Ever since the misdeeds of John Wayne Gacy and the publication of Stephen King’s novel It (if not way before), the jolly, laughing, balloon-animal-making clowns of children’s birthday parties and circuses have been practically synonymous with “pedophile” and “serial killer.” Heath Ledger’s brilliant portrayal of the Joker in the latest Batman flick is another example of the bad rap clowns have been getting for several decades. The Grin of the Dark by horror master Ramsey Campbell, about silent film comedian and sometime clown Thackeray “Tubby” Lane, is a psychological thriller that plays on readers’ fears about clowns and modern technology in the forms of ATM machines and the Internet. How well does it succeed in delivering chills and thrills?
There are no graphic murders and no bloodshed
here, so if you like gore fests (which I do, at least when it comes to horror movies) and you buy this book expecting to read about people dying numerous gruesome deaths, you’ll be sadly disappointed. Two people die, but both are the result of heart attacks brought on by hysterical laughter. So, if you rate horror novels on the basis of chainsaws, where there’s a scale from one to five, a “five” being one that depicts mondo amounts of bloodletting, amputations, decapitations and deaths, this novel might only garnish one chainsaw, if that.
One of the victims is a woman who saw Tubby when he toured England doing vaudeville performances; she dies of a laughter-induced heart attack. When he did his shows, often he would cause his audiences to grin widely like himself, and they would laugh uncontrollably. He even managed to provoke riots from people who viewed his performances, spilling out onto the streets and attempting to reenact his twisted slapstick routines.
The other victim meets his demise not directly due to Tubby, but to first-person narrator Simon Lestor’s re-enactment of a silent film that starred Tubby for a group of people in a theater. His performance must be pretty spot-on, for it causes a man who has been giving him some leads on the enigmatic Tubby to die in frozen mid-laugh, also due to a heart attack. Lestor is researching silent film comedians and noting their importance in cinematic history, and he’s been hired by Rufus Walls, his film tutor at the university, to write a book on them. Rufus and Colin Vernon, Lestor’s editor when he wrote articles for the movie magazine Cineaste, will edit the book, for which Simon has been paid ten thousand pounds in advance.
At first, when Lestor accepts the job and Rufus asks him to expand the paragraph he devoted to Tubby in his thesis into a chapter if he can, Lestor doubts that he will be able to find enough information on Lane. He goes to memorabilia fairs, clown performances, university archives, even the U.S. to track down information on Tubby and view the comedian’s films, which are rare. Almost all were heavily censored, as well, before they could be seen in theaters. His search becomes an obsession, bleeding over into his life and relationships - with Natalie, his girlfriend; her son, seven-year-old Mark; Natalie’s parents; and eventually everyone he meets.
Everywhere Lestor looks, he imagines people wearing wide grins on their faces. He sees shadowy dwarfish figures. He hears the flapping of oversized shoes, and whispered voices and laughter outside his girlfriend’s door and across the hall from a neighbor’s apartment. When the airplane he takes to return from his investigations in America is diverted to Amsterdam, he learns that even the name of the hotel he’s staying at translates to mean “fool”. ATM machines refuse to acknowledge that he has any money in the bank, debiting his account instead of crediting it with ten thousand pounds.
Perhaps the most upsetting and unsettling thing is that even the Internet seems to be turning against him. He’s locked in an online war involving salvos of emails between himself and a person going by the screen name of Smilemime, who misspells words, adding extra consonants. He discredits everything that Lestor posts to message boards and forums and turns Lestor’s name into anagrams. Smilemime writes that he believes Simon Lestor has never been published, that the magazine has been made up, and that Colin Vernon is just another name Lestor goes by.
The Grin of the Dark sneaks up on you like some deranged psycho clown (minus the laughter), and the more you read into it, the more you are caught up in the story and the creepier it gets. Smilemime and Tubby Lane’s infiltration of Simon Lestor’s life and the Internet is unnerving; it’s easy to imagine the anger and frustration Simon feels when both Smilemime and ATM machines fail to recognize his identity as a person.
Lestor’s very life becomes like a routine, and though the events that happen to him are decidedly unfunny, in a way that’s exactly how silent film comedies worked. You can’t help but laugh at the crazy predicaments the people got into, but if it were happening to you, it wouldn’t be funny at all. Tubby’s comedic theories, Simon learns from his research and from Colin reading Tubby’s lips during one of the comedian’s films, developed from Lane’s days as a professor. His peculiar ideas regarding portals, chaos, clowns as agents of chaos, and black magic are a major component of all of his movies. What’s more, Simon finds that the Internet is the biggest portal of them all.
The Grin of the Dark is a good fit for fans of taut, suspenseful psychological thrillers.