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The Overnight

by Ramsey Campbell

(PS Publishing, £35 hardback or £60 slipcased hardback, 414 pages, signed, numbered, limited edition, published May 2004.)

Review by David Mathew

cover scanNot since reading Ramsey Campbell's novel The Hungry Moon have I found a written description of the dark more unnerving than that which is found on pages 300-301 of The Overnight. We'll allude to this novel's eerie evocations of preternatural evil in due course, but for the moment let's follow one of the many (in fact, an uncharacteristically large number, for this author) principle characters -- there being but a small number of minor characters throughout -- as he descends a flight of stairs at his workplace, the power in the building have been disabled:

'He doesn't like wobbling on one leg while he gropes for the stair with the other foot. It must be the blind dark that makes him seem to have to stretch farther than he ought to need. He plants his heel as far back on the tread as there's space for, and slides his sweaty prickling hand down the banister, and lifts his other foot to hover above the oppressive depthless dark. It's just the night, he tries to tell himself ... He wishes he could think how many steps lead to the delivery lobby, surely less than a couple of dozen. Since he's performing the identical action each time he clings to the banister and lets a foot sink into the blackness until it meets a stair, why isn't the process growing easier instead of seeming ever more dangerous? Perhaps that's because he didn't count the steps he has already taken, thus losing all sense of how far he has yet to descend ... The edges of stairs scrape the backs of his ankles, and whenever a foot settles on a tread he feels as though he's leaning out too far over the blackness. He takes another wavering pace downwards that only the banister renders slightly less perilous -- and then his fist closes on emptiness.'

Although this is a lightly bowdlerized version of the paragraphs which actually appear in The Overnight -- and even then it is emburdened by the weight of being taken out of context -- I would hope that it gives a scintilla of what one might realistically expect from this exemplary piece of fiction. Campbell's fine writing is, of course, a given; but his career-long skill of making ordinary events (unpleasant, perhaps, in this case, but ordinary: a walk down the steps in the dark) into a moment- or sometimes even life-changing event, is worth more than an idle thought. Regardless of the fact that by this point in the novel (approximately three-quarters through), the characters should have, but in the main don't have, any notion of the wider field of horrors that has been rooted nearby, the characters -- I should call them employees -- blunder on, with their arguments, relationships and fears that are not concerned with their predators. The character descending the flight of stairs is but one case in point. A different character experiences the terror of losing the ability to read (and here, in context, we do approach the supernatural); relationships are twanged like double bass strings, and not only those resulting from previous emotional affairs: the arrival of a new and ghastly American manager, Woody -- the jokey name, perhaps, an intentional counterpoint to his willing avidity in the workplace; and his insistence on the staff smiling at all times a factor that certainly puts the teeth of many on edge, not least those of the reader -- is enough to set off in its crusade what has waited for a long time to be seen.

Typically for Campbell, we're in the north of England: a business park going by the moniker of Fenny Meadows, and in particular a bookshop called Texts. The structure of this book, I might say, is circular (by which I do not mean spiral) but this is not quite right. Imagine a dartboard. While there might not be quite as many principle leads in The Overnight as constitute the numbers around and outside the doubles on the board, the novel has many protagonists. All of them (in third person but present tense) are offered a way of describing -- decoding, translating -- a myriad of events to which only the reader holds the master key. For this reason The Overnight is a novel of dramatic irony -- a perfect example of the same, I would contest -- every bit as much as it is a novel of Supernatural Horror. But the segments on a dartboard are fat arrows, all aiming in one direction: the bullseye. And the bullseye is the night on which the staff are shanghaied into working until the early morning, the better to prepare for some important business visitors from the States and for the hoped-for surge in Christmas purchasers.

So what's the problem? Aside from anything mentioned hitherto, of course, what's the problem?

The fog. The fog's the problem, and in many more ways than one. The worries that the fog might deter potential customers become secondary to the very real threat of what the fog might contain: long before what the fog envelopes shows (or doesn't show) its fact, there are clues which the staff, variously, either ignore or dwell upon; but the nexus of grave activity, my adjective here having been chosen carefully, is the Overnight.

Suggestion is a powerful force in The Overnight. That many of the rotating crew of sometimes self-unreliable narrators face their demons alone is important in its indication of a broken-down work ethic, human system, and an unglued camaraderie. But it is the element of suggestion at which Campbell exceeds. To wit:

'His shadow smears itself across the whitish door like another example of vandalism as he reaches for the metal handle. Whoever's in the cabin must be asleep to have allowed the radio to drift so far off the station. The misshapen voice sounds as though it's trying to force its words, if there is more than one, through mud ... To the right of the sink an open door reveals a toilet with an upright lid, which the dimness turns into an oval mask so primitive it's featureless. Two swivel chairs, one behind the other, face the entrance, but of course they didn't swing to greet his knock, nor did their occupants jump out of them to hide. If that's absurd, is the situation any less so? The cabin is deserted, and he can't see a radio.'

Long-term readers of Ramsey Campbell know, however, that there are sharper knives in his arsenal. The Overnight is certainly not for those (are there any anymore?) who live for gore, but the author does not shy away in this novel, or in others (an earlier image of a loving couple with their lips glued together springs to mind), from the inevitable spinekick. (Here I will expunge the relevant character's name, for the preservation of tension in the hopeful event that you read this book.)

'He struggles to believe he's mistaken, but the sight is just too clear to be illusory. There's no hollow around (the) head. His face is buried so deep in the soil that it covers his ears ... In desperation (he) thrusts his fingertips into the mud, squeezing it under his nails, and locates ... cheekbones. When he tugs at them (the) head wobbles up on its stiffening neck as the ground that was moulded to his face emits a slobbery gasp ... '

The Overnight is a mighty novel; a masterpiece, even. I loved it, and what's more the ending came as a genuine surprise.

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