There is another world, but it is in this one.

Paul Eluard. Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, Gallimard, 1968.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Swallow this: The Overnight by Ramsey Campbell (2004)



The Overnight is Ramsey Campbell’s hilarious and harrowing 2004 novel about the launch of a U.S.-based book superstore opening a branch near Manchester, UK.

The store is at a shopping center called Fenny Meadows, permanently fog-bound and built on land with a very dark history of rage and self-destructive violence going back half a millenia.

Wilf is one of my favorite characters.  He has overcome dyslexia to work at the store. But when he is put in charge of a reading ground hosting a mountebank author named Oates, and his former boyhood bully Slater also reappears, disaster strikes. He loses the ability to read.

 

Excerpt:

"Have they promoted you already?"

Wilf turns as slowly as he can, though it's childish to assume that will make Slater vanish. More than ever Slater's face resembles a moist translucent mask stuck on a wider lump of ruddy flesh. His mouth droops open as if encouraging Wilf to catch the joke or miming how cloddish he thinks Wilf is to miss it. "What do you mean?" Wilf almost manages not to ask.

"Looks like they've made you chairman."

He follows this with several times the mirth the joke deserves while he stands so close Wilf feels the laughter is being thrust in his face. He can't breathe until Slater has finished, by which point Wilf's mouth tastes clogged with fog. "Want to look something up for me?" Slater says then.

"You'll have to ask at Information. I'm busy here."

Slater lets his mouth fall open in such contemptuous disbelief that Wilf sets about rearranging the books on the table to prove him wrong. "That looks like the job for you all right," says Slater. "Shouldn't think even you could get those out of order."

"I thought you wanted information. This is where people are coming to hear an author talk."

"That's why I'm here. I was sure you'd be pleased I'm supporting your shop." Once he has left his mouth open for a while Slater adds "Your boss ought to be."

Wilf's hands have begun to tingle and draw into fists as his mouth turns sourer. He fumbles with the books, but his fingers are so unwieldy that one copy sprawls off the table onto the floor. When he retrieves it, the open pages are smeared with mud. It will have to go to Nigel as a damaged copy. Wilf is staring at Slater to place the blame when people start to converge on the chairs.

He would be grateful for the distraction if they weren't the writers' group he had to abandon. Before he can move away from Slater their spokeswoman, chosen or otherwise, marches over to him. Her grey hair is piled snakelike on top of her head, and she's wearing more colours than ever. "Have you made any sense of it?" she enquires.

"What can't he make sense out of now?" Slater is avid to hear.

"He has problems with the ending like the rest of us."

She has taken an instinctive dislike to Slater, who turns his retort on Wilf. "Got the rest of it though, did you?"

"I'd have said so."

"What's it all about, then?"

For once Wilf feels as if Slater's handing him punch lines. "You'll have to read it and decide for yourself." Wilf hesitates, but not long enough to resist saying "If you can."

"Don't you be giving anybody the idea I'm the one that can't read, Wiffle."

"You aren't suggesting this gentleman can't," the woman in the rainbow garb objects. "He wouldn't be working here."

Slater is only starting to dangle his lower jaw when she presents him with her considerable back. Wilf doesn't know what Slater might be capable of calling after her about him or telling him for everyone to hear if there weren't an interruption. Woody has returned quicker than Wilf could have expected the fog to allow anyone to be. "Buying that? Good for you," he says of the book in Wilf's hand.

Wilf is suddenly afraid that Slater will accuse him of damaging it, but Woody gives nobody a chance to speak. "Welcome to our first Fenny Meadows author appearance," he smiles as he clears a space on the table for six bottles of wine and a pillar of plastic cups. "Our famous guest will be with you momentarily," he says more jubilantly still, uncorking a red and a white. "Please have a drink on the store. That's everybody except staff."

He keeps his smile towards the gathering until he's well on his way to the staffroom, but Wilf wonders if he's concealing disappointment at the size of the audience. Two more people—a man in a creaky yellow oilskin jacket and a woman in denim, even her feet—join it, perhaps attracted by the wine. Most of the writers approach the table for Wilf to serve them too. Slater grabs the red and fills a cup almost to the brim for himself, then sits on the front row as Connie ushers Oates and his publicist onto the sales floor. The author halts at once and jabs an upturned hand at the audience as though testing for rain. "Are they it?"

"I think we may have to blame the fog," says Connie.

"Fog's fault, is it?" he says and stares at Fiona. "Not the publicity by any chance."

"We leafleted everywhere we could think of," Connie assures him.

A murmur passes through the audience, making Wilf nervous for her sake in case anyone mentions the misprint. Perhaps it sounds to Oates as though the audience is supporting her. "Don't I rate a chair?" he growls at Wilf.

As Wilf picks up the solitary unoccupied seat from the front row, Slater comments "You wouldn't expect him to know how to deal with a writer."

Wilf plants the chair behind the table and retreats to hide as much of his embarrassment on the back row as he can while Connie stands next to Oates. When she describes him as the author of one of the year's most talked-about novels he gives her a dissatisfied scowl and himself a second cupful of wine that earns a scowl too. "Are we pissed enough for this yet? Dunno if I am," he says once she has finished, and empties the last of the bottle into his cup. "I hear some of you didn't get my ending."

"Make that all," the rainbow woman says from the front row.

"Well," Connie just about protests at her back, but Oates ignores both of them. He opens a copy of Dressing Up, Dressing Down and then another, and props the latter up in front of him. "Let's test if you've room in your wee heads for this."

Wilf ought to be able to relax while being read to. No doubt Woody is addressing the rest of the afternoon shift, even if that should be Nigel's job. Surely Woody isn't spying on the sales floor from his office, and so Wilf has no reason to feel observed while hearing how a Victorian detective takes his clothes off to reveal he's a jewel thief who removes hers and proves to be an army sergeant, except that beneath her uniform she's a chanteuse who is really a detective or rather, once stripped, simply a naked man at a computer in a room overlooking Edinburgh. He lifts his gaze to his audience—he does, and so does Oates, if there's any difference—and indicates the various costumes. "Your turn now," he says. "Your choice. Try it on."

He feeds himself more wine before Wilf can judge from his expression whether the last phrase is intended as a joke and if so on whom. When the writers start to mutter, Wilf takes them to be sharing his suspicion until the rainbow woman gives them more of a voice. "That's not what it says in the book."

"It is in this one."

She elevates her eyebrows until they resemble quotation marks framing a silent question. As Oates busies himself with uncorking another bottle of red wine, she asks almost loud enough to be heard upstairs "Are you telling us there's more than one ending?"

"Different final pages, aye. The rest of the book won't show you which you've got. It's my belief you shouldn't know where you're bound till you arrive, any more than I did. I expect you agree, being writers."

"Sounds more like you want to make people buy two copies."

"Wouldn't you?"

She's gazing at him as though she doesn't care for either meaning of his query when Slater peers over his shoulder at Wilf. "Which one have you got?"

"I couldn't tell you offhand."

"I'd be interested to hear," Oates says, draining his cup to make room for a refill. "Which is it?"

Wilf feels as though the author is siding with Slater against him. He glances at the last page of the damaged copy and shuts the book. "The one you just read to us."

"I've never seen you read that fast or anything like," Slater objects. "Are you sure you did?"

"Of course he did," says Connie, and turns a puzzled smile to Wilf. "What's this about?"

"Go on, Lowell, you show us. Show us all how you read."

What's making him behave this way? Wilf wouldn't have believed he could at his age. He has a suffocating impression that by reverting Slater is forcing him to return to childhood too. He wills Connie to confront his tormentor, but she only looks bemused. "Nobody's come to hear me," Wilf succeeds in protesting. "I'm not the author."

"Maybe the author would like to hear one of his readers do it," Slater says.

"Now you mention it, I might," says Oates, raising his half-empty cup to encourage Wilf. "Go on, do me the favour. Let's hear what it means to you."

Some of the writers, not to mention the denimed woman and the oilskinned man, are staring at Wilf by now, the rainbow woman hardest of all. It feels exactly like being forced to stand up in class, though he's crouching over the book as though it's a pain in his knotted guts. Are they the source of the unpleasant stagnant taste? As he lowers his eyes to the novel he finds himself praying that it will somehow offer him a refuge. He glares at the last page and tries to free himself from the sight of it by speaking. "I told you," he says, and as clearly as he's able "Your turn now. Your choice. Try it on."

"That isn't the whole page, is it?" When Oates shakes his head so vigorously his jowls have trouble catching up, Slater says "You could have memorised that, Lowell. Give us the rest."

It's only because Wilf can't face the spectators that his gaze is dragged down to the page. The prospect is worse than ever. The paper is strewn with black marks, bunches of symbols that he tells himself are letters without being capable of naming even one. Isn't e the commonest? Perhaps if he spots which mark occurs most often, that will unlock his recognition of the others, the way cryptographers break codes—but he's still counting frantically under his breath when Connie says "I really think I need to know what's going on."

"Let's see," says Slater, and sits next to Wilf before he can think of shutting the book. "Thought as much. Will you tell her, Lowell, or shall I?"

His mouth sags wide as if this is his best joke, and Wilf can think of only one response. "I'm buying this," he informs whoever ought to know as he rips a handful of pages out of the novel and stuffs them in Slater's mouth.

He wishes he'd thought of such a retort years ago, but it's worth having waited to see his enemy's eyes bulge with shock. Either that or Wilf's vehemence sends Slater over backwards. As he and the chair thump the floor Wilf follows him down and kneels on his chest. "Want the rest?" Wilf enquires with a smile he thinks Woody might be proud of. "My pleasure. Swallow this."

He's surrounded by noises—gasps from women, Connie repeating his name increasingly loud and sharp, the men in the armchairs grunting with laughter or approval—but he's mostly aware of a choked sodden mumble, Slater's stopped-up words. He has even less to say for himself now than Wilf used to have in class, which is so satisfying that Wilf doesn't immediately relent when Woody's voice rushes out of the staffroom exit. "Stop that," he shouts more than once on the way to stooping close enough to confront Wilf with saliva glistening within his smile. "Enough," Woody urges. "Enough."

Wilf thinks there might be room for another chapter in Slater's mouth, but there's no doubt he has made his point. He leaves the remains of the novel spread-eagled on Slater's chest and levers himself to his feet by propping his fists on his enemy's shoulders. As Slater lurches off the floor less gracefully than a drunk and flounders about in search of somewhere to eject the contents of his mouth, Woody gives Wilf another close view of his teeth. "Wait in my office."

All at once Wilf's legs feel flabby and unstable, as though whatever drove him has drained away through them, leaving his skull hollow above a stale taste. He reminds himself that Slater's mouth will be flavoured with paper and ink, a notion that helps him walk almost steadily to the exit to the staffroom. As it decides his badge is valid he sees Connie pass Slater the Frugo bag that contained the wine. Some of the women emit maternal noises while he spits extravagantly into the bag, and some cast Wilf out with their eyes until the door shuts behind him….

 

 

 

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