Ramsey Campbell’s The Grin of the Dark

First, a little boasting that will probably impress nobody: I received my limited edition autographed copy of Ramsey Campbell’s 2007 novel The Grin of the Dark! Ramsey Campbell is my favorite horror author and a big inspiration for many of my own horror ventures. I finished the novel last night, and I thought I’d give a few of my thoughts on it.

Quite simply put, Ramsey Campbell disturbs the #@&% out of me! And I mean that as the highest compliment. More below the fold…

The Grin of the Dark is the story of down-and-out cinema studies graduate Simon Lester, who is hired by a former teacher to research the history of forgotten silent film comedian, Tubby Thackeray. Thackeray’s films have never been shown since their initial appearance in the early 1900s, and his name is almost completely unknown. Lester gradually uncovers the background of the enigmatic slapstick artist, but at the same time he begins to lose his hold on sanity and reality.

The plot and style of the book is somewhat of a synthesis of two of Campbell’s earlier works, Ancient Images and Needing Ghosts (I discussed them in my horror masters post on Campbell, and they were in fact my favorite two Campbell novels). Ancient Images is also about the dark history of cinema: a researcher searches for a never-released film of Karloff and Lugosi, and consequently exposes herself to an ancient evil. The researcher in that book, however, is a relatively stable individual, which cannot be said for Simon Lester. Lester lives a life of increasing neurosis and paranoia, which eventually begins to effect both his health and his perceptions. Every conversation, no matter how inconsequential, seems laced with hostility, and every social event is tinged with embarrassment. This same atmosphere dominated Campbell’s novella Needing Ghosts, which now seems to have been a warm-up for this tale.

The overall atmosphere of the book is the printed version of fingernails on a chalkboard. Needing Ghosts was one of the only books I’ve ever read that had completely unnerved me by its conclusion, and The Grin of the Dark had the same effect on me, or greater. (I was feeling quite jittery for the two days I was reading the book, and it took me some time to realize it was the book doing it.) H.P. Lovecraft invented the idea of a book whose subject matter is so frightening that it literally drives the reader insane: Ramsey Campbell is the only writer I’ve ever encountered who might be able to pull off such a manuscript.

The subject matter of the novel is quite appropriate: what could be considered more disturbing than the world of over-emoting silent film performers, and their clown and mime relatives? I kept turning pages to learn more about Tubby’s dark past (“Tubby’s Terrible Tradition”?), and the payoff by the end of the novel is extremely satisfying. I even detected a bit of subtle social commentary once I was finished.

Hopefully this review hasn’t sounded too much like gushing fanboy worship, but I think it’s justified; I’ve not been the biggest fan of Campbell’s novels (preferring his short stories), but The Grin of the Dark is by far my favorite. Campbell’s style isn’t for everyone: you have to enjoy spending extended periods of time feeling very uncomfortable, and there aren’t many “jump out and go ‘boo’!” moments that appear in more popular horror fiction. If you’re interested in subtle, unsettling horror, I highly recommend it.

One other note: early in the book, Simon turns to the IMDB for his research, and after posting an observation on the site receives an anonymous reply:

I’ve no idea who Questionabble Attribution thinks he is if he’s even a he… Let’s all wait while he reads the title at the top of the page. Its T.u.b.b.y.s. T.i.n.y. T.u.b.b.i.e.s. … Maybe Mr Questionabble has never seen the film as well. Maybe Mr Questionabble should leave posting here to people that know about films.

I have to say, Campbell’s absolutely nailed the tone of the worst of the IMDB community. He may be the first horror author to find the link between internet trolling and horror…

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4 Responses to Ramsey Campbell’s The Grin of the Dark

  1. Cale says:

    This was a good review of a great book.

    One nitpick though: I’m not sure who can claim inventing the device of a book that induces death or madness but it wasn’t the great H.P.

    Robert W. Chambers beat him to this punch in 1895 with the fictitious play “The King in Yellow” from his short story collection of the same name. In fact, this was Lovecraft’s inspiration for the Necronomicon concept.

    Here’s a wikipedia link with the broad strokes:

    Thanks again for the review. Every fan of subtle and ambiguous horror must read Campbell’s latest book and I don’t think it can be over-plugged.

    • Thanks for the comment! You’re entirely right that others put forth the idea of sanity-shattering books before H.P.; I should have thought of “The King in Yellow” myself! I guess it’s fair to say that Lovecraft popularized the idea of such a tome, though at the very least Chambers was before him.

  2. Great book, great review.

    I’m relieved to finally find such a positive look at this unsettling book. You have a very accurate understanding of what was so brilliant about it. I was also on edge reading ‘Grin’, and was also finding the structure of the sentences starting to impinge on my thoughts, at least for a little while after I’d been reading it. It’s ending makes me want to buy it (I had a library copy), just so I can re-read to figure out when the slippage of the narrator’s mind actually started.

    I’ll be catching up on Campbell’s back catalogue, although as a Lovecraft fan I’ve already enjoyed ‘Cold Print’ and some of his other shorts dotted around the anthologies.

    • Thanks for the comment! I’ve been a fan of Campbell for quite a long time, and have read through a large portion of his works. If you can find the novella “Needing Ghosts”, which is contained in the collection, “Strange Things and Stranger Places”, it is really worth reading and one of the creepiest tales I’ve ever read.

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