'I know, we'll play Simon's favourite,' says my mother. 'Hide and seek.'
They never found me in the wardrobe, and nobody's going to now. If I back into the corner I can still hold onto the half of the door that opens. If anybody should look inside they won't see me in the gloom. I thought I'd cleared everything into the suitcase, but an item is hanging up behind me. I must have overlooked it from exhaustion. It's an old coat padded fat with paper or mothballs. Perhaps I should use it for extra concealment. Keeping hold of the door, I reach for the hanger to inch the coat along the rail. There's no sign of a hanger, but my fingers touch a yielding mass within the collar. I'm able to believe it's a bag of mothballs until I feel the soft swollen chin above the flabby neck. My fingers scrabble in helpless panic at the thick lips that frame the bared teeth…
The Grin of the Dark by Ramsey Campbell (2007).
Ramsey Campbell's 2007 novel The Grin of the Dark achieves the acme of disorientation, heaping hallucinatory levels of paranoia and persecution on its hero. And the reader.
When Campbell writes, in this book, "Once the net catches you it can reprogram your mind, reconfiggure [sic] it in its own immage [sic]...." I can only add: reading Ramsey Campbell can do that, too.
Narrator Simon Lester, researching the career of censored silent film performer Tubby Thackeray, becomes infected - or infested? - by the evil and insanity portrayed in Tubby's films.
In California, Lester gets a chance to watch the long-suppressed classics:
Tubby's Tremendous Teeth is one of his less unsettling films.
We first see him in the street, where people are startled by the sight of him. A shopgirl falls backwards into a display of hats on grinning heads. A billsticker topples off his ladder and ends up wrapped in a section of a film poster – an image of a mirthful mouth that appears to be consuming him. Passers-by dodge into the traffic to avoid Tubby, so that by the time he arrives at the dentist's he has left a trail of pile-ups. The cause of all this is his fixed grin, an extreme version of the one I've seen elsewhere. It's so relentlessly wide that the teeth look close to bursting out of his mouth. The more desperately he points at it, the harder the dentist's receptionist laughs, but I wonder if audiences would have. Presumably the intertitles are meant to convey his struggle to make himself understood, but I'm not sure if they're simply nonsense; none of them is onscreen quite long enough. At last the receptionist regains enough control to summon the dentist, who is played by Tubby too. I suppose this is designed to render the treatment more comical, but as he pulls tooth after random tooth and shies them in all directions I'm preoccupied with how the stand-in's face may look. Eventually the patient makes his escape, pursued by the dentist with a pair of pliers in each hand. In the street everyone falls about with laughter at the spectacle of Tubby's new grin, the product of just three teeth. As the next patient takes the chair we see that the dentist has acquired Tubby's previous expression. The final shot is of teeth flying in handfuls out of the surgery window. The film was banned in Britain.
While I'm no friend of censorship, the decision is hardly startling. Orville Hart's camera is only as static as most of them were in those days, but it seems transfixed by the outrages it's photographing in takes that often feel a little too prolonged for comfort, as if the style is meant to force the audience to respond. By contrast, we're given barely a glimpse of the manual the dentist consults before starting work on the other Tubby. I think the text is a version of the intertitles, but what kind of a joke is this supposed to be?
More fundamentally, how could the man who dominates virtually every shot have been a lecturer? Laughter distracts me from the question. Someone in the projection room continues giggling at the final sight of the dentist even after the screen turns blank. Is it one of Willie's girls? Surely she wouldn't have come naked into the desert. I don't know whether I would welcome her or her friend in the miniature auditorium, but nobody has joined me when a second film takes the screen. It's Tubby's Telepathic Tricks, another banned film.
It contains much to offend the censor, beginning with the book that librarian Tubby finds in a dusty stack. Old Tricks, it's called, but its elaborate binding and metal hinges suggest the occult. I have time to read just a single group of letters on the pages he consults: IC-HA, which could be a hiccup followed by a laugh. He returns the book to the shelf and puts a finger to his wicked grin, which sets off a shrill giggle behind me. A face is peering through the glass in front of the dormant projector. Guillermo's features look transformed by merriment, especially his expanded mouth.
I find his presence oppressive, together with the closeness of the screen and the insistent pulsation of the generator. Tubby is at the library counter. Whenever he serves a member of the increasingly respectable public, he turns to the camera with a grin that indicates the kind of thoughts he's reading. Guillermo greets each of these shots with mirth that sounds as if he's dubbing Tubby. Before long Tubby discovers that he can project his thoughts, and we're treated to a series of vignettes in which he pretends to perform some task while a reader enacts his fantasies in the background. A fan of Westerns gallops a woman up and down the aisles of shelves, a borrower of romances seizes anyone who strays within reach and presents them with kisses I would have thought too passionate for silent comedy, two amateur historians duel with umbrellas that their violence soon leaves skeletal, two priests hit each other repeatedly over the head with larger and larger Bibles... The head librarian attempts to intervene, only for the staff to build a ziggurat of books and lower her, struggling helplessly, from a balcony to perch on top. As Tubby emerges from the library, grinning to signify that he's taking his havoc further, an avalanche of books collapses in his wake.
An academic might find this anarchy exhilarating in contrast to his previous career, but is it funny? Guillermo thinks so, and carries on giggling after the screen turns abruptly blank. I would interview him about his reactions if there was any chance of obtaining a response. I continue scribbling observations in the brief interlude before the screen is filled with Tubby's Tinseled Tree.
This time he's employed as a workman to erect a Christmas tree in a town square. First he plays with the decorations, sitting a fairy doll on his knee and quaking like Santa Claus with such silent jollity it shakes the doll to bits, then sporting a tinsel halo until the mayor and a priest frown at him. He consults a manual – ER, ER, ER, ER, ER appears to be the whole of the text, and certainly all that I have a chance to distinguish – and sets about winching the tree upright, with results even more disastrous than his grin at the audience promises. To begin with he manages to impale the mayor on the tip of the trunk – presumably his robe is caught, though it's possible to think he's more intimately skewered – and once the mayor has been dumped sprawling in the snow it's the priest's turn to be elevated, waving all his limbs like a pinned insect. When at last he's rudely returned to earth Tubby succeeds in erecting the tree, only for the dignitaries to notice that the fairy is missing from the top. Tubby reconstructs the figure with its head facing backwards and swaps a leg for an arm, and then he sticks its wings between his shoulders to help him swarm up the tree. He perches on the topmost branch while he fits the fairy to the apex, ramming the doll down with such glee that nobody could mistake where the spiky tip has been inserted. Up to this point I wondered why this film was also banned in Britain, but now I'm surprised it was released anywhere in this form. Tubby balances on the branch and transfers his angelic wings to the doll. The meaning of his complicit grin becomes clear as the tree topples under his weight, which has somehow been renewed. His grin widens as he rides the tree down to the sound of Guillermo's mirth, but I'm no less shocked than contemporary audiences must have been to see where Tubby's bound. His head smashes through the back of a nativity tableau, and his face appears above the occupants of the stable like a manifestation of some older and more savage god. In his struggles to extricate himself he pokes his hands through the backdrop, and the sacred manikins jig about as if he's their puppeteer. As the incensed personages converge on him he wrenches himself free, but seems to have left his head behind. He prances away like a decapitated fowl and doesn't sprout his mocking head until he reaches the edge of the square. His pursuers chase him into a park, to be confronted by a row of snowmen, of which the middle figure bears his delighted face. Once the unobservant men are past he skips after them. We have to assume he's capable of making no sound in the snow, like all the snowmen shambling on either side of him.
What effect is this payoff meant to have on the audience? They might dream about it later, but surely few would be amused. I hardly know what I'm scribbling on the clipboard. Guillermo is giggling so wildly that I'm surprised he can work the projectors, but the film has scarcely run out when Tubby's Troublesome Trousers takes its place on the screen.
This time he's the manager of a men's outfitter's overrun by mice. We first see him counting more than a dozen that have been trapped in cages in a storeroom. Are the intertitles meant to convey his mental state? 'Enelve, elvwet, teenirth,' he counts before a harassed assistant seeks help. A pompous customer is causing a scene because the trousers of his new suit are too loose. Tubby fetches them from the changing-room and turns his grin on the audience as he buttons a mouse into the back pocket. The customer expresses satisfaction with the fit and struts out of T. Thackeray Tailor. He's streets away when he begins to jump and jerk and lurch, overturning displays outside shops.
Why don't I find the film as innocent as the makers might have liked it to appear? Not just because the glimpse of a pamphlet Tubby drops in the first scene – instructions for the mousetraps – seems not quite nonsensical enough. FORM, TO KE, T WIT, PROP: I don't know why the fragments of language strike me as mocking. For the rest of the two-reeler Tubby and his staff deal with a succession of obnoxious customers: a mayor, a priest, a judge. Each of them departs with a mouse in his trousers and adds to the chaos in the streets. By the end the entire town is a riot that outdoes anything I've previously seen in a slapstick film.
Although some of it is funny, I'm not sure that's the point. Several Laurel and Hardy films reach similar climaxes, and in Liberty Stan dons Ollie's trousers without noticing that a crab has slipped into them, but there's the point: it's a mistake, whereas in Tubby's film the mice are deliberately planted and we're invited to be accessories to the prank. Throughout the film he and his staff grin more and more widely at the audience and at one another. Silent laughter seems to be their primary mode of communication – at least, it's silent except for Guillermo's version and the relentless pulsing, which feels muffled less by the wall behind the screen than by my skull. It could almost be my brain that's throbbing rather than the generator. At last the customers deduce that Tubby is the author of their troubles and prance back to the shop. He makes his escape by releasing the rest of the mice, which cause such panic that the judge leaps on the mayor's shoulders, only for the priest to spring onto his. While they totter in the background as if they're auditioning for a circus, Tubby gives the audience his hugest grin.
As his pale luminous face fills my vision I make the link I was searching for earlier. He dodges offscreen, and the image turns black as the human tower begins to topple into the rioting crowd. My eyes superimpose an after-image of his face, especially his rampant grin, over THE END. I could imagine that it's deriding my notion of how a professor became this performer, and why. Perhaps the films are designed to instruct. Perhaps they're meant as demonstrations.
Campbell visits upon Lester travails that would make Job blink: warring with an IMDB troll; sparring with the appalling parents of his girlfriend; waking up broke in Amsterdam after the jet-lagged fever-dream of a porn ranch in California.
Tubby Thackeray was more than a silent film clown. A medievalist, he began by studying the Festival of Fools, then became its avatar.
The Grin of the Dark is the most intensely unbearable and gripping Campbell novel I have read. It is, to borrow a phrase from Saki, a total "unrest cure."
Completing it tonight, I am in need of pierce - I mean peace!
But the full moon through the bedroom window swells to fill the frame like a fat clown's laughing face…
Credo in nihil
2 March 2018