The Grin of the Dark, by Ramsey Campbell

Short Take:  So much potential.

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Ramsey Campbell is one of those horror authors that horror fans seem to really love, but I just can’t get in to.  I tried Incarnate a couple of years ago after seeing rave reviews from some other bloggers I admire, and I thought that it was OK, but not spectacular.  I figured that Campbell just wasn’t for me, and moved on.

Then I read a “Best Horror Novels of the Millenium” list, and there he was at #7, with The Grin of the Dark.  Since I’d already read most of what was on the list, I decided to give Ramsey Campbell one more try.  Plus, clowns are freaky, and so are silent movies, and this seemed like a REALLY cool concept.

I think I’ve mentioned before that I never have any luck with “Best-Of” lists, right?

Simon Lester is a writer whose career has taken a sharp turn downward.  He’s working in a gas station, and trying to put together a life with his girlfriend Natalie and her seven-year-old son, Mark, despite the difficult relationship he has with her well-off parents, Warren and Bebe.  It’s an enormous gift then, when one of his former professors shows up and offers him a job.  Simon will be researching an obscure silent movie star, Tubby Thackeray, and will receive a very nice paycheck.

Simon understandably jumps at the offer, but as always, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.  While researching Tubby, Simon learns some disconcerting facts:  namely, that everyone who watches his movies or live performances goes insane.

The Grin of the Dark has a few genuinely creepy scenes.   The circus that Simon and Mark attend is probably one of the best things I’ve read in a horror novel.  You know that feeling, in a dream, where you are scared but you don’t know exactly why?  It was like that.

Which is why the rest of the book was such a letdown.

Reading The Grin of the Dark was like following a helium balloon around a room.  It bobs randomly, bouncing here and there, sometimes looking like it’s about to drift into something sharp and pop, but still always circles back to the same place.

As Simon goes deeper into his research, he begins to lose his mind.  We are reassured of this fact repeatedly.  Every interaction he has with another person involves a few of the same features.  He starts to see them as a chubby clown, he hears gibberish that they aren’t saying, he starts talking in gibberish himself, there may or may not be a clown face slithering around, and either he or they or both begin to grin uncontrollably.  He never remembers these encounters the way other people do.

Over and over and over and over and over.  The repetition was mind-numbing.  Any emotional response I had to these passages turned into “again?  Really?  C’mon, I GET IT.  Can we move on?”

The characters aren’t particularly well-written, to the point that I found myself frequently flipping back and forth to remember who was who – they’re indistinguishable from each other.  Also, none of them are especially likeable, which makes it hard to care what happens to them.

There’s also a protracted argument with an Internet troll who can’t spell very well.  This becomes significant in the last few pages, but after so many seemingly-meaningless message board transcripts of movie-title minutiae, I was barely skimming the posts.

Finally, the ending was just bad.  It might be that I had mentally checked out of the book about 150 pages before the actual end, but it really made very little sense.  Or I should say, it mostly made sense, except for one huge gaping plot hole that either involves time travel or some other aspect of Simon’s madness that wasn’t mentioned until the last page.

But still…. clowns, man.  And silent movies, with their weird jerky movements and over-acted facial expressions and super dark makeup and strange disturbing early special effects.  Both of these are enough to give a person a serious case of the heebie-jeebies, and marrying the two was a really cool idea.

The Nerd’s Rating:  TWO HAPPY NEURONS

twohappyneurons

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