Thursday, 21 June 2012

"The Grin of the Dark," by Ramsey Campbell

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Stuff and Nonsense by Amy Cockram is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

A few months back, I discovered a list on the internet entitled "The 25 Best Horror Novels of the New Millennium."  It was an interesting list, some of which I have read ("Horns") and others that were new to me.  There were two that I really liked the sound of: Ramsey Campbell's "The Grin of the Dark" and "Drood" by Dan Simmons.  I went to find them at my local library.  "Drood, " I discovered, is a big book so I decided I would need to leave that for when I have more time, but I borrowed the Ramsey Campbell.

"The Grin of the Dark" is narrated by Simon Lester, a film graduate who is working in a petrol station following a disastrous association with a film magazine that got sued after a colleague wrote a scurrilous article.  Simon is visited at work by a lecturer from university who offers him the opportunity to write a book for a newly started university press.  His subject will be a reworking of his thesis about forgotten talents of the cinema.  One of these, who becomes the focus of his research, is a silent film comedian called Tubby Thackeray whose live performances and films were said to have driven people mad.  This quest becomes an obsession.

This book reminded me of an incident quite a few years back.  I had been to Buckfast Abbey with a (now ex) boyfriend, and in a book in the gift shop I discovered that the grave of Squire Richard Cabell was in a church nearby.  I have loved the myths and legends of Dartmoor since I was young, and I love literature, and Richard Cabell is the intersection of this: he is the debauched landowner of legend on whom Sir Arthur Conan Doyle allegedly based the figure of Sir Hugo Baskerville.  He was thought to be so evil that his grave has bars around it, supposedly because people were afraid that he would be able to escape after death.  I wanted to see this, so we went to the church on the way home.  The grave itself is creepy - I remember that there was a pattern of three or four parallel rust marks on the wall, which, to me, looked like clawed fingermarks of someone trying to excape - but it has nothing on the church.  I hadn't realised before going there that the church was a ruin, and I discovered afterwards that it was ruined by a fire which was supposedly started by satanists.  I think of myself as being as far from psychic as it is possible to be, and I am pretty much impervious to atmosphere; I think I'm quite a realistic person and things like that pass me by, but my ex got freaked out by the place - some of which rubbed off on me - and he wanted to leave very quickly.

The experience of Ramsey Campbell's novel has made me think of this incident a couple of times in the past week.  Campbell's novel is not gory at all, but it is unsettling; it is like being with someone who gets the wiggins over something and being infected by their unease.  There are some very effective set pieces - a night-time visit to a derelict theatre in which Tubby had performed sticks in my mind - and some eldritch Lovecraftian ideas.  There are elements of this novel about which I feel very divided; his use of word-play and the disintegration of language is interesting and unsettling, but sometimes feels a bit laboured.  I did think that some of the imagery was occasionally overused, but the ending - which I read late one evening, when my husband was away overnight - still managed to unsettle me and left me feeling jumpy when I heard my neighbour moving about, or when a saucepan settled on the draining board in the kitchen.  

I normally hate open-ended books, but paradoxically one thing that I liked about this book was its ambiguity.  There is much that is left unexplained and open to interpretation, which serves to make it even more haunting.  There is a short epilogue which does make a couple of plot elements more explicit, and I would even go so far as to say that I would have preferred not to have read this: the ending of the chapter before would have made a macabre and memorable final image to finish the novel.  It isn't terrifying, but it is insidiously creepy.

I'd not read any Ramsey Campbell before, so this was an interesting discovery and I might decide to pick up another of his novels in the future.....


  1. Great review. Think I'll definitely be reading this one. Like you, I don't think I've ever read any Ramsey Campbell before, which is ridiculous when you consider what a horror fan I am. (I'd be interested to hear your verdict on Drood too if you ever get around to reading it; I haven't read it but have been meaning to for a while.)

    1. I'm glad you liked the review, Joanne!

      I'd love to know what you think when you read it. I wouldn't call myself a horror fan - my most frequently read genre is probably crime - but I get an occasional fancy for a horror novel or film. As someone who reads horror more, I'm interested to see if you have a different perspective on it.

      One thing that I think I omitted from the review is that I did nearly give up on it after the first chapter, which I found confusing because it introduces quite a few characters at once and I didn't feel that the relationships between them were clear. I am glad, though, that I decided to stick with it.

      It might be a while before I get the chance to tackle Drood!

      Have you looked at the 25 best horror novels list that I linked to? Have you read many of them?

  2. Two very good books but quite different reads. I liked Grin for the subject matter. The combination of traditional Northern comedy, silent film and pyschosis/eldritch horror was compelling. However as interesting as the quasi historical background was I felt the book was let down by the modern day elements of the narrative. I wanted more research/historical excerpts and less about the main characters relationship breakdown. The last third of the book was very hard going and I hated the ending. I would rather the main character had descended into madness without knowing if it was genuine or not. Drood is another overly long novel. But well worth the read. I loved the Victoriana and how the background of the novel connected to Dickens real life works.