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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

“The Grin of the Dark” by Ramsey Campbell

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AUTHOR INFORMATION: Critically acclaimed in both the US and England, horror/dark fantasy author Ramsey Campbell is widely regarded as one of the genre’s masters for both his short fiction and his novels. Classics include “Obsession”, “The Face That Must Die”, “The Influence” and the anthology “Alone with the Horrors”. Campbell has won more honors and awards than any other living horror writer, including multiple British Fantasy and World Fantasy Awards, and several International Horror Guild and Bram Stoker Awards. He has also been President of the British Fantasy Society and has edited critically acclaimed anthologies, including “Fine Frights”. Campbell’s recent and upcoming works include “The Darkest Part of the Woods” (2003), “The Overnight” (2004), “Secret Story” (2005), “Thieving Fear” (PS Publishing), “Inconsequential Tales” (Hippocampus Press) and “Creatures of the Pool” (TBA).

PLOT SUMMARY: Once upon a time, silent comedian Tubby Thackeray was hailed as the equal of Chaplin and Keaton. But almost nothing of his movies has survived, and now Thackeray is little more than a footnote in film history.

Simon Lester is a film journalist whose reputation has been marred by a lawsuit against the magazine that he wrote for, Cineassed. So when he's commissioned to write a book about Thackeray, Simon is determined to restore the comedian’s name, while also saving his own career and convincing his girlfriend, her son—and her parents—that he is worthy.

Uncovering the truth about Tubby isn’t easy however. Newspapers of the time contain mysterious, truncated accounts of disturbing events at Tubby’s performances; the films that Simon finds of Tubby in action are profoundly disquieting; and his research takes him all over the place, from Los Angeles to Amsterdam. But what he discovers is far more than forgotten cinema. For while Tubby Thackeray may be dead, his legacy is not…

CLASSIFICATION: In the mood for horror that’s brimming with blood, gore and shocking violence that leaves little to the imagination? If so, Ramsey Campbell’sThe Grin of the Dark” is not for you. Instead, the author’s latest is a creepy, slow-burning psychological mystery thriller that is all about evoking a sense of dread and mentally challenging the reader…

FORMAT/INFO: Page count is 381 pages divided over fifty-one ‘Titled’ chapters and an Epilogue. Narration is in the first person present-tense, exclusively via the film journalist Simon Lester. “The Grin of the Dark” is self-contained, although the conclusion is open-ended. July 8, 2008 marks the North American Hardcover publication of “The Grin of the Dark” via
Tor Books. The UK version was issued by Virgin Books (See Inset) May 1, 2008. The US artwork is provided by Jupiterimages and CSA Images.

ANALYSIS: Despite my love for horror fiction, I’ve never before read anything by Ramsey Campbell who is considered by many one of the best writers in the genre. A shame, I know. So when I first heard about
Virgin Books’ new horror line which included releases by Campbell, Thomas Ligotti and Conrad Williams, I jumped at the chance to read my first Ramsey Campbell novel. Unfortunately, “The Grin of the Dark” is probably not the best place to start if you’re a first-time Ramsey Campbell reader…

There’s a lot to like about “The Grin of the Dark”. The descriptive prose is superb: “The reduced landscape seems to have been trundling past as repetitively as a screensaver for hours. As the train dawdles north, frost and frozen snow keep pace with a sun like a disc of ice embedded in the colorless sky. They’ve rendered the fields and small towns rudimentary: pale sketches of themselves, or faded photographs. As though to contradict the spectacle, the train is so overheated that the air tastes like laryngitis.” The subject matter about silent comedians is fascinating and well-researched. And Campbell is a wizard at scene-setting, building up tension & suspense, and creating atmosphere. In particular, “The Grin of the Dark” is one of the most unsettling novels I’ve ever read. Basically from the moment you first crack open the book until its very last page, “The Grin of the Dark” just permeates with unease that gets under your skin and haunts your every pore. Most impressive of all is Ramsey’s ability to make such mundane, everyday events like dealing with a girlfriend’s parents, confronting an ex-lover, receiving a package from the postman, sparring with someone on a message board, going to the library, flying on an airplane, going through customs, attending midnight mass, fighting with customer service, or celebrating a birthday party into something chillingly horrific. Then there’s the novel’s wonderful ambiguity—including a mind-bending conclusion—that constantly keeps the reader second-guessing: Is Simon just going insane and imagining everything that’s happening to him or is there something more sinister going on?

That all said, “The Grin of the Dark” can be a difficult novel to read. For one, a lot of the dialogue and certain scenes that occur are confusing and may require a re-read or two. The plot is slow-moving and demands the reader’s full attention. There’s a major imbalance in the way Ramsey describes things in the book with seemingly insignificant matters described in great detail, while more important information is hard to come by. And lastly, Simon Lester is not the easiest person to like. His narrative voice is dry, very little of his past is revealed, and it’s hard to ever visualize Simon, all of which makes “The Grin of the Dark” that much more demanding since the entire book is told from Simon’s first-person POV. Then again, there’s a reason why Simon is written in this manner which becomes evident at the end of the book. In fact, it could be argued that the difficulties I had with “The Grin of the Dark” wasn’t because of inconsistent writing or editing, but was actually done on purpose. Something to keep in mind if you decide to read the novel…

CONCLUSION: If you’ve never read anything by Ramsey Campbell, then I probably wouldn’t start with “The Grin of the Dark”. For between the frequent confusion, the slow-burning plot, the unlikable protagonist, the novel’s surreal ambiguity and the constant state of unease, “The Grin of the Dark” is the kind of book that frustrates as much as it satisfies. Not exactly a great first impression. On the flipside, if you’re familiar with Ramsey Campbell’s work or appreciate the more cerebral side of horror and understand what you’re getting into, then I believe “The Grin of the Dark” can be quite rewarding. For myself, I was torn between frustration and marveling at the author’s abilities. But despite any issues I had, I will definitely be reading more of Ramsey Campbell in the future…


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