Elizabeth Peters or Daphne DuMaurier (and that's merely a comparison, not meant as disparagement to any of the three) than anything the author has done before -- and it's all marvelous. Daniella is delightful and you can't help but care about her. Moreover, the melodrama has enough real drama to carry a terrifying message: that humans can convince themselves of anything when it comes to satisfying their greed, even that their innocent victims -- since they are sacrificed with love -- go straight to paradise and the most sacred of relationships can be profaned.
A Campbell novel is always a treat -- they just come in a variety of flavors. The nail-biting taste of psychochildkiller Hector Woollie in SILENT CHILDREN the haunting supernatural tang -- spiced with a sprinkling of social and domestic trauma -- of NAZARETH HILL, etc. PACT OF THE FATHERS is a bit more over-the-top of the boiling gothic pot than you (oh devoted reader of dark fiction) might expect from the author, but you'll find it a deliciously savory stew. And, with any luck, a larger audience will slurp it up, too. -- Paula Guran, originally appeared in Cemetery Dance #37