Ramsey Gets the Last Laugh

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

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 noticeable 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 knowledgeable 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.

7 thoughts on “Ramsey Gets the Last Laugh

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