Ramsey Gets the Last Laugh

by Arthur B

Arthur reviews The Grin of the Dark, Ramsey Campbell's latest novel.
Rejoice, everyone: Ramsey Campbell has found a British publisher (Virgin Books) for a paperback edition of his latest novel, The Grin of the Dark. Most recent Campbell efforts such as The Overnight only seem to be available in the UK through American imports, and older works such as Obsession have shamefully been allowed to fall out of print altogether, and it is well past time that British audiences had a widely-available edition of one of his novels, especially since he is one of those writers who only seem to improve on their art as their career progresses.

Mind you, if any of his recent books deserve extra exposure it's The Grin of the Dark, which is a noticable step up from the already incredibly high quality of the rest of his work. Part of this may be due to him writing about the cinema, a subject he genuinely loves; Campbell is incredibly knowledgable about film, and has a busy sideline as a reviewer for magazines and radio. The story is narrated by struggling film writer Simon Lester, whose standing in the industry has been ruined by a libel lawsuit against Cineassed, the cutting-edge film magazine he used to contribute to. Professor Rufus, Simon's old mentor from his student days, throws him a lifeline: the university is starting a new publishing imprint for film studies, and Rufus wants Simon to inaugurate the line with a revised and expanded version of his thesis on forgotten film stars. Rufus particularly wants Simon to investigate Tubby Thackeray, a silent comedian whose films met with nigh-constant disapproval from the censors and whose live performances were known to spark riots.

The bulk of the book, then, is something of a cinematic detective story, with Rufus tracking down traces of Thackeray's work wherever they may surface - but of course, it's not quite as straightforward as that. Simon, who (I get the impression) already has some slight difficulty in communicating with people, finds it more and more difficult to understand and to make himself understood by the people around him. Aside from his girlfriend, Natalie, and her son, Mark, and a select few other people, most of the individuals he encounters treats him with disdain at best, outright hostility at worst. Warren and Bebe, Natalie's horrible parents, mount an ever-more intrusive campaign to drive Simon away from Natalie, and Simon becomes increasingly jealous of Natalie's professional relationship with her ex, Nicholas, who might just be Mark's father. Little accidents conspire to make a fool of Simon at the worst possible time, throwing him into conflict with complete strangers; soon enough, more serious accidents are threatening to sabotage his efforts to research Tubby, eliminate the financial security he thought he had gained from the contract with the university, and drive him to the very edge of insanity. An internet stalker called Smilemime appears determined to ruin Simon's credibility through whatever means come to hand.

And then, of course, there is Tubby himself. As Simon describes his journeys to us we keep thinking we're catching glimpses of Tubby, or people acting rather like Tubby, scattered about the place. His distinctive wide grin appears on a few too many faces, even infecting people close to Simon. The more Simon researches Thackeray's work, the more it seems that there's more to it than simple comedy, and the more Simon's ability to communicate breaks down. The intertitles (the cards which appear with the dialogue on in silent movies) of all of Tubby's films seem strangely incoherent, and similar typos and misspellings and anagrams and word-play appear in Smilemime's internet libels, in notes written in familiar handwriting in the margin of a French study of Tubby's work, in Simon's book itself. (This sort of wordplay is frequent throughout the book - all of the chapter titles are almost, but very deliberately not quite, anagrams or partial anagrams of "Simon Lester".) A strange midnight circus in a London park, a series of embarrassing encounters at a porn studio which houses some of the only extant copies of Tubby's films, a surreal public speaking engagement - these incidents and more conspire to bring in an increasing sense of disconnection and alienation, as if Simon has become systematically isolated from the common run of humanity through his exposure to Tubby's work. Maybe Simon never meets Tubby personally, or maybe Tubby appears in the book all of the time - either way, by the end of the book the supposedly comical figure exudes a sense of menace that should surely be undermined by the ridiculousness of his antics, and yet isn't; by the time we get to the climactic sequence, in which Simon finally gets to see Thackeray's lost classic Tubby Tells the Truth every single aspect of the film seems to be imbued with terrible meaning.

The Grin of the Dark works brilliantly, on all kinds of levels. Those who come for the scares will find them aplenty; as is only to be expected with Campbell, the explicit horrors are slow in coming, but when they do come it's truly shocking. At the same time, I don't feel that I am exaggerating even slightly that The Grin of the Dark can be appreciated as literature, transcending the bounds of genre to become a genuinely important work in its own right. Some of the elements of it may not necessarily be original - scary clowns have been with us for years, weird films that plunge you into a spiral of madness and hallucination crop up in The Ring and In the Mouth of Madness - but Campbell has managed to assemble all of these ingredients and conjure up something which points to a central horror - and a set of themes - which are entirely original. In this respect, the book reminds me of Philip K. Dick's The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, another novel which does an excellent job of making the reader afraid of something the reader should not have any rational reason to fear.

Ramsey Campbell's roots are in Lovecraft, of course, and he cut his teeth writing pastiches of the old nutjob from Providence. But The Grin of the Dark seems to harken back to earlier authors, those whom Lovecraft himself drew inspiration from. At one point Rufus talks about his project as "restoring reputations", which I take to be a direct reference to the Robert Chambers classic The Restorer of Reputations, part of the brilliant (and never matched in Chambers' career) quartet of stories that begin his classic anthology The King In Yellow (available freely on the Internet here). It also seems to take a tip from Arthur Machen, who in The White People observed that genuine metaphysical evil might not necessarily be recognised as such by human beings: we tend to call "evil" acts that simply directly cause hurt or inconvenience to us or to society, whereas true capital-E Evil involves a more insidious and direct subversion of the natural order of things. This is true of the forces represented by Tubby in The Grin of the Dark. Only one character actually dies, and it's not even an especially bloody or visceral killing. But we get the impression that the chap in question actually got off lightly; the real victims are those who are left alive yet utterly blighted by the contamination that Tubby leaves behind, the stain on their soul that makes them complicit with the horrible pranks he plays on all of us. Campbell has presented us with a true masterpiece and we all owe it to ourselves to go out and read it now.

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Comments (go to latest)
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 16:03 on 2010-02-01
I’ve been slowly exploring horror over the past year (mostly down through Danielewski and Straub), and I came across this book purely by chance. I believe it was this cover in particular that got me to check it out; it’s pretty damn effective if you ask me.

One of the things that really struck me (after reading some reviews, mind you) was the way Campbell constructed the voice of smilemime. Smilemime is, in essence, the voice of the Internet: self-satisfied, knowledgeable yet ignorant, and written in sort of arch sarcastic tone that reads as pure hatred. We’ve all argued and read people like smilemime; most of us probably are him at some point or another.

Also, when reading Simon’s description of Tubby’s Tiny Tubbies I kept imagining the comics of Jim Woodring for some reason, if only because they both borrow early 20th century film iconography (children’s cartoons in Woodring’s case) and fill them with unconscious menace.
Arthur B at 16:25 on 2010-02-01
*furious nodding* You're definitely onto something with your take on smilemime. The fiend's writing style is very well-observed - you can tell that Campbell has observed (or been involved in) run-ins with real-life smilemimes on IMDB and the like in the past.
Arthur B at 16:32 on 2010-02-01
Incidentally, do you have any Straub recommendations? I quite liked Ghost Story but I'm not sure where to go next.
Sister Magpie at 16:36 on 2010-02-01
I always liked Shadowlands myself (by Peter Straub).
Alasdair Czyrnyj at 16:37 on 2010-02-01
Incidentally, do you have any Straub recommendations? I quite liked Ghost Story but I'm not sure where to go next.

I've just started on Straub myself, but I was quite impressed with lost boy lost girl, which actually manages to be metatextually creepy.
Arthur B at 16:40 on 2010-02-01
Ah, Shadowland! I read it long ago but I forgot that it was by Straub. It's really quite excellent isn't it?

I have absolutely no idea where my copy went, which makes me inclined to think I only got it out from the library. I may have a look at lost boy lost girl, though to be honest I'm wary of horror that tries to get metatextual. House of Leaves left me pretty cold by the end, partially because I didn't really like any of the narratives aside from the core one (and the core narrative got a bit mangled at the edges towards the end).
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