Fear Can Alter Anything

by Arthur B

Thieving Fear, Ramsey Campbell's latest, keeps the scares in the family.
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Whilst it was a brilliant novel in its own right, one of the best aspects of Ramsey Campbell's The Grin of the Dark wasn't anything to do with the content; it was that it marked the end of the strange exile he had existed in for some years, during which he (as far as my research can ascertain) had no major UK publisher. The days of scouring bookshops and EBay for the US editions of his latest work are, thank goodness, over. It clearly wasn't just a one-shot deal either, with Virgin Books releasing a paperback edition of Thieving Fear this year.

For those of you who want the spoiler-free review: go read it, it's really good and available everywhere. Thank you, Richard Branson!

For those of you who want more depth, here goes.

Whereas The Grin of the Dark focused unwaveringly on a single protagonist, Thieving Fear has four. Charlotte, Ellen, Rory and Hugh are cousins who, as teenagers, went on a seaside camping trip and didn't have a very good night's sleep; unbeknownst to them, their campsite is contaminated with psychic waste from an occult duel between two long-dead Victorian magicians. It's only ten years later that it becomes apparent that something unusual happened that night which has had lingering effects on them - Rory's senses fade in and out of focus, Hugh's sense of direction disintegrates, Ellen's negative self-image threatens to consume her and Charlotte's fear of underground enclosed spaces threatens to become crippling. Each suffers from double doses of Ramsey's Patent Miscommunication Syrup and Paranoia Tonic, as their attempts to communicate with each other are thwarted by enflamed family quarrels, old resentments, oversensitive bickering and other factors that may or may not be being encouraged by the sinister puppet master. Even when they finally are all brought together, events conspire to keep them separate, isolated, and vulnerable; at the same time, events conspire to drive them together, the outside world seeming hostile and malign, to the point where even the slogan on a tailor's stall in a market ("We Can Alter Anything") seems to be some sort of oblique threat or joke.

Of course, this sort of premise isn't unfamiliar to sunken-eyed Campbell addicts like me. The most obvious parallel is with Obsession, which also centres around a group of peers who as teenagers have an occult experience, the full effect of which on them only becomes apparent in later life, but there's also To Wake the Dead, in which a character has an unpleasant experience as a teenager on the former stamping grounds of a long-dead occultist, the full effect of which on her only becomes apparent yadda yadda. Thieving Fear shares with Obsession the ensemble cast who grow up to occupy radically different stations in life; it shares with To Wake the Dead a more explicitly supernatural threat with an identifiable cause. That said, it's also bursting at the seams with nods to most of the rest of Campbell's career; the strange powers might or might not have some sort of connection to the Cthulhu Mythos - there are nods to The Moon-Well and The Darkest Part of the Woods - one of the characters ends up working at Texts, the chain bookstore that features in The Overnight, and the climax of the story involves Charlotte creeping through the adversary's ancient, rotting, pitch-dark house, a sequence both incredibly powerful in its own right and reminiscent of myriad other scenes in Campbell stories where people explore fungus-infested old houses. (It's scenes like that which were the saving grace of The Nameless, in particular).

The new spin on the formula comes firstly from Campbell's recent signature themes - in particular, miscommunication, and to a lesser extent the blurring of the line between horror and comedy. The second big departure from earlier trials of this formula is in the characterisation of the group of cousins it centres on, and the care Campbell takes in juggling the different viewpoints. Several of his previous multiple-protagonist novels, such as Incarnate, tended to sprawl due to the necessity of coming up with a supporting cast for each protagonist's individual segments, the characterisation of whom in led to a certain amount of bloat. This time around, Campbell is able to keep the cast beyond the cousins to a bare minimum, since much of the book revolves around the core character's efforts to communicate with each other. A side benefit of this is that what supporting characters there are tend to be fairly interesting - I especially liked Charlotte's creepy and extremely punchable work colleague, whose helpfulness is undermined by his slimy willingness to sell out to their publishing firm's corporate overlords and his unbridled desire to get into Charlotte's pants.

As far as the actual protagonists themselves are concerned, Campbell avoids constructing their personalities entirely around the curses which have been inflicted of them - whilst often psychological in nature, the nightmares inflicted on the heroes are explicitly alien to them, imposed on their actual personalities despite themselves, so Campbell makes sure they actually have proper personalities, with their good qualities and their bad. Actually, the bad qualities tend to come out a bit more, which I found quite pleasing - often in this sort of story authors emphasise the positive sides of their characters to emphasise how degrading and terrible it is that this nasty thing has happened to them, whereas Campbell shows how the dread influence brings out the worst in the cousins. Rory is argumentative and confrontational, Charlotte is an interfering busybody, there's a weird incestuous vibe between Hugh and Ellen, Hugh is incredibly insensitive, Ellen might be more casually racist than she likes to admit... we're presented with a bunch of flawed and human people, but we end up caring about them despite all.

There is, of course, the omnipresent autobiographical element in Campbell's books; in this case, it's most apparent in Hugh's trials and tribulations at the supermarket (clearly drawing on the author's own stint working the shelves in Borders) and Charlotte's struggles at the publishing house she works at. Of these, it's Charlotte's working world that tends to get more attention, although interestingly mainly from a publisher's-eye-view rather from the viewpoint of an author (Ellen is writing a book for Charlotte's publishers throughout most of the story), which is unusual for writers writing about writing - I can't remember any Stephen King stories in which he focuses on the difficulties faced by editors, but maybe that's just because King is incredibly narcissistic. Nonetheless, there is a barely-concealed agenda here; Campbell clearly wanted to have a rant about how publishers are pressurised by supermarkets and other such corporate interests to focus on rendering all books equally bland and mainstream rather than catering to niches, especially when publishers are owned by companies whose background isn't in literary publishing. This is a rather ballsy statement to make considering that he's writing for Virgin Books; either he's not referring to Virgin, or they genuinely don't care what he writes so long as he brings the scares, or his editors are being as oblivious as Borders were when they stocked copies of The Overnight, which at its heart is a 500 page rant against the corporate culture at Borders. If writers are going to insist on loudly grinding axes, I would rather they be reasonably informed axes such as that which Campbell grinds here, but it's still jarring enough to distract from the atmosphere.

Aside from this flaw, the book held my interest consistently right to the chillingly ambiguous ending. I know that for me a positive review for a Ramsey Campbell book is about as predictable as a thumbs-up for Gene Wolfe, or a vicious stab at Jim Bernheimer, but I have absolutely no hesitation about recommending Thieving Fear; I don't think it is quite as excellent as The Grin of the Dark, it isn't as intense or balls-out crazy, but it's a tiny bit more accessible for precisely those reasons.
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Comments (go to latest)
http://sistermagpie.livejournal.com/ at 20:26 on 2009-08-07
I have not read this book at all but this review definitely makes me interested--thanks!
Up until 4 years ago I'd never heard of Ramsey Campbell, in spite of loving horror movies and books since I was a little 'un. I first read about him in Danse Macabre, then a book clerk in my local town bookshop told me I should buy "The Grin of the Dark". I did so, and I was blown away at how someone could create an atmosphere such as that, so I quickly bought "Thieving Fear".
What I didn't realise at first, was that Ramsey lived on the Wirral Peninsula, which was where I grew up; I took my dog for walks on Thurstaston Common (the centrepoint for the plot in Thieving Fear) weekly from when I was a child until I was in my twenties, and my cub and scout group used it practically as a back garden.
It is an incredible thing to be able to read a story about a place I am so familiar with, drafted by such a brilliant writer.
I also read "The Companion", which is obviously about New Brighton Ghost Train, another vivid memory of my youth - when I read that story it made me remember holding my dad's hand with my eyes tight shut, pretending I was watching it all go by and that I wasn't scared.

Keep it up Ramsey; it is a pleasure to read such great stuff about such familiar landmarks of my childhood.
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