The Curmudgeon


Sunday, August 21, 2016

Thirteen Days By Sunset Beach

In recent years Ramsey Campbell has continued to turn out fine story collections along with a couple of excellent novellas, The Pretence and The Last Revelation of Gla'aki; but his novels have disappointed. Ghosts Know is competent but unremarkable; while Creatures of the Pool is little more than a rehash of "The Shadow Over Innsmouth", disfigured by in-jokes and finally crippled by clever-clever musings on the nature of the Open Text.

Thirteen Days by Sunset Beach is a shorter, more compact book, and constitutes an encouraging return to form. Although Campbell is undoubtedly aware of previous efforts in the subgenre (notably Simon Raven's Doctors Wear Scarlet and the Lewton-Robson film Isle of the Dead) and begins the action of his novel on Lovecraft's birthday, he has refrained from intertextual shenanigans and played to his considerable strengths of evocative prose and carefully chosen detail.

The story concerns a fortnight's holiday in Greece with grandparents, children and grandchildren, and Campbell deftly portrays the characters and the petty awfulness of family dynamics without slipping into soap opera. One overbearing in-law does veer close to caricature, but no more so than many people in real life; and even in his case a few details are sketched in to humanise if not to redeem. The protagonist, Ray Thornton, is the grandfather of the party, and the first chapter combines the mundane nightmare of tourism with the mortal inconveniences of ageing. Even before the supernatural intervenes, a shadow hangs over the holiday, as Ray and his wife have received bad news which they have decided to keep secret from their relatives.

The small island where they sojourn is relatively untouched by tourism; which means that the locals' English can be at least as frustratingly ambiguous as some family members' efforts at translating Greek. As usual, Campbell gets plenty of sinister mileage from innocent child-chatter, conversations at cross purposes and such nuances of local tradition as who might be feeding on what, or vice versa. In fact, despite the hoariness of its subgenre the novel admirably sustains the ambiguity of all its supernatural portents, as becomes apparent with devastating effect during an argument late in the story between the grandparents and their sceptical offspring.

Nor does Campbell stint when it comes to out-and-out scare scenes. A nocturnal visitor steals and partly destroys a clue to the island's mystery, resulting in a chase which Ray finds turned back upon himself. Two gruesome cave explorations, one early in the book and one at the end, as well as a thoroughly creepy look around an ancient monastery, gain immense power from Campbell's depictions of the jumpy and fragmented effects of mobile-phone light and the sinister motions of water. The ending is quiet, but equally powerful after its own fashion: a delicate, poignant merging of hope with horror.


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