The Curmudgeon


Sunday, January 11, 2009

Thieving Fear

Ramsey Campbell's Thieving Fear belongs to what Kim Newman calls the "Four Friends" subgenre, which includes works such as Robert Silverberg's The Book of Skulls and Campbell's own 1985 novel Obsession. As in Obsession, the adult lives of the four main characters are insidiously affected, in deeply personal fashion, by something that happened during their adolescence; but the horrors in Thieving Fear do not result from a Faustian pact, however naïvely entered into. The protagonists, two brothers and their two female cousins, are victimised for no better reason than that they had the misfortune to camp in the wrong place at the age of sixteen, when one of them opened a trapdoor which, in an ingenious twist late in the book, turns out not to be a trapdoor at all.

Campbell's usual concern with language and the misunderstandings arising therefrom is well to the fore, and he makes good use of the mobile telephone - "that devil thing", as one elderly minor character refers to it - as a means of imperfect and sometimes ominously curtailed communication. Although the internet does not figure as largely as in The Grin of the Dark, it does induce one of the book's many unsettling perceptual effects as one of the protagonists, staring at a web page that refuses to load, discovers when he looks away that the blank space is still before his eyes.

The book slips now and then with references to some of Campbell's earlier novels (Campbell, who has rightly deplored the name-dropping obsession of some would-be Lovecraft imitators, really ought to know better); but the climax is a masterpiece of claustrophobia and sinister detail, and mercifully free of in-jokes. One creature does appear which may, in part, represent Campbell's opinion of horror auteurs who (to quote one of Midnight Sun's epigraphs) aim for fear and inspire only disgust; but its appearance is thematically justified, as is the relative ease with which one of the heroines defeats it.

Thieving Fear is, on the whole, another excellent performance by Campbell. Plot is more or less negligible, but this is not a flaw; instead, the narrative focuses on the increasingly nightmarish consciousness of each of the protagonists, building supernatural horror into what are, at the beginning, their thoroughly normal insecurities and fears in the face of everyday life. The petty yet grinding commercial horrors of our ostensibly unmagicked age - in the shape of a vast supermarket owned by a pervasive corporation, and a publishing company of the type that probably forced Campbell to resort to the small presses - make an eminently convincing environment for the eruption of nightmares more buried, though scarcely less rotten.


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