Once upon a time Tubby Thackeray's silent comedies were hailed as the equal of Chaplin's and Keaton's, but now his name has been deleted from the history of the cinema. Some of his music-hall performances before he went to Hollywood were riotously controversial, and his last film was never released - but why have his entire career and all his films vanished from the record?
Simon Lester is a film critic thrown out of a job by a lawsuit against the magazine he helped to found. When he's commissioned to write a book about Thackeray and restore the comedian's reputation, it seems as if his own career is saved. His research takes him from Los Angeles to Amsterdam, from dusty archives to a hardcore movie studio. But his research leads to something far older than the cinema, something that has taken a new and even more dangerous shape...
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The Grin of the Dark
By Ramsey Campbell
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2007 Ramsey Campbell
All rights reserved.
I'M NO LOSER
I've hardly lifted my finger from the bellpush when the intercom emits its boxy cough and says "Hello?"
"It's Simon," Natalie's seven-year-old calls and adds even more eagerly "Did you get your job?"
As I tell him, a boat hoots behind me on the Thames. An unsympathetic November wind brings the sound closer. A barge outlined by coloured lights is passing under Tower Bridge. Ripples flicker on the underside of the roadway, which appears to stir as if the bridge is about to raise its halves. The barge with its cargo of elegant drinkers cruises past me, and a moon-faced man in evening dress eyes me through a window as he lifts his champagne glass. He's grinning so widely that I could almost take him to have been the source of the hoot, but of course he isn't mocking me. The boat moves on, trailing colours until they're doused by the water as black as the seven o'clock sky. I hear quick footsteps on the pine floor of the entrance hall and arrange an expression for Mark's benefit, but Natalie's father opens the door. "Here he is," he announces.
His plump but squarish face is more jovial than his tone. Perhaps his face is stiff with all the tanning he's applied to make up for leaving California. It seems to bleach his eyebrows, which are as silver as his short bristling hair, and his pale blue eyes. He scrutinises me while he delivers a leathery handshake that would be still more painful if it weren't so brief. "Christ up a chimney, you're cold," he says and immediately turns his back. "Mark told us your good news."
By the time I close the heavy door in the thick wall of the converted warehouse he's tramping up the pale pine stairs. "Warren," I protest.
"Save it for the family." As he turns left into the apartment he shouts "Here's Mr Success."
Bebe dodges out of the main bedroom, and I wonder if she has been searching for signs of how recently I shared the bed. Perhaps the freckles that pepper her chubby face in its expensive frame of bobbed red hair are growing inflamed merely with enthusiasm. "Let's hear it," she urges, following her husband past Natalie's magazine cover designs that decorate the inner hall.
Mark darts out of his room next to the bathroom with a cry of "Yay, Simon" as Natalie appears in the living-room. She sends me a smile understated enough for its pride and relief to be meant just for us. Before I can react her parents are beside her, and all I can see is the family resemblance. Her and Mark's features are as delicate as Bebe's must be underneath the padding, and they have half of Bebe's freckles each, as well as hair that's quite as red, if shorter. I feel excluded, not least by saying "Listen, everyone, I —"
"Hold the speech," Warren says and strides into the kitchen.
Why are the Hallorans here? What have they bought their daughter or their grandson this time? They've already paid for the plasma screen and the DVD recorder, and the extravagantly tiny hi-fi system, and the oversized floppy suite that resembles chocolate in rolls and melted slabs. I hope they didn't buy the bottle of champagne Warren brings in surrounded by four glasses on a silver tray. I clear my throat, because more than the central heating has dried up my mouth. "That's not on my account, is it?" I croak. "I didn't get the job."
Warren's face changes swiftest. As he rests the tray on a low table his eyebrows twitch high, and his smile is left looking ironic. Bebe thins her lips at Natalie and Mark in case they need to borrow any bravery. Natalie tilts her head as if the wryness of her smile has tugged it sideways. Only Mark appears confused. "But you sounded happy," he accuses. "The noise you made."
"I think you were hearing a boat on the river, Mark."
Natalie's parents share an unimpressed glance as she says "Don't you know the difference between Simon and a boat?"
"Tell us," says Warren.
I feel bound to. "One sails on the waves ..."
Before Mark can respond, Bebe does with a frown that's meant to seem petite. "We didn't know you were into saving whales. Can you spare the time when you're hunting for a job?"
"I'm not. An activist, I mean. I don't make a fuss about much. One sails on the waves, Mark, and the other one saves on the wails."
I wouldn't call that bad for the spur of the moment, but his grandparents clearly feel I should. Mark has a different objection. "Why didn't you get the job at the magazine? You said it was just what you wanted."
"We can't always have what we want, son," Warren says. "Maybe we should get what we deserve."
Natalie gazes at me, perhaps to prompt me to reply, and says "We have."
Bebe drapes an arm around her daughter's shoulders. "You two know you've always got us."
"You haven't said why yet," Mark prompts me.
Through the window behind the editor's desk I could see to the hills beyond London, but when she conveyed her decision I felt as if I'd been put back in my box. "I'd be writing for them if I hadn't mentioned one word."
Bebe plants her hands over his ears. "If it's the one I'm thinking of I don't believe this little guy needs to hear."
Perhaps Mark still can, because he says "I bet it's Cineassed."
She snatches her hands away as if his ears have grown too hot to hold. "Well, really, mom. I'm surprised you let him hear that kind of language, whoever said it to him."
"He saw me reading the magazine." I wonder whether she's reflecting that Bebe persuaded her not to display the covers in the hall as she adds "I did work for it too, you might want to remember. Otherwise I wouldn't have met Simon."
Everyone looks at me, and Warren says "I don't get how just mentioning it could lose you a job when Natalie landed a better one."
"She was only on design."
"I wouldn't call that so very inferior."
"Nor would I, not even slightly. The look was all hers, and it sold the magazine, but I'm saying my name was on half the pages."
"Maybe you should try not telling anyone that's offering you a job."
"You don't want people thinking you're trying to avoid work," Bebe says.
"Simon is working. He's working extremely hard." Rather than turn on either of her parents, Natalie gazes above my head. "A day job and another one at night, I'd call that hard."
"Just not too profitable," says her father. "Okay, let's run you to work, Simon. We need to stop by our houses."
"Don't wait for me. I'll have time for the train."
"Better not risk it. Imagine showing up late for work after you already lost one job."
As Natalie gives me a tiny resigned smile Mark says "You haven't seen my new computer, Simon. The old one crashed."
"Nothing but the best for our young brain," Bebe cries.
"It's an investment in everyone's future," Warren says. "Save the demonstration, Mark. We need to hit the road."
The elder Hallorans present their family with kisses, and I give Natalie one of the kind that least embarrasses Mark. "Bye," he calls as he makes for his room, where he rouses his computer. I leave Natalie's cool slender hand a squeeze that feels like a frustrating sample of an embrace and trail after her parents to the basement car park.
The stone floor is blackened by the shadows of brick pillars, around which security cameras peer. Bebe's Shogun honks and flashes its headlamps from one of the bays for Flat 3 to greet Warren's key-ring. I climb in the back and am hauling the twisted safety belt to its socket when the car veers backwards, narrowly missing a dormant Jaguar. At the top of the ramp the Shogun barely gives the automatic door time to slope out of the way. "Warren," Bebe squeals, perhaps with delight more than fear.
The alley between the warehouses amplifies the roar of the engine as he speeds to the main road. He barely glances down from his height before swerving into the traffic. "Hey, that's what brakes are for," he responds to the fanfare of horns, and switches on the compact disc player.
The first notes of the 1812 surround me as the lit turrets of the Tower dwindle in the mirror. Whenever the car slews around a corner I'm flung against the window or as far across the seat as the belt allows. Is Warren too busy fiddling with the sound balance to notice? In Kensington he increases the volume to compete with the disco rhythm of a Toyota next to us at traffic lights, and Bebe waves her hands beside her ears. The overture reaches its climax on the Hammersmith flyover, beyond which the sky above a bend in the Thames explodes while cannon-shots shake the car. Rockets are shooting up from Castelnau and simultaneously plunging into the blackness of a reservoir. They're almost as late for the fifth of November as they're early for the New Year. The Great West Road brings the music to its triumphant end, which leaves the distant detonations sounding thin and artificial to my tinny ears. "How did you rate that, Simon?" Warren shouts.
"Spectacular," I just about hear myself respond.
"Pretty damn fine, I'd say. The guy knew what people liked and socked it to them. You don't make many enemies that way."
"Never do that if you can't afford to," Bebe says.
"All I did was look into the background of the films that were topping the charts. Colin wrote the piece about testing Oscar winners for drugs. He named too many people who should have owned up, that's why we were sued."
The Hallorans stare at me in the mirror as if they weren't thinking of Cineassed. After a pause Warren says "Shows you should be careful who your friends are. You could end up with their reputation."
I'm not sure if he's talking to me or about me. Planes rise from Heathrow like inextinguishable fireworks. A reservoir is staked out by illuminated fishermen beside the old Roman road into Staines. Warren brakes in sight of the video library that's my daytime workplace, and then the car screeches off a roundabout to Egham. As we leave the main road near the outpost of London University, Bebe tuts at a student who's wearing a traffic cone on his head like a reminiscence of Halloween. The Shogun halts at the top of the sloping side street, between two ranks of disreputable parked cars. "Open up while I find a space, Simon," Warren directs.
I hurry to the slouching metal gate of the middle house they own and manoeuvre the gate over the humped path. A large striped spider has netted the stunted rhododendron that's the only vegetation in the token garden apart from tufts of grass. The spider is transmitting its glow through its equally orange web to discolour the leaves, except that the glare belongs to a streetlamp. I sprint to the scabby front door and twist my key in the unobliging lock. "Hello?" I shout as the door stumbles inwards. "Here's your landlords."
Though the hall light is on beneath its cheap mosaic shade, nobody responds. Wole's door is shut — a ski-masked cliché on a poster bars the way with a machete — and so is Tony's, on which Gollum holds the fort. Besides a stagnant smell of pizza, do I distinguish a faint tang of cannabis? I try to look innocent enough for all the tenants as I swivel to meet Bebe. "Just letting the men know you're here in case they aren't decent," I improvise.
She turns to Warren, who has parked across the driveway of their house on the right. "He's alerted the students we're here."
"Showing solidarity, were you, Simon?"
"It isn't so long since I was one. Thanks again for letting me rent the room."
I watch the Hallorans advance in unison along the hall, which is papered with a leafy pattern designed for a larger interior. Bebe knocks on Wole's door and immediately tries it while Warren does the same to Tony's, but both rooms are locked. Bebe switches on the light in the sitting-room and frowns at me, although I've left none of the items strewn about the brownish carpet that's piebald with fading stains. In any case the debris — disembowelled newspapers, unwashed plates, two foil containers with plastic forks lounging amid their not yet mouldy contents, a sandal with a broken strap — hardly detracts from the doddering chairs of various species in front of the elderly television and dusty video recorder. Bebe stacks the containers on top of the plates and takes them to the kitchen, only to find no space in the pedal bin, any more than there's room for additional plates in the sink. "Simon, you're supposed to be the mature one," she complains and dumps her burden among the bowls scaly with breakfast cereal on the formica table top. "How long have you been letting this pile up?"
I'd tell her where I spent last night, but Natalie prefers to leave them in some doubt of our relationship until I have a job we can be proud of. I try remaining silent while Warren takes the rubbish out to the dustbin, but Bebe performs such a monodrama of tuts and sighs as she sets about clearing the sink that I'm provoked to interrupt. "I can't play the caretaker when I'm out at work so much."
"Students are investments like these houses," Warren says, grinding home the bolts on the back door. "Investments the rest of us make."
Bebe thrusts a plate at me to dry. "How much of one do you think you are, Simon?"
I lay it in a drawer rather than smash it on the linoleum. "If Natalie values me, that's what matters."
"How romantic. I expect she'd be pleased." Bebe hands me another plate before adding "I believe we matter as well. We've invested a whole lot in her."
"I meant to tell her we met somebody she used to know," Warren says. "He's done real well for himself and anyone involved with him."
Am I supposed to say she can have him or perhaps yield more gracefully? I know they're waiting for her to lose faith in me. Even renting me the accommodation makes it harder for us to meet and characterises me as a parasite. Arguing won't help, but I have to hold my lips shut with my teeth while I stow the dishes.
Warren's comment loiters in my head as he leads the way upstairs. A tear in the scuffed carpet snags my heel. Bebe lets her breath be heard when she sees the clutter in the communal bathroom. Joe's door has acquired a poster for a troupe presumably deliberately misspelled as Clwons Unlimited. Warren's knock brings no answer, and the door is locked. "I'll open up if my quarters are due for inspection," I say.
"That would be helpful," says Bebe.
I was joking, and if they don't understand that, they're the joke. I might say as much, but I've nothing to hide except how demeaned I feel. I throw the blank anonymous door wide and switch on the light under the tasselled Japanese shade Natalie hoped would cheer up the room. Her parents stare in, though there isn't much to see or criticise. My clothes are stored in the rickety wardrobe, and yesterday I dragged the quilt over the bed. Books are lined up on shelves next to the skeletal desk on which my computer has pride of place. "Do tell me what you're looking for if I can help," I say.
"It seems to be in order," Bebe says but gives a quick ominous sniff.
"We'll check our other properties," says Warren, "and then we can run you to the gas station."
"I'm not due for an hour yet, thanks. I've things to do here first."
"Do say they'll be productive," Warren urges.
I clench my fists as I watch my landlords' heads jerk puppet-like downstairs. Warren's scalp is lichened by a green segment of the grubby lampshade, Bebe's is tinged an angry red. Warren glances up at me, and a smile widens his mouth. I can't take it for encouragement, even if it glints green. Once the front door shuts I switch on my computer. The Hallorans have said too much this time. I'll surprise them and perhaps Natalie as well. I'm going to take charge of my life.CHAPTER 2
All my life that's fit to print (and maybe some that isn't):
Simon Lester. Born 1 January 1977, Preston, Lancashire. Attended Grimshaw Street Primary School 1982-88, Winckley High School 1988-95. Grade A at Ordinary Level in English Language and Literature, Mathematics, Spanish; B+ in Physics, Chemistry, Social Studies. (History and Geography, don't ask. Would have done better if hadn't fallen in love with cinema and set out to watch every film on multiplex/television/tape? Doubt it.) Grade A at Advanced Level in both English subjects and Mathematics, B in the sciences. Attended London University at Royal Holloway College 1995-98. Bachelor of Arts with Honours in Media Studies. Co-edited (with Colin Vernon, but would rather keep that quiet) college film magazine Freeze Frames and contributed reviews and critical essays. 1998-2000, film reviewer for Preston Gazette. Wrote articles for Sight and Sound and Empire. Then —
(Emailed by Colin Vernon. Cineassed will be most irreverent movie magazine ever. His father's backing the launch. Colin will put me up in his Finchley house until I can afford a flat. Any doubts assuaged by editorial meeting, not to mention drinks afterwards with Natalie. Had to be worth it for meeting her. Now libel case against the magazine and Colin in particular won't come to trial until next year. Assets of magazine frozen. My reputation seems to be, but mustn't let that happen to my thoughts.)
2001 — 02, staff writer for Cineassed. I highlight this onscreen and delete it and gaze at the absence. Whenever I mention that I've written about films, interviewers remember where they've heard of me, which is there. In that case, should I change my name? I connect to the Internet and search for an anagram generator. Here's a site called Wordssword, and I type my name in the box.
Excerpted from The Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell. Copyright © 2007 Ramsey Campbell. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ONE - I'M NO LOSER,
TWO - MINIONS,
THREE - ENTITLEMENT,
FOUR - LISTS,
FIVE - LOST,
SIX - LESSER,
SEVEN - TOTEMS,
EIGHT - SMILEMIME,
NINE - SOME SENSE,
TEN - MOORS,
ELEVEN - INTERMENTS,
TWELVE - EROS,
THIRTEEN - IT'S ONLINE,
FOURTEEN - SITES,
FIFTEEN - MOM IS RELENTLESS,
SIXTEEN - OMENS,
SEVENTEEN - RESTLESSNESS,
EIGHTEEN - I'M NOT REMISS,
NINETEEN - SENIORS,
TWENTY - IT STIRS,
TWENTY-ONE - SOON I'LL REST,
TWENTY-TWO - NO STILLNESS,
TWENTY-THREE - MISS MOSS,
TWENTY-FOUR - NETS,
TWENTY-FIVE - IN STORE,
TWENTY-SIX - RETORTS,
TWENTY-SEVEN - SIRENS,
TWENTY-EIGHT - NOTES ON SILENTS,
TWENTY-NINE - REELS,
THIRTY - REMISSION,
THIRTY-ONE - IT SMILES,
THIRTY-TWO - I'M IN MOTION,
THIRTY-THREE - SOLEMN TRIO,
THIRTY-FOUR - NO ROOM,
THIRTY-FIVE - TORMENTORS,
THIRTY-SIX - LISTENERS,
THIRTY-SEVEN - REMOTENESS,
THIRTY-EIGH - I EMOTE,
THIRTY-NINE - IT'S IMMINENT,
FORTY - MET,
FORTY-ONE - RITES,
FORTY-TWO - TESS,
FORTY-THREE - ST SIMON'S,
FORTY-FOUR - NOEL, NOEL,
FORTY-FIVE - IN LEMON STREET,
FORTY-SIX - IT ROTS,
FORTY-SEVEN - SOMEONE ELSE,
FORTY-ElGHT - RENTNOMORE,
FORTY-NINE - INTERTITLES,
FIFTY - MEMENTOS,
FIFTY-ONE - TIME TO TELL,
Epilogue - I'M NOT LESSER,
BY RAMSEY CAMPBELL FROM TOM DOHERTY ASSOCIATES,
About the Author,