By Ramsey Campbell



381pp/$25.95/July 2008

The Grin of the Dark
Cover by Jupiterimages & CSA Images

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Ramsey Campbell's The Grin of the Dark explores a minor film critic, Simon Lester, who becomes obsessed with discovering anything he can about a forgotten silent film comedian, Tubby Thackeray as he begins work on a book about film history. From the very beginning of Lester's research, it is clear that there is something strange about Thackeray's disappearance from film. Although experts estimate that between 80 and 90% of silent films have been lost, Lester realizes that Thackeray's presence has been completely erased from the historical and cinematic record.

There are two mysteries running throughout The Grin of the Dark. The first, of course, is what happened to Thackeray, and that is the mystery that drives Lester's research and the novel. Campbell provide hints throughout that Thackeray's disappearance is more than simply a silent film comedian falling out of favor or not being able to make the transition to talkies. Not only is this evident from the primary sources Lester finds, but also in the way his girlfriend's son, Mark, reacts to seeing his first Tubby Thackeray film.

The other mystery concerns the identity of Lester's internet troll, who goes by the name Smilememe. Smilememe's claims of knowledge of Thackeray's lost films and aspersions he casts upon Lester's research come across partly as standard trolling, but they also seem to have a background to them. Although apparently of less import than the mystery around Thackeray, the identity and background of Smilememe is more intriguing, possibly because his character lines up so well with the activities of an actual science fiction author who was making similar claims about lost films when Campbell was writing The Grin of the Dark.

One of the problems with The Grin of the Dark is that Lester is not portrayed as a likeable character from the very first page. Estranged from his parents and disliked by his girlfriend's parents, everything in the novel indicates that his girlfriend's parents have the right opinion of him. When his old advisor takes a chance on him and hires him to write a book on cinematic history, the reader wonders if he is up to the task. Even as he begins researching Thackeray, it feels to the reader as if he's never really serious, but rather running a scam on the university that is covering his costs. His interest in Mark comes across, alternatively, as genuine and a ruse to stay in the good graces with Natalie.

Just as the reader can't be sure if Lester is actually any good at his profession or making real any progress, Campbell also incorporates a blurred line between what is Lester's perceived reality and what is nightmare, although since everything is happening within Lester's fictional world, it isn't clear that it matters what is objectively real to him and the world he inhabits and what isn't. Although Campbell introduces the initial indications that something strange is happening to Lester in his explorations of Thackeray, something that has apparently followed Thackeray around since he was on the Vaudeville stage before even making movies, Campbell's leisurely pacing in adding horrific elements and bringing things to a peak are detrimental to the novel as a whole.

Campbell does some interesting things and tying the horror to a forgotten silent film star markes it strangely distant, but at the same time imminent. Campbell spends too much time building up Lester's credentials, which might not be a problem if the reader could see Lester through his own eyes rather than feeling that Lester's antagonists, whether Natalie's parents or Smilememe, were offering a more accurate view of him. By the time the horror really builds up or Campbell begins to offer some hints at the resolutions to the mysteries he has set in motion, it is too late to make the reader fully care about the denouement.

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