Remember the demonic creature in a clown suit in Stephen King's "It." Master of horror, Ramsey Campbell takes a different but equally chilling approach and uses the eeriness of clowns to create a psychological mystery in his novel The Grin of the Dark.
Campbell's cleverly crafted plot is more psychological page-turner than horror story. There's none of the violence that is usually found in the horror genre. The unrelenting sense of impending dread provides the chills. The sinister atmosphere and malevolent presence in cyberspace raises goose bumps and the first person narrative style immerses you in the madness.
Simon Lester is a film reviewer who is left jobless after a stint with a controversial magazine comes to an end. He works at a gas station and is forced to move in with his girlfriend and her young son. Her parents take every opportunity to remind him he's not worthy of her. Finally things start looking up. A former professor hires him to expand on his thesis and write a book about silent film star, Tubby Thackery, whose outrageous antics used to cause riots in his audiences. Research proves difficult as Simon embarks on a journey that exposes him to some surreal scenarios and e-mail exchanges with a snide film buff. Disturbing events take place as Simon delves deeper into Tubby's life. Is he being persecuted or is it his imagination? The reader is never quite sure because the only perspective is Simon's and the unreliable narrator is obviously losing his grip on reality.
The suspense is all the more brutal because it builds slowly through the excellent use of atmosphere, dialogue and internal monologue. The macabre story is dark but also has some genuinely humorous moments. Deliberately misspelled words, doubled consonants and anagrams add a unique twist. That being said, The Grin of the Dark is not an easy read. Parts of the story are confusing and the detailed descriptions sometimes become repetitious. Lester is not a particularly likeable protagonist and the end of his tale is predictable. But ultimately the story is extremely convincing and well worth a read.
Publisher: Tor (July 2008)