Ramsey Campbell: Thirteen Days By Sunset Beach
Reviewed by Brian Bogart
Ramsey Campbell has been given countless awards over his long career. His many horror novels have covered a gamut of tropes and plots, but the one thing that usually is a guarantee with his stories is the slow, creeping dread that things are amiss. The author can write the details of a good scare scene with literary style or spend a page delving into the thought process of someone slowly descending into the dark below them, step by step, groping in the shadows for some kind of stability…
“Thirteen Days By Sunset Beach” is a tale of a family on holiday vacation. It is told through the eyes of Ray, the patriarch of said family. They have decided to spend holiday on the Greek island of Vasilema. Missing passports, candid arguments spurred on by the generational gap, adjustments to the game plan to ensure everyone gets the most out of their stay- all these play a role as Campbell carefully hints at something dark under the surface. Readers know this from the opening chapters. It’s a fairly common trope. Family on a trip, the locals give warnings, etc.
What is more uncommon, is how Campbell makes you see it through their eyes. The decisions they make, the warnings they don’t heed or rules they break due to situational hazards. In some stories, you shout at the book because the characters are making dumb decisions just to push the plot forward. Here, it’s mostly plausible that the characters can’t see what the reader is seeing. They are noticing strange things, but some of it is chalked up to cultural differences; misunderstandings of phrases or customs.
Images of a patron saint found carved into trees. People shunning them or saying silent prayers for the family as they pass. But what about the recurring dreams and the fact that they seem to be sharing similar ones? What about the repeated warnings about the night time festivities of Sunset Beach? Not to mention, the gaunt and staring locals in the distance…
There is a sadness that courses through this book. Campbell, who himself is no longer a young man, weaves the story through Ray’s eyes, hinting at youth long-past and just wanting the best for his wife Sandra, their children and grandchildren. The island seems to being doing Sandra good, despite all the bickering. Then, an unexpected discovery in a cave hints at something worse.
“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.”
This isn’t one of those stories that hits you with the good stuff in a cheap or artificial way. This is a novel that builds exactly as it is intended to. Campbell’s prose is delicate and even-handed, revealing just a bit more each chapter, coinciding with each day of their vacation. By the last chapters, the uneasiness and darker things you suspected are brought into the light, to linger and play. It’s a slow burn, but the warmth of that burn lingers.
For those who prefer their excursions into horror to plow full-stop to the finish line with plenty of spooks and action, they may disagree with this review. And it’s a shame, because what is here is a simple, beautifully crafted little gem of quiet horror. For those who have never read any Ramsey Campbell, I think this book would serve as one of his easier reads. Campbell is a master of the horror genre for a reason. His careful handling of the characters trying to hold on to their plausible reasoning versus the idea of something supernatural happening around them is what makes this book work, in my opinion.
Beware ancient monasteries in the distance, careful not to linger on the deadened and gnarled branches of the trees surrounding you. Heed the warnings of the locals and maybe you will be spared the burden of knowing what keeps the island so beautiful. And alive.
Or be like me, and turn those pages… because you have to know.
Star Rating (out of 5): 4.5****
It’s Ray’s and Sandra’s first family holiday in Greece, on the island of Vasilema. The skies are cloudier than anywhere else in Greece, and they’re intrigued by local eccentricities―the lack of mirrors, the outsize beach umbrellas, the saint’s day celebrated with an odd nocturnal ritual. Why are there islanders who seem to follow the family wherever they go? Why do Sandra and the teenage grandchildren have strangely similar dreams? Has Sandra been granted a wish she didn’t know she made? Before their holiday is over, some of the family may learn too much about the secret that keeps the island alive.
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Brian Bogart is an American author of dark fiction and horror/fantasy. He has written stories most of his life and has been a fan of the genre since the age of seven. His approach to storytelling is a tad macabre at times but tries to capture the nuances of the humanity and sometimes, inhumanity, beneath the surface. He supports the horror community with bloodied open arms and demonic vigor.
Dream Darkly and Keep Writing.
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