Much of what we call comedy is not quite as harmless or as amusing as we like to picture it. From the classic pratfall to the traditional Punch and Judy show to the slapstick — a stage prop which gave physical comedy its nickname — a disturbing amount of humor masks the dark side of human nature, with its violent enjoyment of embarrassing and humiliating those it casts in the role of scapegoat. Many of our most painful personal memories attest to the cruelty of thosewho claim to wear comedy’s mask. Yet what is more likely to cause us to squirm is to remember how often our response to such situations was merely to produce an ingratiating smile or a pacifying grin as we wonder, “Am I the joke?”
Simon Lester, the protagonist of Ramsey Campbell’s new novel, The Grin of the Dark finds himself wondering this very question, even as his life seems to be falling apart. Simon is an aspiring film critic who has been reduced to working as a gas station attendant while his former magazine is in the process of being sued. When Simon’s college professor approaches him about writing a book, Simon thinks his luck is taking a turn for the better, and he begins to dig into the history of a number of banned films by a silent comedian named Tubby Thackeray. While Tubby appears to have borne a physical resemblance to Fatty Arbuckle, his act, as Simon reconstructs it, bore a creative resemblance to the work of the sly and often controversial Charlie Chaplin. Simon grows increasingly obsessed with tracking down and watching Tubby’s disturbing films, and it soon becomes apparent that Simon’s interest in trying to revive Tubby’s career has changed from being merely academic to a point of identification for Simon and his own sabotaged career. Yet Simon’s career is not the only aspect of his life being sabotaged: his relationship to his girlfriend Natalie and her son Mark are also under attack by Natalie’s snobby bourgeois parents. The constant slights and insults Simon is forced to grin and bear only makes him more determined “to put myself and Tubby Thackeray back where we should be on the map.”
The more Simon tries to put himself back on this map of critical success and social approval, however, the more lost he becomes and the more he loses control of his life. The perversity of modern technology only serves to keep him more off balance, as cell phones cut off calls, Internet sites go offline or fail to mention vital pieces of information, and his inbox and online banking site seem to be part of a plot to make him a laughingstock. As usual, Campbell uses natural settings and the very elements to create a sense of the mysterious and the Dionysian, while his use of malfunctioning technology adds to the awareness that something is very wrong about Tubby’s films, something which is trying to infect Simon and those around him.
Ramsey Campbell demonstrates the power and eloquence of horror as a mode of highlighting the uncanniness of modern technology and the dark side of human monstrosity. Campbell is a master at developing strange menacing images, whether it is the creepiness of the silent laughter of actors in an old film or the eeriness of the flickering glow of a television screen transforming the faces of those we love into white-faced staring zombies. This novel should hold a particular appeal for fans of horror films and horror comics who are familiar with the moral panics of the 1920s and 1930s which brought about the same rating codes — and the same debate over sex and violence in media — that continues today. As one of the characters in The Grin of the Dark says to Simon (words which will prove to be unsettlingly prophetic), “You can’t suppress stuff. It only comes back worse.”
(PS Publishing, 2007)