THIRTEEN DAYS BY SUNSET BEACH by Ramsey Campbell – a review by Gary Fry
For a long time I’ve felt that a collection of Ramsey Campbell’s short fiction set in countries other than in the UK would make a great book. Remember such tales as ‘The Same in any Language’, ‘All for Sale’, and (more tangentially, perhaps) ‘Seeing the World’? I personally loved every one, and I strongly believe that stories taking place amid alternative cultures and geographical landscapes offer horror an additional layer of unease, of potential alienation. And so it seems unusual that – with the exception of a few chapters in the likes of The Claw and The Count of Eleven, along with a significant chunk of Pact of the Fathers – none of Campbell’s novels has been set wholly abroad.
Until now, of course. All the events of his latest, Thirteen Days by Sunset Beach, take place on a fictional Greek island. The plot is relatively straightforward. Focusing exclusively on the perceptions of an older chap, the aptly named (in light of ensuing dark events) Ray, a family comes together for a fortnight of relaxation, exploring, and general recreation. There’s Sandra, Ray’s wife, and their adult children Natalie and Doug, along with their partners (including the militant Julian) and several grandchildren.
This is a family like many others, amiable enough on the surface but full of carefully managed tensions and conflicting views, especially concerning childrearing. It generally operates according to democratic principles – e.g. everyone gets a choice of a day out, even the youngsters – but when events begin to escalate, including some creepily suggestive observations and experiences, a low-key battle develops over their interpretation, with protection of the innocent – the children are constantly present – uppermost among the adults’ minds.
It’s hard for me to review this book without using a certain horror word, but in doing so I feel as if I’d be giving away one of the subtly emergent facts you acquire from the escalating detail of this book. You see, there’s something characteristic about many of the island’s residents, and it’s they who gradually prey on the family, with many a delicate sortie. Put it this way, you’ll all be familiar with the nature of these assailants, but, outside of maybe Algernon Blackwood at his very best, you’ll have never seen them depicted so artfully, so restrainedly, as they are here.
Indeed, the book’s power – in addition to its complex, carefully choreographed family dynamics – lies in the strength of its prose. The entire island setting is depicted in intricate and telling detail, every hissing cave, every bustling market, every lively restaurant conveyed with colour and light, shadow and sound, and many artfully drawn minor characters. Here’s just a brief example of the masterful prose you’ll typically find in this exquisitely written book:
The shape had once been much more human, but now it seemed to sum up age and decay. It looked as withered and contorted as the husk of a spider’s victim. The man’s head was thrown back as if it had been paralysed in the act of uttering a final cry, which had shrunk the lips back from the teeth in a tortured grimace. The hands might have been lifted to fend off or deny his fate, unless a convulsion had raised them. Although Ray had no means of judging how long the corpse had been in the water, perhaps the immersion went some way towards explaining its state, because the flesh that dangled from its bones resembled perished rubber. He was staring at it in helpless dismay—he felt unable to move the light until he or Julian managed to deduce what had happened to the man—when the corpse winked at him.
He saw it take a breath as well. No, the reflections of the ripples that were wagging its hands and nodding its withered head were at play among the shadows of its ribs, enlivening the collapsed bare chest as the beam shook in Ray’s hand. But the drooping eyelid had certainly stirred, although only because a crab had emerged, bearing off a prize.
The darker set-pieces – one in a cave (from which the macabre passage above is lifted), the next in a graveyard, and another in an abandoned monastery – are beautifully staged, the writing continuing to stack up imagery and latent ambiguities until Ray, the novel’s central focus, begins to put pieces together, much to the chagrin of his arguably more fearful adult children and their partners.
Indeed, it’s the thirty-somethings who, despite rational words and actions to the contrary, seem most vulnerable here, as if those in older age and innocent youth have their own methods of protection from darkly true experience. The tensions arising from such rival perspectives make for an unforgettable conclusion, where Ray must decide whether to stick or twist, to expose his family to what perhaps only he believes or protect them from the burden of its horror.
I’ve felt that Campbell’s more recent works have become tenderer in terms of their characterisation, the way his central characters try so hard to keep their loved ones free from many disturbing insights. And that’s never truer than here. If books like Midnight Sun and The House on Nazareth Hill explore issues arising in parenthood, perhaps Thirteen Days’ examines those involved in being a grandparent, that simultaneous impulse to protect one’s brood while also fearing overstepping the authoritative mark. The constant friction between Ray and his son-in-law Julian certainly demonstrates these anxieties to a telling degree.
All of this makes for a beautifully delicate piece of work, its people rendered so sensitively that I genuinely cared for them. I don’t think this is a necessary aspect of horror fiction, that terror cannot be derived from anything other than a threat to sympathetic characters, but it certainly enhances the power of this book’s source of menace.
And that menace is built across 90,000 words packed with the usual Campbellian linguistic pyrotechnics: memorable descriptions, misunderstood language (especially the patchy English of the island’s natives), the unconventional perceptions of children, redeployment of otherwise innocuous words (I’ll never think again of “soggy” in the same way), archaic written material, half-glimpsed figures, and unsettling locations. Indeed, the finale is as deliciously creepy as anything I’ve ever read from Campbell, rivalling similar subterranean conclusions in Thieving Fear and Creatures of the Pool.
In short, this is one of Campbell’s most elegantly composed novels, with a great cast of characters, a fantastic setting, and scenes which will live long in the imagination. I give it absolutely top marks.
The novel will be available from PS Publishing in late October and can be pre-ordered now: