Saturday, 15 November 2008

Book Review: The Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey Campbell has created nightmares for a very long time now; picking up it seems every horror literature award available and exulted by the big guns of the genre-Stephen King, Clive Barker et al. But take a look at any horror section in UK bookshops, pushing aside the proliferation of Shaun Hutson and Dean Koontz, and most likely you will not find any Ramsey Campbell titles. Until recently, although an English writer, his books were published only in America. The Grin of the Dark is his latest novel and his first for Virgin Books. I doubt its sold many copies.

But if tales of terror are graded by there scaryness then The Grin of the Dark is a bona fide masterpiece, a five star marvel. Simon Lester, a writer on cinema, takes up the offer of researching the lost silent comedies of former music hall artiste, Tubby Thackeray. The terrifying presence of Tubby's grinning moon shaped head and his deeply unsettling films, dominate a first person narration of nightmarish anxiety, as Simon descends into madness or alternatively faces a dark force of primeval chaos. Campbell expertly uses his trade mark method of transforming the ordinary world of objects and people into sinister shapes or malevolent shadows, until eventually the truly uncanny slips into full view.

There is something close to the surrealism of David Lynch here, especially this novel, which is like an extended nightmare. The narrator’s everyday anxieties and his feelings of failure, anger and frustration, mix with the intrusion of the disturbingly strange as in Lynch’s Eraserhead. The sinister clown in horror fiction is a cliché but here the figure of Tubby Thackeray is used to delve into the gleefully insane nature of slapstick comedy. Madness and alienation are major themes and by the end of the novel you are unsure of what you have been reading; a Lovecraftian tale of cosmic terror or an unreliable narrator, confined to a hospital ward for the mentally ill, describing the unravelling of his mind. The writing style is deliberately dislocated at times, adding to the atmosphere of displacement and paranoia. Another cinematic influence adding to the novel’s many layers are Japanese and Korean horror, with its apparitions haunting and infecting modern technology; in this instance the internet.

Ramsey Campbell has excelled himself with The Grin of the Dark. His uniquely disorientating prose is employed to the utmost but the novel is not merely a vehicle for frights. Different themes (madness, alienation, the essence of comedy and the dark side of entertainment) are interwoven subtle into the story. This is a very rare beast indeed; horror that not only scares but makes you think.

Postscript: A major set piece at the beginning of the novel is situated in Virginia Water, part of Windsor Great Park, Surrey, although not named by Ramsey Campbell. As a child I went on walks with my family here and was fascinated by the huge Native American totem pole with its carved faces (mentioned in the novel) and the fake Greek ruins. More pertinent to The Grin of the Dark is the fact that adjacent to Virginia Water is Holloway Sanatorium (not in the novel) a gothic Victorian insane asylum now renovated as a gated housing estate. Simon Lester, the narrator of The Grin of the Dark, was a student at the nearby Royal Holloway College.

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