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The Overnight

Ramsey Campbell
Tor. 400p. $24.95
ISBN: 0755312999
(April 2005, US; PS Publishing UK, May 2004)


What could be more innocuous than a bookstore? Modern chain stores are designed to exude a safe welcoming feeling for the customer. They are a safe haven for the reader--aren't they? How creepy can a modern shopping complex get anyway? The masterful Ramsey Campbell can make it quite creepy, thank you, and he also turns the cozy embrace of a clean, well-lighted book emporium into a place of terror.

book cover Perhaps, as a booklover who got her wish of receiving plenty of free books only to realize that such largesse becomes a problem in itself and thus occasionally feels threatened by stacks of tomes, I can identify more closely than most with The Overnight. And, too, like Campbell, I sojourned briefly at a Borders bookstore. But I'm sure that even if books have never been anything but your friends and bookstores only benign, you'll still be rewarded with this delightfully disturbing novel. Campbell combines wickedly insightful wit, a wise understanding of human nature, awesome prose, a rich evocation atmosphere of fear, and, well, retail experience to create yet another modern masterpiece.

Right. The man seems to write masterpieces as easily and frequently as a politician lies. Adding to that achievement is his ability to write, at least lately, entirely different "sorts" of books each time. No one, with the exception of Peter Straub, evolves his horror so readily or so well.

The Overnight is also an extremely accessible novel, a true "page-turner," and would serve as an excellent vehicle to attract the masses. In fact, of all Campbell's novels in the last ten years, this one could stock the mass market bins just as well as it pleases elitist horror snobs like me. Not only does The Overnight succeed as horror, it's a sublime satire of the modern workplace.

The plot centers on Texts, a newly opened, Borders-like American chain store in the not-yet-completed Fenny Meadows Retail Park on a highway between Manchester and Liverpool. For Woody Blake, the store's American boss, it's a chance to prove himself in his first position as a branch manager. His staff is competent, but like any group of diverse personalities in an intense work environment, there are small irritations and minor disagreements. Woody's gung-ho, team spirit retail attitude --"Everything's good or we wouldn't sell it." -- would be annoying in a U.S. store, in England it is even more so.

Campbell deftly shifts the point of view from one character to another with each chapter. As we get to know the employees we also become aware of small incidents that, in isolation, are meaningless. Together they are ominous and eerie. Only the reader, of course, gets all the data -- the odd draft, the disordered, damaged, and often grimy books, fogged videos, a constant feeling of being watched, clammy walls, an elevator (or, rather, lift) with a mind of its own, a blur here, a computer glitch there. Only the perpetual fog outside that never seems to dissipate is obvious to all.

Nothing much is right, although nothing seems hugely wrong until Woody gets the first month's numbers: the Fenny Meadows Text is setting new records for nonperformance and the big guns are heading over from New York in less than two weeks. Woody decides the answer is to push even harder and to have everyone work all night before the inspection to make sure everything is in tip-top shape.

One of the employees is run down in the parking lot but Woody's only real concern is the store. Wilf, a former dyslexic who is now a voracious reader, loses his beloved ability to read. A perfectly copyedited store flyer keeps turning up with an embarrassing a mistake in each batch printed. A reading group and author's signing go spectacularly awry. A local author hints that Fenny Meadows has a peculiar history.

Each of the thirteen (hmmm...) employees -- Agnes, Angus, Connie, Gavin, Greg, Jake, Jill, Lorraine, Madeleine, Nigel, Ray, Ross, Wilf -- are distinct right down to their individual modes of transportation. At the same time, they realistically match the "type" of individuals who work in such stores whether it is located in Cheshire or Ohio. Campbell plays them both in ensemble and in isolation as what should be small problems grow large, relationships lose the veneer of politeness, normal conversations begin to drip venom, prejudices become more pronounced, the overnight looms like Doomsday, and everyone is expected to smile, smile, smile. Chapters overlap one another, layering viewpoints, impelling the action, and the reader becomes almost another character in The Overnight -- mute, unable to scream out a warning, brimming with dread, certain that nothing will turn out right in the end, but still hoping it will.

What's behind all the nasty goings-on? Campbell makes it plain by the end, although he wastes no exposition on explanation. Whether The Overnight is an extremely well done variation on a standard supernatural trope or something else is a question I'm still debating with myself. Not that it matters. What does matter is that Ramsey Campbell, for all his previous accolades and acclaim as a master of horror, is a writer very much in his prime. The Overnight is not only another dark jewel in his uncanny crown, it is one of its most wondrous gems. (from Cemetery Dance #52)

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Other novels by Ramsey Campbell reviewed on DarkEcho:
»» Darkest Part of the Woods by Ramsey Campbell
»» Ghosts And Grisly Things by Ramsey Campbell
»» Nazareth Hill by Ramsey Campbell
»» Pact of the Fathers by Ramsey Campbell
»» Silent Children by Ramsey Campbell