Filler content with sable grinning

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #5:-


Virgin paperback, 341pp, £7.99

Tubby Thackeray was a star of the early silent films and a stage performer whose madcap antics were reputed to cause riots and craziness in the audience. His contract was cancelled and Tubby disappeared off the radar. Disgraced film student Simon Lester is contracted to write a book about the comedian and embarks on research, uncovering evidence that Thackeray was a professor of medieval history before he became a clown, and that his work may have led into some very unsavoury areas. He finds films and comics and newspaper reports all over the place – at a covered market, at a hardcore porn studio in LA, and so on. But the more he researches the more convoluted things become, and meanwhile he is dragged into a bizarre flame war with somebody who seems hell bent on discrediting everything that he does. The increasingly bizarre events that surround him endanger Simon’s relationship with girlfriend Natalie, whose son Mark becomes disturbingly preoccupied with a reel of Tubby film. Simon realises that he is being played, but is not prepared for the revelation of who is using him and how.

This book is Ramsey Campbell at his best, the chronicle of one man’s descent into madness, with a surreal quality that echoes the work of John Franklin Bardin and a final resolution that brings to mind the merging of technology and horror at the end of John Marks’ novel Fangland.

Simon’s unravelling is painstakingly portrayed, with all the subtle atmosphere of menace – the things seen out of the corner of the eye, strange noises, cryptic remarks, distorted figures etc – that Campbell is so good at creating, the effects piling on top of each other until an almost unbearable sense of anticipation and dread is fostered in the reader. In the character of Tubby Thackeray, Campbell cleverly exploits our mixed feelings about the figure of the clown – the resemblance between his painted face and the rictus grin of death, the idea of laughter spiralling off into madness and hysteria – reminding us that in medieval times the court jester was more than just an entertainer. And back of it all is the suggestion of some great evil, an entity inimical to human life and intent on usurping the technology of the internet to undo us, a living meme in search of an ersatz corporeality.

There are marvellous set pieces, such as Simon’s visit to a circus with Mark, which is reminiscent of Aickman’s “The Swords” in its sinister undertones, the clown figures redolent with menace, but never overtly so, leaving the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks. A similar highlight is Simon’s trip to an old, abandoned variety theatre with his parents, where the sense of foreboding is almost overpowering for the reader as well as the characters, the agony of not knowing if those figures in the darkness move or not, whether that strange noise is a stray pigeon or something else entirely. Campbell gives us a tour de force of invention, marshalling all the effects in his armoury to push Simon and the reader to the wall.

For me, the only bum note in the book was struck by Natalie’s parents, who come over as comic cut outs, more caricature than character, the stereotypical in-laws from hell who would be more at home in a sitcom than a horror novel. It’s a matter of little importance though and doesn’t detract from the overall feel and quality of this excellent chiller, which is a splendid addition to Campbell’s oeuvre and welcome proof of the Virgin line’s commitment to literary horror.

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