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"Write out of love, write out of instinct, write out of reason. But always for money."
Louis Untermeyer

The One Safe Place

By Ramsey Campbell  
A Forge Book, 383 pp, 1995

Ramsey Campbell is a British author best known for supernatural horror, the UK's version of Stephen King. He's written several successful novels, and has attracted a readership in his native country and America. I've read a few of his other books, and don't remember being too excited about them. But it's been years since I tried him, and I was browsing at the library, looking for a scary story, and there was The One Safe Place. It cost me nothing to check out, so if I didn't like it, at least I wasn't out any cash.

This isn't the Ramsey Campbell I remember reading. There's not a hint of the supernatural in this story. It's what I would call urban realism, a gritty novel in which there are no bright, happy places and all the settings are dirty, decayed, and run-down. The streets are cracked, the buildings are crumbling or in some state of disrepair, and virtually all the characters, save for our three protagonists, are shady or unlikable, and in some cases, evil. Everything and everyone are dark.

The Travises have moved from their Florida home to Manchester, England. Don owns an antique bookshop, Suzanne teaches at a local college, and their twelve-year-old son Marshall attends a posh local school.

One day, Don encounters Phil Fancy in a traffic incident. Phil is a not very nice fellow, and he brandishes a gun at Don but does not shoot. Phil is arrested and sent to prison for 18 months, but not until he breaks into the Travis home and roughs up young Marshal in a riveting scene. Unfortunately for Don, Phil has brothers, and they are very upset at Don, and kick him to death outside his shop. They also head to prison, for much longer, and now young Darren Fancy, also twelve, vows revenge on his Travis counterpart Marshal. 

Up to this point, the book is very good. It's scary because an incident like this could happen to any of us at any time - meeting the wrong person at the wrong time. It can turn our lives upside down in one second. That's what happens to the Travises. We can relate. When the reader relates with the protagonists and can understand what they're going through, it's a very good thing. It means the author knows what he's doing.

The book takes a turn from there, though, and the realism Campbell so carefully constructs breaks down. I can't give it away, so let's say that, in my opinion, it's an unlikely and unrealistic plot device, slows the book's pace to a crawl, and is not rescued by a fantastic ending.

Campbell is a careful and detailed writer, a tad too detailed for my taste - I found myself skimming over descriptive words and sentences to get to the action.

I did learn something interesting. Britain apparently practices censorships - movies and videos must be approved by the state censor to lawfully sell or possess. This lands Suzanne in trouble, since she teaches a course about violence in movies, and several of the tapes she owns and teaches are banned in Britain. I didn't know Britain did this, and am rather disappointed. It does not bode well for the future of liberty in Britain.

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