As much as I enjoyed the last two books I read (and reviewed), Ramsey Campbell’s latest novel is the best thing I’ve read in some time. I first got into Campbell’s fiction at about the age of sixteen when a friend convinced me to give Stephen King a go (it was pretty much the first horror I’d read — apart from a disastrous attempt at Dennis Wheatley I must go into some time — and I chose Salem’s Lot because a glimpse of the Nosferatu-inspired vampire on the trailer for the TV series still came back and gave me the creeps whenever I was alone in the house). Having read one King novel, I went back to the bookshop where I’d bought it and, wondering what England had to offer in a similar vein, picked Ramsey Campbell, judging, from a quick comparison of shelf-inchery, that he must be our nearest equivalent. (This was a secondhand bookshop, so its selection may have been misleading. But thank God it was.) I can’t remember which of his I read first (The Hungry Moon, perhaps), but it must have done the trick, because I quickly became hooked. Not only was Campbell capable of writing a real page turner like King (I remember being almost unable to put down Obsession, Incarnate and The Influence, which remains one of my favourite reads), but he was — and still is — one of the most consistently artistic writers I’ve read. I hope that doesn’t sound like faint praise, because it’s one of the highest compliments I could pay: Campbell constantly challenges himself as a writer, stretching his boundaries while retaining a consistent level of readability & quality. You know what you’re getting with a Ramsey Campbell novel, and one of the things you’re getting is the unexpected, the new, the surprising. You also get a testing of the boundaries of language, of the very basis of the craft of writing. His latest, The Grin of the Dark, is one of his most interesting works of fiction to read on the level of style alone. I’d say I haven’t enjoyed a book so much since this Christmas, when I re-read his House on Nazareth Hill (which overtook The Influence as my favourite Campbell novel, both for the brilliantly naturalistic dialogue of its teen protagonist, and the fact it so purely crystallises so much of Campbell’s recurrent theme of the potentially damaging relation between parent and child) — but I don’t want to appear to be simply obsequious, so I’d better say that the last Campbell novel I read before that was The Darkest Part of the Woods, which disappointed me with the lack of definition or focus in its central horror, and which made me wonder if it was worth reading any of his subsequent books. As a result, I passed on The Overnight and Secret Stories; but reading The Grin of the Dark — which I had to do simply because of its premise — has convinced me I was wrong to give up on him, and that not only should I snap up the books I missed, but maybe I’d better give The Darkest Part of the Woods another go.
The Grin of the Dark revisits an area Campbell previously explored in Ancient Images, and which connects with a subject I wrote about in one of my earliest mewsings, on John Carpenter’s Cigarette Burns: stories in which the protagonist searches for some lost film or book, while looking into the life of the now-forgotten artist who created it. (I notice the site I mentioned in that blog entry, The Invisible Library, seems to have disappeared, so I’ll mention it again and give the Web Archive address for it.) The Grin of the Dark‘s narrator, Simon Lester, is researching forgotten silent comedian Tubby Thackery, whose career petered out thanks to unspecified issues of censorship. I don’t intend to discuss the plot any further than that, because part of the thrill of the novel is seeing how Campbell writes what is, basically, a horror novel about comedy. (And one which manages to be funny and disturbing at the same time.) The fact he succeeds, and even manages to give his horror that Lovecraftian twist which transforms the personal nightmare into something universal, is just one of the reasons I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this book to anyone interested in finding out what sort of heights horror literature is capable of achieving. (I despair to think how many condescending literary critics must have congratulated themselves on slumming it by reading Brett Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park, no doubt finding smug ways of saying how it’s good “even though it’s horror”, whereas if they were given The Grin of the Dark they’d realise just how far Ellis got from writing a genuinely satisfying novel in that mode.)
So aside from the plot — aside from saying it scores in every way a good horror plot should — what else is there to talk about? Ramsey Campbell’s prose, of course. Campbell is the poet of the suggestive negative. Like some waiter of the macabre wafting a pungent dish under your nose then snatching it away before you can identify that questionable-looking meat, Campbell produces horrific images only to turn them immediately into nastily lingering suggestions by instantly negating them. The effect, distressingly, is to rob you of the chance to deal with them consciously, to placate them or understand them. His prose creates a world of flickering corner-of-the-eye images which disappear as soon as you turn to confront them, thus removing your ability to dismiss them as the ghosts you know them to be:
“A white lump is poking over the counter beyond the glass. Is it a misshapen plastic bag or a wad or paper? Neither strikes me as promising, but perhaps my mother can discern the marks printed on it. She reaches under the window and strains to hook the object with her gloved fingertips. It appears to wobble jelly-like before slithering off the counter. I don’t care for the resemblance to a sagging face that has ducked out of sight…” (p. 142)
“My parents used to take me [to Midnight Mass] at his age and somewhat older, but I’ve forgotten most of the experience, although I seem to recall thinking that the worshippers were huddled in the light as if they hoped it could fend off the dark… I can hear nonsense if not worse inside my head, or is the almost inaudible muttering beside me? I’m unable to judge whether it’s invading my skull or spreading out of it, and if so which of my neighbours is involved, or could both be?” (p. 306-7)
All those suggestions and negatives, all those shifting images, that inherent anxiety about just what is being seen or heard, are a dense assault on the conscious mind’s arrogant belief that putting something into words codifies it, makes it understandable. Campbell uproots the reader’s very foundation in language, particularly in this novel, with its deliberate mangling of spelling and meaning, sense and sound.
This aspect of Campbell’s style isn’t only reserved for the horrific passages. As his narrator’s immersion in the world Campbell creates deepens, reality takes on a more and more fantastic, hallucinatory patina, as if it was only ever a flimsy veil covering an all-too substantial nightmare that is ready, at any moment, to break through and destroy what sanity and stability you feel you ought to have. Right from the start, a paranoia is inherent in Campbell’s prose, a discomfort with the world, a distrust of one’s senses — even of one’s very mind — that is, really, the essence of the horror of the idea (as opposed to merely visceral horror): the neurotic over-questioning of everything that surrounds you — the world, the people you think you know, the things you see and hear, the thoughts in your head — hemming you in and isolating you into a constricted, solipsistic nightmare of universal persecution: It (that is, Everything, the Universe Itself) against you.
And you know who’s bound to win in that sort of situation.