The Overnight (2004) by Ramsey Campbell
The Overnight is an ambitious novel. It has dozens of characters and takes place in a bookstore called Texts, located in a fog-bound shopping center between Liverpool and Manchester. It's not just any bookstore, either. Texts is the big-box flagship of a huge U.S. retailer setting its sights on the Old World.
Campbell has a great time juxtaposing U.S. "team" management versus the personal lives and limitations of store employees.
Frustrations flow constantly from misunderstandings, competing priorities, and underlying confusions. It does not help that the Fenny Meadows shopping center was built on land already owned lock, stock, and barrel by the kind of things that once guarded the treasure of Abbot Thomas.
Weird icons appear on computer screens, aisles of books are damaged and disarranged, and one employee is killed by a car in the parking lot. Concert videos get returned by customers because other imagery appears on them. Texts employee Gavin takes a couple of the returned tapes home to check them out:
[Gavin] lets himself into his flat beyond the senile porch and drops the videotapes on his parents' old sofa on the way to tossing his coat on the bed across the room. He holds up the rickety toilet seat with one hand while he directs himself with the other, then leaves the bathroom for the even smaller kitchen to discover what he left himself for breakfast. There aren't too many pimples in half a carton of milk, and it isn't so sour that he's unable to use it to wash down the cold remains of last night's second hamburger. He dumps the carton in the pedal bin and the plate in the sink, and shoves Cuddly Murderers into the video recorder before he lands on the quarter of the sofa that isn't occupied by clothes or compact discs or magazines or books.
Cuddly Murderers dance onto the stage like forks of lightning, and the forest of an audience starts to sway as though it has been caught by a wind. The band launches into screaming "My Sweet Uzi", but they're less than halfway through the song when the screen turns grey and swallows them. They're replaced by a film of two gangs of men in armour fighting, and then some more wearing another kind in combat with a group clad in none. Gavin speeds them up, only to have to watch a further mob dressed in nothing much clubbing one another to the earth. He wouldn't even call this a battle; it's a contest for who'll be left alive. Eventually a single hulking figure survives to be raised high on some kind of triumphal platform, though not for long while Gavin's pressing the fast-forward button. Then a crowd of squat shapes hold one of their number down on a mound and slash at her with a knife or a sharp stone. What kind of film is this supposed to be? Was someone copying a video of death scenes and did they put the Cuddly Murderers tape in the machine by mistake? The victim swiftly twitches her last and vanishes into renewed greyness. Gavin keeps speeding the tape, but when five minutes' worth has shown him nothing more he lurches off the sofa to substitute Pillar of Flesh.
As the spotlight finds Pierre Peter onstage he begins to sing "Seeds Like A Pumpkin" while the audience finishes cheering and whistling. Another light settles on Riccardo Dick, but no sooner does he start his guitar riff than the image shivers, letting greyness in. The concert has been ousted by a blurred monochrome film or one so poorly copied it has turned black and white. Gavin is reaching for the control, though he feels as if he's trying to move while struggling to awaken, when he sees what else is wrong. More accurately, it's the same thing: it's the same film.
He races through the battle footage before his grasp slackens on the control. Why would anybody want to copy this material over a second tape they'd bought? He opens the cassette boxes to peer at the name on the Return slips. He squeezes his eyes shut and stretches them wide and looks again. The tapes were bought by different customers, one from Liverpool, one from Manchester.
He feels incapable of understanding what this could imply until he has been to sleep. He might as well be dreaming the images on the screen; he can't judge whether the savages clubbing one another are bathed in gore or mud. Now that the tape isn't speeded up he sees that the victor is elevated by an object like a huge rudimentary limb. Having brandished him, it plunges him into the earth or the fog, whichever it sprouted from, perhaps both. The screen is overwhelmed by grey before it shows what happened next, or was it earlier? The stunted shapes dragging their victim to the mound that appears to form itself out of the mud look even more primitive than the combatants did, and the object they use to open her up is worse than crude, hardly even sharp. When at last she stops writhing and silently screaming, does Gavin really see the mound sink into the earth and bear her gaping corpse with it? Fog or blankness engulfs everything, and the featureless tape continues to run until he fumbles to switch it off. Perhaps he'll watch it again later, but just now he has no idea how much he may have only imagined he saw. Nevertheless as he pulls off his clothes and trips over his trouser cuffs as he flounders towards the bed, he tries to hold onto an impression that he has been given the answer to something he was recently asked. Once he has slept, perhaps he'll be able to remember both.
Disorienting events and inter-staff hatred increase as a tour by Texts U.S. owners approaches. During mandatory overnight stocking before the visit, the manager gets trapped in his office, the power fails, and another worker gets stuck in the store's elevator.
Assistant Manager Ross heads out into the fog-bound landscape to find a phone to call for help:
All the same, he wouldn't have minded some company. If Greg had kept his mouth shut for once, Ross might have had Jake. Still, no doubt Jake would be anticipating aloud what may lie ahead. Ross concentrates on walking fast, not giving himself an instant to think of a reason to falter. His footsteps sound isolated and shrunken to childishness by the silence, which is as oppressively pervasive as the fog. Even when he remembers that the motorway is closed, that doesn't make the silence seem any less unnatural, though since the retail park is artificial, isn't black silence closer to its natural state? He feels as if each of his breaths is gathering fog to lie stagnant in his lungs and seep into his brain. Under the floodlights that are fattened like cocoons restless with eagerness to hatch, the glaring murk drags itself over the deserted pavement and the tarmac bare of vehicles and peels itself reluctantly away from the shopfronts. Posters in the window of Happy Holidays remind him of a dozen or more places he would rather be, although he thinks several of the handwritten destinations are misspelled, or is he too tired to recognise how they should be spelled, or both? In TVid someone has left the televisions on, presumably tuned to a sports channel, since they all show people fighting, figures so blurred and unstable they appear to be sinking or melting into the darkness behind or below them. In Teenstuff the air-conditioning must be on; flimsy clothes shift in the dimness as though at least one intruder is crawling behind them, unless the intruders are too small to need to go on all fours. He even fancies he sees a head, or rather less than one, writhe into view from the neck of a bellying dress on a hanger. He hastens past that and the sight of far too many identical cloth faces staring glassy-eyed out of Baby Bunting, but his speed does him no good. He's left with the impression that among the dolls he glimpsed a face pressed as flush as the underside of a snail against the pane; he also imagines he saw its flattened grey blobs of eyes move, smearing the glass, to watch him. When he twists around, of course he can locate nothing of the kind, and surely the glistening vertical trail down the pane must be condensation. Now he's alongside Stay in Touch, where any number of mobile phones on stands blink nervously in the dark. He has no idea what has set them off, but he's assailed by the notion that they all have the same message for him: perhaps that if he owned a mobile he could have made the call without venturing so far, or might it be information he would welcome even less? Walking faster only brings him to the unoccupied section, where the words scrawled on the boards over the shopfronts have abandoned all resemblance to language; trails of moisture have distorted them and the crude figures that accompany them so much that they suggest first attempts at writing and drawing by a mind too elementary to be called childish. All this is beginning to make him feel as though Fenny Meadows has reverted to a state worse than primitive, an era before there was anything worth describing as intelligence in the world. He finds he's grateful beyond words to hear a voice.
Ross will not have long to wait before he hears a voice. He won't like it.
Among many other achievements (and as a testament to its author's power) The Overnight has reawakened my own bookstore employee PTSD. In 1988-1989 I worked for SBX in Columbus, Ohio. In 1992 I lasted one week at Half Price Books (also in Columbus) before being fired. Bookstores are no place for adults with undiagnosed and untreated HFA.
Ramsey Campbell has dredged up some truly horrifying memories out of the ooze, bless him!
27 February 2018