Miasma at the Borders

by Arthur B

Arthur B reviews The Overnight by Ramsey Campbell.
Here's some further evidence of the decline of horror writing: Ramsey Campbell, whose work I've reviewed before on Ferretbrain, a well-established author who has enjoyed critical and fan acclaim for 30 years, found himself needing to take a job at Borders to make ends meet in 2000. It clearly made an impression on him, because 4 years later he would publish The Overnight, a brutal mixture of survival horror, black comedy and cutting satire set in a branch of fictional American bookstore "Texts", situated in the Fenny Meadows shopping estate.

Campbell is keen to point out in the dedication that the characters in the book aren't based on any of his colleagues at Borders; the management, however, might be a different story - Campbell's savage portrayal of the monomaniac American manager Woody (and slimy manager's pet Greg) make the representatives of corporate authority easily the least likeable aspect of the book. The supernatural nemesis of the book - a diffuse, living miasma which feels threatened by intelligence and therefore seeks to turn people against each other, drag them down to its level, and ultimately consume them and spit them out - could quite easily be a sly stab at the corporate culture and management practices of Borders itself.

This is very much a multiple-viewpoints novel; there are chapters written from the point of view of almost every member of staff at the store. This works very much to Campbell's advantage; it lets him clue the reader in on all the sinister stuff that's happening in the shop without making us wonder why the characters don't work it out. Thanks to the reader's omnipotent viewpoint we are able to see from very early on that there are some very wrong things happening in the store - nebulous grey shapes haunting the aisles, strange messages appearing on the computers, the staff one by one becoming less able to read, less tolerant of one another's quirks, less willing to compromise their own for the sake of a quiet life. At the same time, no individual character ever sees enough to conclude that something supernatural is happening until very late in the novel, at which point it's too late; only one character ever realises what is happening, and it's unclear whether it helps her at all.

Most other authors, given such a big heap of viewpoint characters, would grossly inflate their book, but Campbell is a genius when it comes to choosing what to leave out. There's very little repetition - and what there is has a powerful effect - and Campbell makes every page count. If Stephen King were writing this novel it would be three times as long because he'd spend 30 pages going into each character's backstory before killing them off; Campbell achieves an equal amount of characterisation by simply showing them going about their job. The focus of the novel is very tightly-defined as well: almost all of the action takes place in the store and the shopping estate it is situated in, which reinforces the claustrophobic nature of the story. Really, The Overnight is a reiteration of Campbell's excellent inversion of the standard "haunted location" story, an inversion that has little precedent in horror (aside from Genius Loci by Clark Ashton Smith, or The Willows by Algernon Blackwood). In the standard haunted location story, typically a traumatic deed in the past - whether this was a human crime or a demon being bound there or a flying saucer crashing - has caused the central locale of the story to become a bad and evil place. Fenny Meadows, like the titular location in Campbell's short story The Voice of the Beach, turns that on its head: terrible things have happened there because it is an evil, foul place, an inherently evil and malevolent location which is alive and hostile in its own right.

In terms of time, as well, Campbell is very focused: skipping first months, then weeks, then days early on in the novel, the second half is devoted to the devastating events of a single night; due to an incoming inspection and the desperately bad performance of the store an inspection team from the States is coming, and the desperate manager decides that what the store needs is an overnight stock-taking and shelving session. This climactic horror comes hot on the heels of the best (and last) slice of comic relief - a farcical author appearance and signing session - which display's Campbell's diversity. Campbell's ability to mingle comedy, horror, dread, hatred and fear into a single scene is breathtaking to watch.

The biggest joke about this book, of course, is that it's readily available in Borders (unlike much of Campbell's other work) - and it appears to helped put his career back on track, since it seems to have had wide-ranging and highly positive reviews along with his previous and subsequent novels. I've not read any of these other "comeback" books - although I'm on the lookout for The Darkest Part of the Woods and Secret Story - but I can heartily recommend The Overnight as the best Campbell I've read to date.

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Comments (go to latest)
Wardog at 13:25 on 2007-11-26
My ex-girlfriend worked at Borders temporarily; it was hellish, mainly because of the petty, fascistic management - I think the job is horrific on its own terms. It's kind of tragic to think that horror has taken such a downturn in popularity that poor Campbell has been forced to work in a bookshop though. I might buy this out of pure sympathy.
Arthur B at 15:07 on 2007-11-26
"Petty and fascistic" seems to be in line with Campbell's own experience, if the book's anything to go by.
Jamie Johnston at 17:08 on 2007-12-01
Nothing to do with anything really, but this reminds me of a play in the OUDS New Writers' drama festival in '04 or '05 which was set in a branch of a large American-owned chain of bookshops called 'Margins'... Rather clever, I thought. Best thing about the play, actually.
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