Sep 7, 2012

The Grin of the Dark - Ramsey Campbell

The Grin of the Dark
Author: Ramsey Campbell
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication Date: July 8, 2008

The Grin of the Dark should have been Ramsey Campbell's masterpiece. In it there are all the significant elements that crop up throughout his work, the fine line between a laugh and a scream, the influence of malevolent personalities over those of the weak, the disintegration of the mind, the dread to be found in the dreary day to day, and the erosion of language and meaning all with an undertone of cosmic, Lovecraftian horror. Unfortunately, the novel isn't satisfying enough to rank amongst Campbell's best work.

Simon is a rather intense and somewhat unlikable protagonist. His life is about to implode as his financial prospects have all but withered away and the relationship with his girlfriend and her son is threatened. His girlfriend's parents are waiting for him to fail with fingers crossed. His last hope is the successful completion of a study on the life and career of former silent film comedian, Tubby Thackeray. Once a legend, the details of Tubby's life and career have all but vanished. Simon is frustrated in his efforts at every turn, the kernels of knowledge that he is able to glean hint at some disturbing truth which begins to plague Simon's life. The novel is written in first person and it is clear early on that Simon is losing his grip on reality, or maybe reality itself is becoming unraveled. In any case, Campbell gives us an extreme version of the unreliable narrator calling into question the veracity of...well the entire novel. He takes this too far. Rather than being left with the impression that there is a coherent narrative to be sussed out by the attentive reader picking up on carefully placed clues, the whole thing seems a bit random.

Corpulent silent film star about to eat dog.

Yet, Tubby Thackeray is an inspired creation. In stripping away the garish clothes and greasepaint, Campbell lays bare the essence of coulrophobia, the wide malevolent grin of complete madness. Contagious madness. Vaudevillian, silent film star, academic, Tubby's history is doled out in fragments from questionable sources. A technique used to build up character's stature and put to great effect here. Campbell's description of a short clip from one of Tubby's films rings true in evoking the point at which comedy teeters on the brink of something cruel and disturbing.

Intriguing hints about his life are raised then discarded. Were there ulterior motives behind Tubby's work? Political perhaps, was he an anarchist? Was he a practitioner of the occult? I wanted to know more about this character and kept waiting for a tangible manifestation to arrive at some later point like a demented Harry Lime. This isn't quite what we get.

Campbell's prose can be challenging at times. He is the sort of writer that rewards the patient reader. He often employs dense, descriptive passages that build to evoke mood and atmosphere or phrasing which deliberately conveys double meanings. His works are rife with ambiguity. This plays out in the interaction of his characters who find themselves being misinterpreted in the worst way possible, innocent comments are misconstrued so as to create or worsen tense situations. Impending loss of control is often heralded by the inability of his characters to make themselves understood and prevent the dreadful consequences which result. It would be funny if it weren't so alarming. There is much of that going on here, in Simon's interaction with his girlfriend and her parents but most obviously in the online exchanges between Simon an an inexplicably hostile (well aren't they all?) internet troll, smilemime.

Campbell makes an intriguing observation by casting the internet as a source of disinformation and ultimately, a force for chaos. Unfortunately, this comes far too late in the novel to be fully explored and feels largely unearned. He plays with deliberate obfuscation and confusion a little too much pushing the novel from opaque into the realm of impenetrable. And he takes to anagrams like Piers Anthony takes to puns. Yes, the book could have benefited from less mucking around with anagrams.

Still, there is some dark Juju to be found here. The novel does produce a disorienting effect on the reader at times, as if they were becoming unhinged. I get the impression that Campbell was attempting to mesh form and content together as never before, possibly to drive his readers insane (the unspoken but well understood goal of all horror writers, I believe). The story just isn't engaging enough to live up to the potential evidenced here. Maybe next time.

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