Entries Tagged 'Ramsey Campbell' ↓

The Grin of the Dark: A Horror Reader Exclusive Review

Campbellgrin Simon Lester is a film minded fellow with some of the worst luck imaginable. When the magazine he writes for gets hit with libel suits, his career as a film writer takes a nose dive; he finds himself working at a gas station, living in college student housing (though he is not a student any longer), and on the serious outs with his girlfriend's parents... Good fortune finally comes his way when a former professor offers him the chance to expand his thesis on forgotten film actors into a full book length work. During his exploration of the elusive history behind one of these figures, silent comedian Tubby Thackery, Simon embarks on a journey that will take him beyond the comforts of his London haunts. Manchester, Amsterdam, California and more places await him, each offering another kernel of information that will equally enlighten and disturb.

Ramsey Campbell is no stranger to the macabre. His unique brand of psychological horror has long been one of this reader's preferred pleasures. Though he has taken some time away from out and out horror to pen dark thrillers for a time, no matter what publishing niche they might fall under, this reader has a special place in his heart for Campbell’s fiction.

The Grin of the Dark finds the author once more visiting the subtle, eerie world straddling the line between psychological breakdown and supernatural terror, a realm he has charted quite well through his short fiction and previous novels. As well, The Grin of the Dark presents a return (of sorts) to the world of forgotten film. While 1989's Ancient Images previously ventured into this territory, telling a chilling tale set around the pursuit of a lost Karloff/Lugosi film, this story is no regurgitation of that novel’s constituent parts.  Both books might make for a delightful double feature in the Cineplex of the mind’s eye, but their essential interest and storylines are rather different.  Differences range from the topical (the technology level is certainly different:  DVDs, old videotape, and the Internet all play quite a role as help/hindrance to protagonist Simon's search), to the nuts and bolts of thematic semantics (The Grin of the Dark takes interest less in the trappings of horror pictures, than it does in the secret history of those who involve themselves in the horrific behind the scenes).  As well as the divide between psychology and supernatural based frights, this novel makes a go at blurring the line between humor and fear.

There are quite a few laughs to be found in these pages. Much of these are of the black humor variety, but there are several moments that are genuinely funny. That these typically lead into disturbing situations should surprise no one. While a familiar definition suggests "Tragedy is when I cut my thumb, comedy is when you fall down a manhole," this novel dwells somewhere between the two extremes, at the horrible juncture that might be defined as “when I fall down after you because someone has moved the hole.”

Many of the problems Simon faces are not themselves out of the ordinary. The Grin of the Dark is replete with family disappointments, misunderstandings, bank problems, anonymously posting twits on the internet, fears of inadequacy, and other mundane issues. All of these, however, contribute to the pervasive, eerie atmosphere.

Campbell’s horror often finds its way into even the most innocuous sequence, dialogues veer into bizarre territory merely because of inflection or word choice or curious moments to pause; settings become disquieting because of a paranoid’s attention to details; quiet moments of speculation turn disconcerting because of a simple misstep, a subtle revelation, or a hop of logic (not so far as a full leap).

This makes for a quiet sensibility, a slowly wrought chill, an atmosphere evoked deliberately and slowly through a keen attention to description and dialogue and internal monologue. Quiet as it is, there is nothing gentle about this book, and yet the more brutal aspects might be obfuscated by this slow build. For readers who liken “a good horror story” to qualities such as breakneck speed, relentless to the point of mind numbing plots, and none too subtle scares, such a carefully evoked work could seem rather slow. The Grin of the Dark is not a book to be gulped down on a beach. It takes its time, it asks for a moment and constructs a powerful tale well worth the time investment.

The spirit of the work is decidedly British and yet speaks to the themes found in Japanese authors such as Koji Suzuki. The Grin of the Dark thematically tackles such topics as the odd interplay between the technological and the spiritual, the inescapable resonance of history, the anarchic role of the Outsider in society, the shortage of nature and the lack of emotional equilibrium to be found in non-urban settings, and more. Not riffs, homages or ripoffs of another author’s book, these are lines of communication between The Grin of the Dark, Ringu, and a host of other works, intriguing dialogues between books that well read readers can appreciate.

One of Grin’s more interesting stylistic choices is to present the story as first person, present tense. This offers a you-are-there feeling, and makes the reader complicit with Simon’s perspectives and decisions. Therefore, as the protagonist experiences moments of confusion about the sequence of events he has already participated in, the effect is experienced by the reader as well. Similar to the effect famously demonstrated in the film Rashomon (where four stories are presented, each conflicting with details offered by the others, and in which no Truth is made evident), the novel breaks a contract with the reader, what is shown to us may not necessarily be the truth. From this arise a plethora of questions: Are Simon’s (and the reader’s) recollections correct? Is the world somehow changing, the past altering? The effect adds a quality of the unreliable to our narrator, which this reader found delightfully disorienting.

Another interesting stylistic choice is found in the use of reverses. The novel does not often directly present its more unreal/supernatural/otherworldly elements. Instead, it alludes to them by defining what they are not. Moist white objects (and there are plenty of these to be found, from floating faces to snowmen to lumpy, other things) that cannot be present, cannot be moving, and certainly cannot be all that threatening ultimately end up doing one or more of those three things. The effect adds to the disorienting quality of the work, and serves as the classic springboard, allowing the reader's imagination and experience to fill in the blanks making for an even more unsettling scene.

Grin of the Dark really got under this reader's skin in all the right ways, and I already long to reread it.

Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell
404 pages
Virgin Books
Release: May 2008

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