In Midnight Sun, Ramsey Campbell attempted to write a novel in the traditional, atmospheric horror style; in my opinion, he had only limited success in doing so. I have seen a couple of people place this novel alongside the best of Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen, but in my opinion it falls far short of such a lofty mark. I don't think it is in any way Lovecraftian either, I should add. I've read a good many of Campbell's novels, and this is by far the most problematic of the bunch for me. The story is built around some type of preternaturally remarkable presence lurking within the forest outside Ben Sterling's childhood home, a presence that has called Ben home to unwittingly pursue its agenda of remaking the world in its own ice-cold image. The first section of the novels introduces us to Ben as a child. As an eight-year-old, he runs away from his aunt's home and makes his way to the gravesite of his family, all of whom had recently died in an automobile accident. Just before he can figure something mysterious out, he is returned to the home of his aunt, where we find him perusing the stories written by a singular ancestor of his, tales and legends brought home from the northern lands of the midnight sun. His aunt seems quite wary of the book and gets rid of it, but the stories have already planted themselves in Ben's mind. We then jump to the present, which finds Ben moving back to the Sterling home of his childhood with his wife Ellen, daughter Margaret, and son Ben. From that point on, it's one incredibly drawn-out process of watching Ben change as the mysterious forces at work in the dark forest prepare the way for the mysterious reawakening of a force older than man.
The strange woods outside the Sterling home are of utmost importance in the events of this story, but Ramsey Campbell went a little overboard on his descriptions of it. Every other page seemed to contain yet another lengthy appraisal of the strangeness of the forest, the mist above the forest, the way the forest seemed to move, etc. There also seems to be about a sentence apiece for every single snowflake that falls during the blizzard-like winter serving as the backdrop of events. Campbell just repeats himself over and over again to a frustrating degree, and this in fact works against his attempts to make the woods seem exotically creepy. On another note, I became frustrated with Ben's obvious change in personality and his wife's repeated dismissal of any problem until the very end; anyone who keeps turning off my heat during a blizzard is going to have some words from me, I can assure you, and this is the least of Ben's obvious problems. In this same vein, I have to point out my own displeasure at seeing the center of vision change from Ben to Ellen over the course of the second half of the book; this helps build the suspense for Ben's big (and ultimately disappointing) surprise, but I did not really like being thrown out of the main character's mind just when I was getting to know it. Reaching the ending of Midnight Sun took more work and time than it should have, and the ultimate reward is no reward at all. Suddenly, with only the weakest of a reason, Ben's thinking totally changes; this major plot point is not explained adequately at all, and it struck a major blow to my ultimate enjoyment of the story.
Midnight Sun could have been much shorter than it is without losing much of anything. What it really needs, though, is a plausible ending that doesn't leave the reader feeling cheated. I am a big fan of traditional horror, so I am not criticizing the genre when I say that this attempt at such writing falls far short of the bar set by the true masters of the early twentieth century.
on August 21, 2002
Ellen is worried about her husband, successful children's book author Ben Sterling. Ever since inheriting the family house in isolated Stargrave, his old childhood demons have been reemerging. Ben's father was crazy - he traveled to the ends of the earth researching legends of the midnight sun, and committed suicide by stripping naked in a snowy clearing - and Ellen is beginning to be afraid Ben might just be a chip off the old block.
But soon something starts scaring her worse - Ben's insistence that an eldritch god is awakening in Stargrave to reshape the planet in its image seems less a fantasy than when he and his crazy father first started spouting the idea. Stargrave is changing. It's getting colder. More isolated. The trees, the snow, the very frost itself, increasingly appears to be rearranging itself into that god's own image. Which means, perhaps, that Ben isn't a madman at all, but a genuine prophet - and if that is the case, then the end of the world is at hand...
This is one of Campbell's best, and that's saying a lot. The novel is uneven, and could have been structured better, but overall it's a steadily mounting masterpiece of menace. It's most reminiscent of Algernon Blackwood and H. P. Lovecraft, in that its horror is genuinely cosmic and never truly seen except for the effects of its presence. Dramatically, it's highly reminiscent of Stephen King's The Shining, in that a snowbound woman protects her children from her increasingly unstable (and quite possibly dangerous) husband, with an unseen supernatural being influencing events from the frozen shadows.
Sadly - like most of Campbell's best work - this book is out of print, but it's well worth trying to find anyway if you're a fan of well-crafted, creep-up-behind-you horror.