In everything we do, every decision we make and every action we undertake, our identities define us… yet we never really know who we are. We know who we were—we tell ourselves we do, to be sure—but like all memories, these recollections lose their sharpness with time, and, invariably, some of their truth, too. And while we think we know who we will be, these are projections at best; messy guesses subject to sudden and surprising changes in circumstance.
Take Luke Arnold, the central perspective of The Kind Folk by Ramsey Campbell. He thought he was the only son of Maurice and Freda Arnold, but as a DNA test taken on television demonstrates, he’s not; the hospital must have given the couple he calls mum and dad the wrong baby. “He still has all his memories; nothing has changed them or what he is, let alone the people who are still his parents in surely every way that counts.” Nevertheless, this sensational revelation alters Luke’s perception of his past, and that, in turn, has huge ramifications on his future.
Who, then, is the man caught in the middle?
A father-to-be, in the first, because Luke’s wife, the singer/songwriter Sophie Drew, is expecting. And although the doctors at the hospital give clean bills of health to both of the prospective parents, they take Luke to one side to say that it would be “in the interest of your child to discover what you can about your origins.” Origins that, try as he might to divine them in the subsequent months, don’t seem to be entirely natural in nature.
It just so happens he already has an inkling as to where else he could conceivably have come from, because as a boy, he was haunted by bad dreams, imaginary companions and a compulsion to twist the fingers of his hands into shapes seen by some as satanic. The child psychologist little Luke saw all those years ago thought this was the fault of Luke’s beloved uncle, Terence, and his tales of the Kind Folk.
“That was what people used to call the fairies to try and stop them getting up to anything too wicked, the Kind Folk,” and for Terence, they were something of an obsession—an obsession Luke comes to believe might hold the key to his own otherwise inexplicable origins when his dear uncle dies and he inherits a journal of strange stories and seemingly nonsensical notes. These allude to “the legend of the changeling—an inhuman or demonic baby substituted for a human one soon after birth,” and as Luke retraces Terence’s travels, he becomes increasingly gripped by the fear that he is just such a creature.
Silly as I’m sure some of this sounds in synopsis, in Ramsey Campbell’s hands, for several reasons, it’s all too easy to believe—not least because Luke’s character is so tied to trickery and layered, latterly, in lots of little lies. You see, having displayed, from an early age, an uncanny ability to mimic, he’s found some small measure of celebrity in his middle age as an impressionist. This, incidentally, is how he’s able to visit the many and various locations Terence mentioned in his journal without arousing Sophie’s suspicions: Luke tells her he’s touring. But between stand-up spots in all the local hotspots, he’s visiting places like Steppingstone Lane and Compass Meadow, where “it feels as though his childhood problem has returned—as though that mental state is about to define itself at last.”
These are places where the borders between worlds have been worn so thin, he thinks, that he might stand a chance of speaking to the beings he’s beginning to believe in. Luke’s burgeoning beliefs are reinforced by the reading he does in his down-time, in the course of which he learns that changelings “learned to pass for human by imitating traits they observed, a camouflage as innate as the chameleon’s. Many displayed their talent for mimicry, while quite a few gained fame with it.” Fame such as he has gained, I dare say, making for a nominally unreliable narrator.
This last only adds to the unsettling sense of uncertainty that Campbell yokes to The Kind Folk—a sense which is evident in even the most mundane moments of the story. Here, our hero is doing nothing more remarkable than driving out of a private garden, and yet everything—note the set dressing especially—is alive in some capacity, and, yes, aggressive:
The lamp at the end of the drive lets Luke pass unnoticed and then flares up to celebrate his departure. The blurred restless shadows of the trees mop at his silhouette as if they’ve resolved to erase it, and the outline of the draped car squirms vigorously enough to be groping for a different shape.
In a world so unerringly intent, a world in which even the detail is dangerous, it’s not hard to believe that there may be others out there after all, be they Kind Folk or fairies or demons or dreams. I urge you only to be careful what you call ’em. Names are of course a source of power in the old stories, entangled are they are in questions of identity; questions that The Kind Folk asks—and eventually, evocatively, answers—to unforgettable effect.
This, dear reader, is a novel with a name… a novel that knows exactly what it is… and what it is, is brilliant.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.