Thursday, 4 June 2009

Thieving Fear, by Ramsey Campbell

Four friends camped at the coast as youngsters, and had a very bad night’s sleep. Years later, returning to the spot as adults, something is triggered, and things rapidly decline for them, in very subtle ways. They can’t seem to communicate properly with each other. Their lives
are turning to crap, and there doesn’t seem to be anything they can do about it.

One of the most common complaints about horror films is that if people just told each what’s going on, most of their problems could be solved (Lost has always been notorious for the same thing). That could easily have provided the inspiration for this book. Why don’t they talk to each other? What if they can’t? What if something is stopping them? So it’s all about characters who talk at cross-purposes, mishear and misconstrue words, and run everything through the filter of their own misery. In short, it’s extremely realistic!

That makes this a profoundly miserable and often frustrating reading experience, but a brilliant one. I haven’t read anything so determined to make (and unafraid of making) the reader miserable since Dostoevskys’s Notes from the Underground. For example, it begins with one lead being unfairly accused of racism in an employment tribunal… The weak point of human society and relationships (or maybe the thing that makes society possible!) is the imperfection of communication between us, and this book hammered away at that until it gave. It was very ambitious and difficult – you’d have thought it the work of a angry young man, if it wasn’t for the absolute confidence of every word. I loved it.

Except for one thing, that is: the absence of commas before speech. I read an afterword by Campbell to one of his books where he had a little rant about small-minded proofreaders adding commas to his work. It’s easy to overdo them, but they’re generally useful and their absence in some circumstances causes confusion. The problem here is that if someone’s talking, it says something like: he said “Goodbye to the world”. The comma that should appear after “said” tells you something, it tells you to break what follows off from the descriptive text, it’s a separate utterance by a different person, the character instead of the narrator. Its total absence in this book means the reader must constantly back up after realising some speech is being reported. Yes, it’s a little thing, but it isn’t half infuriating, and in at least one place here it is difficult to be sure whether the text within the quote marks has even been said. Maybe it’s a small thing, but those conventions are there to help the reader, and omitting them is like leaving marbles on the stairs of a story.

Somehow, though, I survived the absence of commas to finish Thieving Fear just an hour before the close of voting. This was the first Ramsey Campbell book I’ve read, and a BFS member told me it wasn’t his best. Well, if that’s not his best, I’ve got some good reading ahead of me! I suppose I was hit with all his good qualities at once, whereas an existing fan would compare it as much to his previous works as to the other nominees. For me this was in a different league to the other books (though I think the best individual scene of any of the novels was in Rain Dogs, in the flooded estate, with the creatures coming up out of the water to tear people apart), and it had to get my vote.

Thieving Fear, Ramsey Campbell, Virgin Books, pb, 320pp

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