It’s not difficult to make clowns scary, let’s face it. They’re intrinsically scary. It’s kind of like writing a book about a plague of spiders that crawl into the pillows, shoes, and toilets of everyone in a small town. Bet you cringed just thinking about that, didn’t you? Clowns are guaranteed to freak people out, so if you write a book about them being evil, you’d have to really screw up to make it less than creepy. Ramsey Campbell’s The Grin of the Dark takes a slightly different approach to clowns than, say, Stephen King might, but it’s still almost too easy a target, and rather heavy-handedly executed.
Campbell’s protagonist is Simon Lester, a struggling writer whose career took a turn for the worse when he wrote for controversial film magazine Cineassed. His personal life isn’t in much better shape; although his girlfriend’s son adores him, her parents really don’t. And since they own the flat he lives in, they’re in a position to make his life really, really miserable. When an old acquaintance offers Simon work writing a book about a forgotten comedian from the silent era, he jumps at the chance (and the £10,000 advance) – but once he starts researching, he realises things aren’t as simple as they seemed. Dun dun dun!
All the events in the book are seen only from Simon’s perspective, so the only clues we get as to what might really be going on come from conversations he has with other people. The unreliable narrator is hardly a new concept, but Campbell takes it a bit too far; Simon’s grip on reality slips so early on that by the end you’re left floundering. It doesn’t help that Campbell’s writing style seems to be purposefully opaque. Occasionally this is used to startling effect – the first sleep-deprived, drug-induced nightmare sequence works, for example, at communicating the utter confusion Simon’s experiencing – but often it just makes the book more difficult than it needs to be. Like realistic dream sequences, convincing portrayals of madness are hard to come by, and I’m not sure you’ll find one here.
The alternative reading, of course, is that there’s something supernatural going on, some creature of darkness and evil persecuting Simon at every turn (bizarrely, especially through the medium of the IMDb’s famously chaotic message boards) but that’s not really convincing either. The revelations of the final chapter come far too late into the proceedings, making for a rather abrupt and unsatisfactory ending – the kind where you turn the last page and think “huh? That’s it?”
It’s especially weird given the structuring of the book – right from the beginning, Campbell’s been dropping clue-anvils on his reader. He doesn’t offer sly glimpses of something spooky lurking in the shadows so much as viciously elbow you repeatedly in the ribs screaming “LOOK! LOOK! LOOK OVER THERE!” It’s exhausting after a while – and by “a while”, I mean “about 50 pages” – since every chapter involves multiple sightings of people who look spookily like clowns. And that’s not something you can subtly mention in a book; in a film, perhaps having someone odd-looking in the background of a shot would be much more effective, but here it’s just obnoxious. The pudding is so over-egged that you’re expecting something huge and climactic near the end, and that moment never arrives.
It’s a shame that the book is so self-consciously concerned with its own cleverness, really. There are pages and pages concerned with Simon’s online arguments with an IMDb troll who likes playing word games, and the endless not-quite-anagrams and pointed misspellings are irritating. The entire subplot with Simon’s girlfriend’s parents is ultimately pointless, too; in fact, Simon’s entire social life doesn’t really serve much of a purpose. It’s just padding; and stressful padding, at that, since the book constantly wants us to be concerned with what Simon’s future in-laws are up to. Parts of the novel are creepy, but only if you can ignore some really awkward prose; you have to really trust in the story to eventually make sense in order to get through the really torturous bits, and if you manage that you’ll probably feel betrayed by the ending.
The problem with The Grin of the Dark is mostly that the middle section goes on for too long: the introductory bit is too keen to get into the world of creepy grinning men around every corner, and the ending isn’t meaty enough. It’s a shame, but ultimately the book’s only lingering impact is to make you feel like taking a nap to clear your head a bit.