Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2005
UK Hardcover Signed First Edition
Publication Date: 05-15-2004
414 Pages; $40.00
Date Reviewed: 01-05-05
Fiction can yield up some very odd pleasures, both small joys and great amusements that are inconceivable in any other medium. Ramsey Campbell is the kind of idiosyncratic writer who can create wordscapes that are like no other. His latest novel, 'The Overnight' offers the reader a variety of unusual and almost indescribably individual reading experiences. Campbell creates effects with his technique so unique and so pervasive, even invasive, that readers cannot help but feel as if they've discovered an entirely new form of prose. Paradoxically, he manages to do so without resorting to anything other than particularly careful word choices. Campbell effectively writes in a genre of which he is the only practitioner.
From the outside, 'The Overnight' is a novel about what happens when the employees of a large American chain bookstore named 'Texts' -- located in a remote expressway shopping center -- are asked to work through the night. Campbell himself had some experience in the field when he took a full time job working at the Cheshire Oaks branch of Borders. It seems an odd place to set a horror novel. The brand new shopping park is not exactly a gothic castle. But all Campbell needs is the English language and a set of characters. With these, he manages to make 'The Overnight' one of the creepiest -- and funniest -- horror novels in recent memory.
Each chapter in Campbell's novel is told from the point of view of single character, and there's a large cast. But Campbell makes each character unique and instantly identifiable, if not likable. In fact, most of Campbell's cast is comprised of people you'd prefer to avoid in any uncontrolled social situation. Leading the cast is Woody, the displaced Yank sent by the company to make sure the chain store runs according to American standards. Jill is a newly divorced, now single mother, and the most sympathetic character. You might not even mind getting stuck in the lift with her, so long as it's not the lift at Texts. Madeline, who works in the children's book section, is having some problems keeping her books on the shelves. Some vandals seem intent on pulling them down, and they leave a gritty, muddy scum behind.
Campbell's technique is to go from character to character in his extensive cast and as he very carefully describes their experiences, it's clear that something is quite awry at the Fenny Meadows business park. One of the great joys in reading this novel is the experience of understanding intuitively what's wrong here without ever having to be told directly. In fact, Campbell only hints at the cause of events that unfold. But he does so with such skill that the reader can thoroughly enjoy putting together the puzzle pieces without being told in advance what the final picture will eventually portray.
That he makes each chapter compellingly, compulsively readable is down to his careful word choice. Without fail, Campbell manages to spin out a turn of phrase that readers will want to read aloud to anyone in their general vicinity. One character describes his relatives as "older than living". As Campbell writes about the grit and grime the workers are finding on the books and in the store, as he unfurls the fog with its stale taste, he manages to get under the reader's skin. Texts is being invaded, attacked, and those who work there may not realize this until it's too late.
As Campbell's amorphous antagonists slowly coalesce, the reader will be hard pressed to feel at ease. But Campbell is a masterful writer, and he evokes not only unease but also laughter with his prose. Readers can enjoy the terrorizing situations but also the very dry sense of humor that Campbell displays. It's a remarkable achievement to evoke such a complex set of reactions so easily with only text.
Not surprisingly, 'The Overnight' is a very unusual book to read. The chapters that follow each single character become increasingly claustrophobic and subtly horrific without ever resorting to profanity, gore or violence. The terror literally grows out of the landscape and the language. The humor comes from the reader's reaction to the writing, the situations and Campbell's frequent zingers, which never come in the familiar form of the horror-movie one-liner. In fact, 'The Overnight' is something of an anti-movie. It's a pure novel, an entertainment that can only be experienced by reading.
Readers who have enjoyed Campbell's novels in the past will find Campbell in top form with 'The Overnight'. The mixture of humor and dread is perfectly proportioned and so well blended that Campbell often manages to evoke both at once. Campbell deliberately and at times amusingly avoids the situations you find in other horror novels. For example, the local scholar who clearly knows what is happening refuses to divulge the secret because nobody has bothered to read his book.
For readers like myself who see the power of the huge book chains as rather destructive to the very products they sell, 'The Overnight' provides even more reasons to fear them. Not the least of these is that one of their staff may be writing a horror novel about their experiences. This may be where 'The Overnight' provides its most satisfying moments as readers feel themselves transformed from audience to performers. That nice man working behind the counter where you buy this book. Smile back at him and treat him kindly. You want to be sure that you remain a customer. You want to remember that at any moment you might become a character. How's that for scary?