Wednesday, July 23, 2008
I've been a fan of Ramsey Campbell since reading The Doll Who Ate His Mother 20 years ago. I wrote a lengthy paper about him for a graduate course in the modern short story at Temple University--Dr. Stevick rushed out to get a copy of The Height of the Scream after reading it. I eagerly anticipate Campbell's story collections and novels, and though I've been disappointed often in recent years I had high hopes for The Grin of the Dark; I thought The Darkest Part of the Woods and The Overnight--his two most recent novels--were evidence he was back at the top of his supernatural form.
Simon Lester has a PhD in film, and wrote columns for a magazine called Cineassed until it went belly-up after a lawsuit. He's working two part-time gigs at a library and a filling station to stay afloat, and rents a room from his girlfriend's intrusive and often hostile parents. Lester is trying to rediscover a silent film comic named Tubby Thackeray, whose works have mysteriously vanished. Campbell has written about eldritch horrors re-awakened by a quest for old films before in Ancient Evenings. That book was better than this one, though The Grin of the Dark admirably marries Campbell's passion for film and his love of H.P. Lovecraft and M.R. James. Unfortunately the execution is troublesome.
The Grin of the Dark isn't a bad book by any means. It's clever, it's strange and creepy, it's often funny. But though I'm a fan of Campbell's obtuse style, I found myself too often bogged down in pun-laden dialogue, re-reading entire passages just to figure out what was going on. The unreliable narrator is a favorite Cambpell gimmick, and here I saw through it too soon, which ruined the ending. But a sub-par Campbell novel is still far above the pop-lit fray. If, like me, you like ghost and/or horror fiction but you prefer it written by someone who can craft a sentence, then you might enjoy The Grin of the Dark. Particularly if you are also a cineaste.