Thursday, February 11, 2016

Incarnate (1983) by Ramsey Campbell

Incarnate (1983) by Ramsey Campbell: Structurally, Incarnate most resembles early Stephen King novels that include Salem's Lot and The Stand insofar as it follows multiple third-person POVs that gradually dovetail as the novel moves to its climax. And this structure works beautifully, suspense being generated from both the narratives and the moments in which we leave one POV for another.

Superficially, Incarnate also falls into the sub-genre of horror novels in which events are set in motion by an ill-advised experiment that unleashes either telepathic or supernatural powers in those who were experimented upon. But it's not really much like Firestarter or any of a dozen other 'wild-talent' novels of the 1960's, 70's, and 80's. 

This time around, an Oxford study of several people who seem to have prophetic dreams disintegrates as the subjects seemingly start to go collectively insane. Eleven years later, one of the scientists in charge of the experiment writes to the subjects to enquire if any of them have suffered long-term problems as a result of the study. Well, maybe they have. Or maybe they simply drew the attention of Something to themselves and our little world. The next 450 pages of the novel will be spent examining what happened, what continues to happen, and what may happen next.

Campbell's strength at creating horrors that are always just a bit undefined even when they take center stage is in full evidence throughout the novel. There are glimpses of odd things that suddenly disappear. There are flashes of vaguely remembered cityscapes. There's a loathsome, terrible, needy thing sleeping in someone's bed. There are stairways that go on forever and crucifixes that move and leer. Through it all, Campbell's command of characterization is first-rate. We may not like all the characters, but even for the worst of them is aroused a fearful pity for what broke them, and why. 

It's also got one of my favourite-ever scenes involving a minor character wisely running away when confronted by a horror. It's creepy, but it's also funny -- and it rings completely true.

Incarnate gradually builds towards a Sublime and mysterious climax. There's a refreshing ruthlessness at points when it comes to the fate of some of the characters, though that ruthlessness works in concert with mystery: we don't really know what happens once certain people wander out of the light. It's a grand novel, minutely observed and gigantic in its revelations. Highly recommended.

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