I'm a relative newcomer to the work of Liverpool based horror/weird fiction writer Ramsey Campbell, a giant in his field and widely regarded as one of those genre-straddling authors worthy of critical respect outside of genre circles.
After having read his excellent short story, 'The Brood', in the Jeff & Ann Vandermeer edited anthology, The Weird, I was keen to see how his claustrophobic style would translate to a fully fledged novel.
I wouldn't count horror as my favourite genre, though I am a great admirer of other such writers associated with the genre such as H.P. Lovecraft (obviously), Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Machen, and the incomparable Thomas Ligotti. None of these deal in 'straight' horror, fitting much more into that niche of writing that resists easy classification, mixing tropes from horror and fantasy with literary prose and a healthy dose of the weird.
Considering this, I found out of all the many novels available, 2007's The Grin of the Dark, most appealed to me. It focuses on a disgraced film journalist named Simon Lester commissioned to write a book investigating the work of one Thackeray Lane - also known by his stage name of Tubby Thackeray - a contemporary of such silent film-luminaries as Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle. For reasons unknown, he seems to have been all but written out of film history.
As the novel progresses, and Lester's investigations deepen, things become stranger and more unsettling. Thackeray's films turn out to be wild and anarchic, even by the standards of the other silent film stars, pushing social conventions and boundaries to breaking point and becoming more upsetting than funny as they progress. The journalist's search leads him into a murky world of clowns, jesters and harlequins, learning of the true subversive roles of masquerades, the Black Mass and the Troupe of Fools as his own personal life crumbles around him. The novel gets an awful lot of mileage out of these fascinating tropes, of where the line between comedy and horror lies, the inherent oddness of the silent comedians, and the traditional roles of the fool; not to merely entertain, but to subvert.
Campbell is a superb writer, building up dense, lush, disquieting prose hat continually wrongfoots the reader, replete with imagery of grinning faces, corpulent entertainers, harlequins and clown faces. Nothing is ever specifically spelled out, there is no gore or traditional shocks, just a shifting atmosphere of unease, potential chaos and possible mental breakdown; comedy breaking down into hysteria, subversive entertainment becoming full fledged anarchy. There is no need to describe the rest of the plot, but let's just say it doesn't end happily.
If I have any criticisms, it would be that the novel feels slightly too long and some of the grin/clown imagery feels overused by the end, as by then the reader really has got the point.
Otherwise, highly recommended for those who enjoy weird, dark fiction, with a fascinating subject at its core.
NOTE: This novel was published originally by the excellent independent small press, PS Publishing, who can be found here: http://www.pspublishing.co.uk/