01/09/2009. Contributed by Pauline Morgan
pub: TOR/Forge. 381 page hardback. Price: $25.95 (US), $28.95 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-1939-5.
check out website: www.tor-forge.com and www.ramseycampbell.com
Horror works by preying on the fears of the reader or listener. Sitting round the fire on a dark winter's evening in the days when there were no streetlights, telling ghost stories was really scary. The spirits were obviously lurking outside the comforting light of the fire, waiting for the unwary. Invariably, they were not benign.
The coming of the electric light banished them, only for them to be replaced by the mugger or rapist hiding in dark subways. It is part of our psyche to allow stories to scare us. What we don't want is to be part of the story. The skill of modern horror writers like Ramsey Campbell is to bring the fear back into the sitting room, to have that malevolent spirit lurking behind you, just out of sight.
'The Grin Of The Dark' blends supernatural horror and the kind of everyday psychoses we are all prey to at times. The edges begin to blur and the narrator is unsure what is real and what is imagined. Simon Lester is an insecure young man. He has recently lost his job when the magazine he worked for folded and because of his association with it is finding it difficult to find another.
His girlfriend, Natalie, has a precocious seven year-old son and Simon is anxious to be accepted by the boy without upsetting his relationship with his mother. Not an easy task. Little things also tell him that Natalie's parents don't approve of him, like the way they give him short notice to quit the room he rents in a student house that they happen to own and then introduce him to her ex-boyfriend, who might just be Mark's father and certainly has better prospects.
Then things appear to start going right for Simon. Natalie asks him to move in with her, his old university tutor wants him to write a book and offers him a good advance. It is from this peak that the situation starts to slide down hill. The increments are small to begin with, mere annoyances but begin to escalate. No particular agency can be blamed but is it a coincidence that the moment he begins his research into a lesser known silent screen comic that strange things start to happen.
Tubby Thackeray was a star of a string of silent films whose name and works have been forgotten. Simon starts to track them down, mostly using the Internet and very soon gets into a vicious verbal battle with an on-line correspondent. Information he finds disappears or gets mysteriously wiped. It is almost as if someone does not want the information uncovered.
Some passages are surreal, such as the time when Simon takes Mark to the circus. They are guided across a darkened park by a series of clowns to a marquee. The show consists of antics by a troupe of clowns, some of which seem to be behaving inappropriately. Mark, however, finds the whole thing hilarious. It is only much later that Mark appears to deny that they ever went, by which time Simon is beginning to think he is being targeted by something or someone.
To counter this, is a delightfully spooky visit the derelict theatre where Tubby once performed. Simon is paying a visit to his parents and it is his mother's idea to help him with his research. This provides a delightful portrait of two people growing old together who have just the right amount of quaint charm and ability to embarrass their son that makes them vividly real.
The novel starts slowly and begins to gather pace but, as it is a first person narrative, there is a distinct possibility of unreliability in the account. The reader is then left with the possibilities that this is a supernatural sequence of events, with Tubby or something reaching out from the past to posses Simon.
Alternatively, the situation is adding to Simon's insecurity and his imagination is exaggerating events. Or several people are ganging up on him to drive him out of Natalie's life. Which is true is for the reader to decide. The strengths of the novel are the characterisation and the development of Simon's incipient paranoia. The whole is a good example of a master storyteller at work.
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Stephen Hunt's novels - USA