In the last thirty years I purchased and read every short story collection published by Ramsey Campbell. His characters, each in the cell of themselves (pace Auden), thwarted by their own conclusions and the actions of others, die-away like doomed protagonists out of tales by Hardy or Maugham or Waugh.
Campbell's skills are well-displayed in short fiction: adumbrative, smothering freak-puts that end just before the culmination of personal disaster.
The many novels Campbell has produced are a real challenge for me. To date I have only read Ancient Images and the novella The Last Revelation of Glaaki. One reason might be expressed this way: the stories are brilliantly unbearable and unnerving; I'm not sure I could tough it out over a longer work. Another reason: Campbell's stylistic choices often push me away from the narrative; the prospect of reading an entire novel in present tense, for instance, makes me slightly light-headed.
Recently, I came by a copy of Campbell's 2015 novel Thirteen Days By Sunset Beach. The story takes place in Greece. I particularly enjoyed the Greek chapters in Simon Raven's Doctors Wear Scarlet when I read it in June, so I decided to take the plunge.
Thirteen Days By Sunset Beach begins in media res with a vengeance:
The First Day: 20 August
"Don't joke about it, Ray. I gave you my passport before we got on the plane."
"Sandra, I'm not joking." Once he might have, but no longer. "You didn't give it me," he said, "the last time we had to show them."
When he reached for her capacious tapestry shoulder-bag she swung it and herself away from him. "Just let me have a chance to see."
Beyond her all three queues for the immigration desks were shrinking fast, but he managed not to urge her to be quick, even when she searched the bag a second time.
"See, it isn't here," she said, surely not in triumph. "You must have it, Ray."
"I promise you I haven't," he protested, digging in the bag he'd used for carrying his laptop when he had one, and fished out the travel wallet that the agency provided.
"You know I always keep them in here. There's just mine, look."
"Don't say we've left it on the plane."
And the anxiety bordering on panic proceeds like that for the next 200 pages.
(The most we ever get to know of the appearance of Ray is that he is old and heavy: I enjoyed imagining Arthur Lowe in the part.)
Campbell builds up our understanding of the characters not through physical description or flashbacks, but dialogue. Ray, over whose shoulder we observe the entire novel, will sometimes say too much, or not enough, or not listen closely. (Indeed, Thirteen Days By Sunset Beach could almost be a fable on not listening carefully enough to strangers.)
Ray and Sandra Thornton have arrived on the Greek island of Vasilema, where they and their children and grandchildren are spending thirteen days in Teleftaiafos, just next to Sunset Beach, which has a reputation akin to Sodom and Gomorrah.
The adult children:
Doug: married to Pri, their teenage son is Tim.
Natalie: married to Julian. They have a 5 year old, William. Natalie has a teenage daughter, Jonquil, from a previous marriage.
It took me a hundred pages to figure out the above names and interrelations, so I advise you to copy that dramatic personae into the endpapers of your copy.
Vasilema's population treat the Thorntons in a reticent way, though half understood talks always seem to suggest a warning that the tourists miss. Campbell is always at his best when protagonists run up against the limits of language and vocabulary, and he has a field day here.
The island's patron is Saint Titus. His image appears everywhere, but always close to thriving spider webs. Shadows around alleys and the beach at dusk are filled with improbable figures and shifting shadows.
Ray's attempt to check a beach cave for safety before letting the grandkids enter is pure Campbell:
....While the waves had chilled his feet, he wasn't prepared for how cold an immersion would be. An icy ache raced up his legs and seemed to clench around his stomach. Wasn't this enough to warn William against? But the boy and the rest of them could well be used to the temperature of the sea by now, which meant just Ray was weak. The toes of his sandals scrabbled at the submerged wall, and he couldn't judge how deep the water might be. He bruised his fingers on the ridge as he lowered himself, not fast but excessively fast. When the water clamped his hips he felt his penis shrivel, and his gasp echoed through the cave. He twisted around in a flurry of water to see if he'd alarmed anyone, only to find that the bend had already blocked his view out of the cave. All the dim light came from reflections on the nervous waves. The loss of his family—even of the sight of them—disconcerted him so much that he didn't immediately grasp that his feet had found the cave floor.
It felt no more secure to walk on than the ridge had. Ray kept one hand on the ridge as he ventured forward until the arm was submerged up to the wrist, forcing him to stoop sideways, and then he groped for handholds higher up the wall. The ripples he was making surrounded him with echoes that seemed to render distance audible—the remoteness of the beach. Just enough light reached around the bend to let him make out some of the way ahead.
Beyond the bend the cave grew several times as wide and extended further than he could be sure of. Traces of light almost too feeble for the name fluttered under the roof, and some faint illumination must be reaching the far end of the cavern, if that was the end. Certainly Ray thought he saw movement there, an extensive whitish glimpse that immediately withdrew into the dark. A high-pitched giggle distracted him, a sound that seemed more senile than he wanted ever to be, but of course it was one of the watery echoes that were lending the cave a kind of life. As his vision started to cope with the dark he became aware of a pale shape in the water to his left, against the wall he was following. It was a tangle of vegetation, which meant he needn't have recoiled, sending dim ripples into the cave. While the clump of pallid weeds did resemble the top half of a scrawny figure with its hands raised, it was stirring only with the movement of the water. As it bobbed up and down it put him in mind of somebody eager to catch a ball, and he wondered how it would look to William.
He had a feeling that Natalie and Julian mightn't like the similarity. Perhaps even William wouldn't if it or his parents made him nervous. His grandfather was meant to be seeing the place was safe, and Ray supposed this ought to include establishing exactly what the object was. Sliding his hand along the rough wall, he shuffled inch by inch through the dark water.
He was advancing into blackness. Such illumination as there was—more like a memory of light than any aid to seeing—fell short of this stretch of the wall. He could have used the flashlight on his mobile, but however waterproof the phone was claimed to be, he didn't want to test that more than was essential. He groped along the wall and edged his feet over slippery submerged rock. Seaweed fingered his shivering legs, and once a pebbly protrusion sprouted limbs beneath his hand before scuttling down the wall to plop into the water. The object he was trying to discern kept nodding what would have been its head as though to encourage his approach. He'd inched within a few yards of it, and was starting to marvel at how nearly human its shape remained even at this distance, when it spoke his name....
Ray’s son-in-law Julian is soon on hand to scramble any hope Ray has of piecing together the cave experience. (Indeed, Julian plays that role at several points in the action: an ugly Brit abroad if ever there was one.)
But the figure of the drowned man seems to reappear the next morning, and more members of the family than just Ray have had an uneasy night.
....Ray thought that Sandra was standing by the bed, and then he recognised the corpse from the cave. It was leaning towards her, and he took it to be weeping for her until he saw it was blind, not to mention far from tearful. The bulging white eyes were cocoons from which spiders streamed down the loose withered cheeks. At least Ray was able to realise it was a dream, and now he grasped that the visitor wasn't the carcass he'd found but some other creature animated by a parody of life. For some reason this disturbed him more, and it took him far too long to struggle awake.
The room was grey with dawn. Sandra was lying beside him, resting her head on one arm on the thin pillow. In the dim light he could just distinguish the mark on her upturned neck. Was that how she'd lain in his dream? He didn't know why it seemed important to remember. He slipped an arm around her waist and then inched his hand over her ribs as though groping for her breath. When he felt her chest rise and fall he managed to relax before his embrace could waken her. He ought to let her rest—stay peaceful while she had the chance—though he had to fend off the phrase his thoughts suggested. For a while he watched her shape grow almost imperceptibly brighter as the light in the room became less subdued, and then he edged out of bed.
When he emerged from the bathroom Sandra still wasn't awake. He needn't rouse her, since over dinner everyone had agreed to spend today on the beach by the Sunny View. He was on the balcony, watching small waves snatch at the sunlight, when he heard William protesting down below. Once the boy raised his voice Ray was able to make out the words "I thought he came to see Jonquil."
"You were dreaming, William."
"No call to be so fierce about it, Jonquil," Julian said. "We know it had to be a dream."
"So long as he does."
A day trip to the catacombs beneath an abandoned monastery gives Ray another sight he forces himself to dismiss:
.... Ray stood aside for Pris before trailing her and Doug up the corridor. Her flashlight beam snagged on the entrance to each cell, releasing a shadow that fled into its lair. Shadows swarmed away like vermin from the debris in the largest space, and at last the beam reached the foot of the steps, up which Natalie was urging William after Julian. As Pris began to climb, Ray switched on his own flashlight for a last look along the corridor. He hadn't turned when he heard movement behind him—the restlessness he'd heard earlier. He swung around to see a shape emerging from the furthest cell.
The legs came first—eight of them creeping around the far edge of the entrance to the cell. In a moment, though by no means a reassuring one, Ray saw they weren't legs at all; they were scrawny fingers clutching at the rock. As he struggled to breathe they brought their owner forth into the corridor. It was bent low with age or stealth, and entirely bald. Although it was naked, the whitish body was so withered that he couldn't guess at its sex. It twisted its thin head towards the light, and Ray glimpsed a face like a flimsy paper mask moulded to a skull. Were the eyes as entirely black as the rock? Even so, they gleamed with a life so fierce that it seemed to be concentrated in them, draining the ribbed torso of substance, shrivelling the crippled limbs. It bared its teeth at the light and stayed in its spidery crouch as it scuttled on all fours to the steps beyond the corridor. Before Ray could suck in a laboured breath it vanished into the dark.
He staggered around to find he was alone in the corridor. Even the other lights were no longer to be seen. He was shivering from head to foot, and not just with the underground chill. As he fought to recapture enough breath to call out or to set about climbing the steps he heard Doug, altogether too far away. "Is my dad behind you?"
"I don't see him," Pris said as a faint glow found a single step high above.
"Dad, are you all right down there?"
"Where are you, grandad?" William contributed.
While the voices were closer than Ray had feared, that meant William was too close for Ray to mention what he'd seen. Surely it had only been someone who had taken refuge. Wasn't that what even derelict monasteries were for? "I'm coming," he managed to gasp....
Eventually Ray puts together enough pieces of the Vasilema puzzle: half-heard arguments in a church; odd mottos and graffiti on walls; the fact that Sandra, Tim, and Jonquil hide under beach umbrellas, floppy hats, and sunglasses all day. Oh, and Sandra's increasingly fuzzy reflection in the bathroom mirror.
When Ray presents his case to the family, his kids think he is losing his mind.
The climax of Thirteen Days By Sunset Beach is ingeniously handled with real dexterity. It's the perfect novel to read on vacation. While sunning on the beach.
25 August 2017