Sunday, March 31, 2013

Review: The Grin of The Dark by Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey Campbell is a name all horror readers should be familiar with. The Liverpool native has written at least thirty novels, and had hundreds of short stories to his name. I've long been a fan of Campbell's short fiction, but until now I have yet to delve into any of his longer works.

The Grin of the Dark is one of his more recent novels, being published in 2007. Now, looking at the cover alone it's easy to see how I came to choose this one. Clowns have long been a source of horror. Ask anyone who saw Stephen King's IT as a child. I had two clown puppets on a shelf in my room until the day I saw that mini-series.

It wasn't just the clown aspect that drew me to this book, but also the film element. The synopsis reminded me a bit of Theodore Roszack's Flicker, another novel which features a character obsessed with an old filmmaker and his work.

Here is the blurb right from the book's jacket:

Tubby Thackeray was once the biggest comedian in the world -- people literally laughed themselves to death at some of his performances. But almost nothing of his silent movies has survived, and now Thackeray is little more than a grace note in film history.

Disgraced film critic Simon is determined to restore Tubby's reputation and his own. A commercially successful biography of Tubby will convince Simon's girlfriend -- and her parents -- that Simon is worthy of her. 

Uncovering the truth about Tubby isn't easy. Newspapers of the time contain mysterious, truncated accounts of disturbing events at Tubby's performances and at screenings of his films. The few seconds of film Simon finds of Tubby in action are profoundly disquieting; Tubby seems more demon than comedian. Tubby's leering, laughing clown's face haunts Simon. Everywhere he turns, he sees the clown's sardonic grin; his faintly glowing white costume; or his long, oddly jointed limbs.

Tubby Thackeray is dead. But the evil that was Tubby Thackeray lives, and Simon's investigations have roused its hunger.

The novel was enjoyable, but also had its share of flaws. Simon's disconnect from reality seems genuine and gradual, and is mostly quite believable. His situation is uncomfortable from the very beginning. It's clear that his in-laws despise him, creating a lot of awkward tension. The general discomfort not only continues throughout the novel, it steadily grows. By the end, Simon's paranoia and anxiety is smothering.

The horror itself is more of a quiet horror. Simon constantly glimpses unsettling images from the corner of his eye, starts to question his sanity, and seems to be alone against an increasingly hostile world. Every encounter with another person, wherever he goes, seems strained and uncomfortable. Every official or librarian he deals with seems to be an antagonist from the first moment he meets them, and every task turns into a hassle or fiasco. 

Simon himself is also one of the book's flaws. He is not a very likable character. His bitterness and general attitude make him a hard protagonist to sympathize with at times. The novel's length could also be trimmed by a third and would only be more effective for it. There were times I felt like the story was dragging and becoming repetitive. While Campbell succeeds in creating an anxious moods, it's too protracted. 

Despite these criticisms, the book's ending is a worthy payoff. Some of the ambiguity of the horrors was also right up my alley and it was also fun seeing nods to other known works of horror. (Azathoth is actually mentioned once, and Ligotti fans will be pleased to see the town name of Mirocaw referenced). While overall, The Grin of the Dark did not grasp me the way Mr. Campbell's short fiction has, it was still a worthwhile horror read. For more casual horror readers, I can definitely see frustration at drawing out vague horrors for nearly 400 pages, and even as someone who reads horror regularly I can't help but feel that the story would pack more of a punch if it was a bit more condensed.

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