The Curmudgeon


Monday, February 18, 2008

The Grin of the Dark

Ramsey Campbell's The Grin of the Dark is the story of an aspiring film critic, Simon Lester, who is attempting to research Tubby Thackeray, a comedian from the silent era who turns out to be perhaps not quite forgotten enough. At first glance, the book looks like a comic remake of Campbell's Ancient Images (1989), but The Grin of the Dark is a much grimmer and more disturbing work than that entertaining but lightweight novel.

As in Ancient Images, old films and atavistic rites both feature strongly, but they are much more satisfactorily integrated than in the earlier novel, in which the "lost" 1930s horror film, Tower of Fear, is little more than a McGuffin, and is certainly nowhere near as horrible as Tubby Thackeray's two-reelers from the teenies. Campbell's descriptions of the sadistic slapstick which Thackeray's opera both depict and apparently induce may amuse some; I found myself sympathising, for once in my life, with the British film censor. Lester's use of the internet as a research tool enables Campbell to add to his protagonist's woes with harassment on the Internet Movie Database by a troll who may be a ghost, and Campbell's habitual use of spidery and cobwebby images gains a new and disturbing sense of threat from the world-wide web.

Campbell's depictions of family life in his novels have often tended towards the sentimental, as in The Influence and the otherwise magnificent Midnight Sun; but his decision to narrate The Grin of the Dark entirely from Lester's increasingly distorted perspective shuts off the exits. There are no saner characters into whose frightened but still normal minds we can flee for a temporary respite; indeed, few of the secondary characters in The Grin of the Dark seem to have much in the way of minds at all. Lester's partner Natalie is sympathetic, but as Lester's state of mind becomes more and more disturbed she simply grows more distant as the novel progresses. Her parents and Lester's are meddling, muddled, vicariously ambitious grotesques who twist every word said to them, while Lester's bumptious editor rewrites his scholarly work-in-progress into overly combative journalese. Even Mark, Natalie's seven-year-old son, becomes ambiguous in his enthusiasm about Tubby Thackeray and his wish to help Lester with his research.

In its concern with language as a vehicle for supernatural manifestation and/or mental breakdown (as usual with Campbell, the boundaries between the two are far from clear), The Grin of the Dark also resembles such stories as "End of the Line", "McGonagall in the Head" and "Becoming Visible". Like the last of those tales, and like Campbell's outstanding novella Needing Ghosts, it makes effective use of the present tense: a horror story told in the past tense holds at least the implicit comfort that it's all over by the time you read it, but The Grin of the Dark carries the clear implication that what happens to Simon Lester not only could happen, but is already happening, to the rest of us.


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