Let’s face it: clowns are terrifying. It isn’t just the makeup, the costumes or the unpredictability; it’s the gleeful way clowns indulge in near-sadistic slapstick shenanigans and then laugh hysterically at their own antics. Horror is teeming with evil or killer clowns, and even those who don’t follow the genre know the names Pennywise and Killjoy.
Ramsey Campbell’s The Grin of the Dark introduces us to Tubby Thackeray: part silent film star, part clown, part Nameless Evil from Beyond. Tubby’s films have all but disappeared; their rediscovery by film critic and researcher Simon Lester leads Lester through a series of terrifying events that culminates in an ending that, while not surprising, is thoroughly chilling.
Simon Lester’s career as a film critic is in shambles after the magazine for which he works is bankrupted due to libel charges. His girlfriend Natalie’s parents are overbearing and overprotective busybodies; her son, David, likes Simon well enough but doesn’t really bond with him, despite Simon’s attempts. Simon feels constant pressure from Natalie’s parents to rebuild his writing career or to otherwise improve his circumstances so he’ll be good enough for their daughter, while Simon’s own parents are so mired in the creeping indifference which has infected their marriage that they don’t make any attempts at all to reach out to him. Simon’s financial and emotional destitution leads him to jump at an offer from his old film tutor to rework his thesis for publication. There’s only one catch: Simon must add significantly more content about Tubby Thackeray, the silent comedy film star who was mentioned only briefly in Simon’s original thesis. Information about Tubby is hard to find, and Simon’s tutor believes Tubby can be used as the book’s selling point.
Simon’s search for Tubby’s films and for information on this professor-turned-film-star’s life leads him into a vicious online flame war; to the home of a Los Angeles porn producer; to an agonizing meeting in a decrepit church; to bizarre circus performances and flea markets; and to a series of increasingly disturbing encounters with his own friends and family. After seeing only a few seconds of one of Tubby’s short films, Natalie’s son develops a fierce obsession with Tubby; meanwhile, Simon begins seeing the clown’s face everywhere – in signs on the street, in the faces of passerby, in dreams. Simon’s own, slowly-growing fixation fuels this tale of ambition and curiosity gone horribly awry. His discovery of the secret of Tubby’s insidious influence, and the forces that have aligned themselves to draw Simon into their web, lead Simon to acts he would never before have considered.
This book is one of Campbell’s most compelling and chilling to date. The writing is crisp and yet seductive, drawing you in to a world that is so well-defined, and so much like our own, that the reader is tempted, just like Simon, to deny the steadily increasing sense of dread until it’s far too late. He is definitely in top form in this novel. Although it does touch on a favorite Campbell theme, in The Grin of the Dark he manages to present it in a thoroughly new and horrifying light.
Note: this review originally appeared in Sonar4 Publications’ Sonar4 Ezine and later appeared on my now-defunct blog At Your Door. In preparation of the 2016 shutdown of At Your Door, I’ll be moving some materials from that blog to this one throughout the remainder of this year. ICYMI will update every Friday until the last of the content I want to save has been posted.