One fateful night, four cousins spend the night camping on a cliff in Thurstaston, England. As they go to sleep, Charlotte hears something calling her name. Assuming it’s a trick by Rory or Hugh, she follows the voice toward the edge of the cliff, only to realise that it’s coming from underground. She finds a trapdoor, opens it, and sees something writhing beneath, staring at her. Before anything else happens, Charlotte’s kindly cousin Ellen leads her back to their sleeping bags.
Charlotte tells herself it was just a nightmare, and in fact her three cousins each had their own nightmare that night. When they return to the spot a decade later, it marks the beginning of real-life nightmares. The cousins’ lives spiral out of control under the influence of a malicious force buried at Thurstaston – an evil magician named Arthur Pendemon. Each of them suffers a debilitating condition that leaves them vulnerable and isolated, but if the nightmare is ever going to end they need to come together and defeat their tormentor.
It’s a mostly standard sort of horror plot, but it’s the kind of story I like, so I was surprised at how much I came to hate reading it.
If Ramsey Campbell didn’t have a prestigious reputation as a horror author, I would take Thieving Fear as a good reason never to open one of his books again. This can’t be the kind of novel that earned Campbell a reputation as a master of the horror genre, so I’m just going to make the kindly assumption that it’s a bit of twaddle he fobbed off on the publishers after they kept nagging about the book he owed them. And then even though they were unimpressed by the result they published it anyway because they figured his name alone could still rake in the cash.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that, in the novel, Ellen is an aspiring writer who is told that she will only be offered a publishing contract for her first book if she agrees to write a second. The publishers – for whom Charlotte works as an editor – have just been bought by some mega corporation that already owns a chain of Walmart-sized superstores, a search engine and telecommunications rights, so they’re having to adjust their policies to focus more on marketing and sales. Ellen has to bring her work in line with their demands, and this actually becomes a major issue, to the point where all four cousins are involved. Notably the plot of Ellen’s book is based on an evil magician named Arthur Pendemon who torments four cousins. Hmmm.
If Campbell’s being snarky then good for him, but Thieving Fear is pretty lame either way. On the bright side, it starts out ok, reads quickly, and the premise that drives the horror is an interesting one. The torment begins with some kind of persecution in the cousins’ professional lives. Then each of them is increasingly trapped in a real-life nightmare based on the nightmares they had that night. Rory, an artist, dreamt that he couldn’t see; now he starts to lose all sensory perception until he feels like nothing but a consciousness trapped in useless flesh. Hugh dreamt of being stuck in a house and unable to find his way out. He loses his sense of direction so completely that he can’t find his way from the bedroom to the bathroom or tell left from right. I don’t recall if Ellen described her dream, but in her real-life nightmare she becomes so disgusted with her grotesquely obese body that she can’t even bear to look at her hands let alone her reflection. She’s described in repulsive terms as a swollen, sweating, stinking mass of nausea-inducing flesh. Charlotte’s dream, as the reader knows, was not a dream, but she still gets extreme claustrophobia where she can’t even walk outside without feeling like the darkness is closing in on her.
In addition to these torments, all of them have glimpses of a shadow-like figure or unnaturally gaunt man who can never be viewed directly. It always seems to be slipping through elevator doors, reflected in glass, or standing just behind them, but disappears if they try to get a good look at it. And something keeps calling their names.
It’s quite discomforting if you imagine being crushed professionally and having humiliating, debilitating afflictions, but it becomes extremely repetitive. Campbell reuses the same imagery and language throughout the story and eventually you’re just sick of hearing it. Even more irritating is the way the main characters are in perpetual denial about what’s happening to them. They try to ignore their afflictions or blame it on stress. The shadowy figure and other supernatural occurrences are always dismissed as a trick of the light or whatever.
It’s possible, however, that the characters’ denial is meant to be part of the plot and not just the general stupidity of horror-genre characters. It becomes increasingly clear that the four cousins are being psychologically stunted by the mysterious force at Thurstaston in a way that turns them into the kind of horror-movie idiots who die of low IQs. One thing those idiots do (and this often happens in stories with some kind of mystery) is fail to share or ask about important information. This really, really gets to me because it slows down the plot and is usually senseless. Typically, it seems like the author forces characters to be implausibly stupid or tightlipped so as to drag out a story that would otherwise be resolved too quickly.
Campbell at least doesn’t make that mistake. Instead he gives his characters good (or at least decent) reasons for not sharing crucial information. Whatever’s happening to them also affects their ability to communicate. Much of the narrative consists of tense, awkward little phone conversations where each person is easily offended, afraid to give offence, and extremely reluctant to talk about anything that could advance the plot. At first I thought this was bad writing. It’s not really, although the book badly needs some commas and ellipses because you keep having to re-read some confusing sentence. Later, I thought it could be a reflection of the characters’ strict English reserve (actually, that’s part of it). Finally I realised that bad communication was part of the plot. The cousins struggle to talk about Thurstaston or Pendemon; even saying the names is difficult. It would take them about 15 minutes to figure out what’s going on, but researching those topics is too much of a strain. They don’t talk about their crippling afflictions until quite late in the novel, and even then they try to avoid doing so. All this inhibits them from doing anything about their situation, keeps them isolated when they could all be supporting each other, and makes them utterly miserable. It’s a kind of horror in itself.
While I can appreciate this in theory, in practice it’s just as frustrating as when authors do the same thing for all the wrong reasons – the plot moves too slowly, and you hate the characters for their behaviour. Worse, is that it never really ceases – even at the climax they can’t quite face up to the supernatural causes of their afflictions or admit that that suspicious movement was not a trick of the light.
And speaking of the ending – totally unsatisfying. Not to mention vague. The final events are very detailed, but I couldn’t tell you why any of it happened. In terms of imagery it’s quite impressive, but when nothing makes any sense it’s just an amalgamation of macabre weirdness.
So. A very bad introduction to Ramsey Campbell. If you’ve read his work please feel free to tell me what I should be reading. He’s supposed to be so good that I’d like to give him another chance, and I’m always on the search for my particular brand of horror. I’ll just try to pretend Thieving Fear never happened.