I buy few novels these days, largely due to my limited reading time and just being a slow reader in general. I do, however, make an exception whenever a new Ramsey Campbell novel comes available. So, when I saw Fellstones (Flame Tree Publishing 2022) showed up for preorder, I purchased it without a second thought. Now having recently finished it, I want to offer up my thoughts.
Fellstones follows Paul Dunstan, a musical prodigy whose parents died when he was still a preteen. Despite his having aunts and uncles who could have adopted him, it’s a completely unrelated family, Rafe and Winifred Staveley, who manages to convince everyone to let them do so instead. Afterwards, the Staveleys changed his name to Michael and began aggressively nurturing his innate singing ability at their home in the isolated village of Fellstones (named for the seven large standing stones visible from their house).
When he’s old enough to start college, they are disappointed to learn of his decision to attend one away from home and even more-so that he did not choose music as his major. Eventually their repeated attempts to control his life from afar caused Michael to move away entirely and cut ties with them while changing his name to Paul. Away from the Staveley’s influence, he took a stifling job at a bookstore and became involved in a serious relationship with a woman named Caren.
When the Staveley’s daughter Adele (who he calls Dell) finally seeks him out in his new life, he feels his very close connection to her revived. She tells him that his adoptive parents are ill and that he needs to return to Fellstones to see them. Reluctantly, he agrees.
When he gets there, however, they seem perfectly fine, even throwing a large, drunken party to celebrate his return. They also begin pressuring him to take part in a special upcoming performance at the Fellstones while chastising him for wasting his tremendous singing talent in the new life he’s chosen for himself.
Paul/Michael struggles against his desire to live his life outside of Fellstones and the desires of his only remaining familial attachments in the Staveleys. Despite his efforts, he’s continually pulled back to Fellstones or forced to remain their longer than intended when he does return for seemingly innocuous reason (i.e. he drank too much alcohol to drive back, or has left something important there, etc.). But, is there actually a more insidious plan afoot to lure him back amongst them?
This is a slow burn novel hinging around a host of subtle but persistent indications which suggest the Staveleys and their surrounding neighbors may be working to manipulate him in ways too naturally explainable to be provable otherwise. Each member of the family presents a loving, helpful facade which may mask darker, secret motives beneath their veneer. The Staveley’s family dynamic with Paul/Michael is very realistic, with each of them having their own specific personalities and ways of dealing with each other. Winifred, his adoptive mother, is a smothering willful force who has no compulsion to suppress her strong emotions on how he’s leading his life, while her husband Rafe routinely works to attempt to smooth over her verbal volleys while still remaining in agreement with her. Then there’s Dell, who always strives to support Paul/Michael as much as possible but is torn by her loyalties to him and to her parents which is often at odds.
On a side note: Fans of classical music will appreciate the plethora of references to several master composers and their works as the Staveleys love filling their house with their music in attempts to help bring out Michael’s talent.
I very much enjoyed this novel and found myself missing reading about Paul/Michael and the Staveleys, despite their mastery of passive-aggressive comments, upon finishing the book. The sense of impending doom permeates the everyday events of Paul/Michael’s life and it seems no matter how hard he tries to separate himself from Fellstones and the Staveleys, he is constantly pulled back by forces he’s incapable of resisting. Even when he begins to exert some resistance to whatever hidden plans may have been laid out before him, events conspire to redirect him to the stones. Negotiating intricate family dynamics is a key element of this novel and is what propels much of the action forward as Ramsey proves yet again his mastery at portraying it. There are definitely supernatural elements involved as well, particularly in regards to the seven standing stones in the center of the village. Their power isn’t overt but their influence over Paul/Michael and the inhabitants surrounding it is undeniable.
Fellstones is folk horror at its finest with a strong ending that successfully pays off the ominous, gradual pace of the beginning chapters. I particularly like the somber final note which the novel leaves us on and found myself thinking about it long afterward. I highly recommend Fellstones to any fan of quiet, supernatural horror.
Flame Tree Publishing: https://www.flametreepublishing.com/fellstones-isbn-9781787587571.html
Review by Matt Cowan