Ramsey Campbell is an author seemingly as prolific as he is influential – I'm a big fan, but I've still got a number of his books to read. Fortunately my wife got me four of his books newly reissued as paperbacks from PS Publishing for Christmas. The first I've read is The Overnight.
(Before we start, I’ll say that these paperbacks from PS Publishing are very good quality-wise – not something I often notice with paperbacks, but these are nice books to read, seemingly on better paper than most paperbacks and with good covers and designs. But anyway.)
This edition has an interesting and enthusiastic introduction from Mark Morris – obviously a keen fan of Campbell, and as he admits possibly an indirect catalyst of the book itself, because it was Morris who first got Campbell a job in a bookshop... and The Overnight is set in Texts, a bookshop in a foggy retail park known as Fenny Meadows. (Incidentally, the fact that an author as talented as Campbell had to get a job to support his writing is profoundly depressing, isn't it? We should be putting up statues of the man, not have him stacking bookshelves.)
I suspect some horror fans won’t get on with The Overnight. The story is told from multiple points of view, and there is a looooong build up before things get truly nasty (but believe me, they do). Some of the devices used to generate tension in the earlier sections of the novel might seem hackneyed in lesser hands – unseasonal fog, mysterious noises, strange substances like slug-trails ignored. In his short stories, Campbell is the master of describing partially seen horrors that the characters rationalise away (and sometimes that refusal to see is as scary as the thing itself). Here, over the length of a full novel, it can sometimes seem annoying that all of the characters constantly display the same trait: not one of them thinking the thing that looks like an evil-fog-monster-thingy might actually be an evil-fog-monster-thingy.
But this adds a strength to the narrative as well - each character only sees part of the picture; it’s only the reader who sees the connections, only the reader who realises just how bad things are getting out there in the fog... Of course if they were talking to each other, the employees of Texts might realise too, but the book's characters often seem like they are talking a different language to each other (and not just between the American manager Woody and the rest of them). One of the themes of The Overnight is miscommunication: arguments & misunderstandings between the characters; electronic voices failing in the lift and on the speakers; videos becoming corrupted and books unreadable... and the taunting, mimicing voices of the unseen things themselves.
The final third of the book is a compelling set-piece, as Woody gathers all of his staff together for an overnight stock-take and the things outside move in - the characters are under attack and they don't even realise. Well, not until too late for most of them anyway - it's hardly a spoiler to say that not all the characters make it out of Texts alive. But, as befitting a novel about how miscommunication can leave us isolated, most (but importantly not all) of those who do die do so alone, unable even to warn the others...
It's a bleak message, but an exhilarating book. Highly, highly recommended.