A dead occultist makes life complicated for four cousins in Thieving Fear, a 2008 novel by Ramsey Campbell. Like Campbell’s The Grin of the Dark (2006), Thieving Fear also features characters who have their perception of reality severely impaired by a supernatural force.
The story starts with Charlotte, Ellen, Hugh and Rory camping as youngsters at a site they later learn was the location of a house owned by a notorious magician. During the night they have nightmares and Charlotte almost walks off a cliff.
Years later, the four begin exhibiting strange symptoms, alternately ridiculous and horrific, in true Campbell style; Hugh loses his sense of direction, Charlotte gets claustrophobic, Rory loses his vision and Ellen begins to think she’s disgustingly fat. Also, a thin shadow of a man always seems to lurk somewhere near. Ultimately they trace the events back to that one night in their youth, and discover the dark secrets buried inside the cliff.
It’s all about the characters in this one, their experiences as their senses fail and their reality unravels in everyday situations. The downside is that the plot becomes secondary; there isn’t much of a one, and even the adversary is handled as little more than a flitting shadow. As a result Thieving Fear doesn’t quite have the impact of its immediate predecessor; The Grin of the Dark had the mystery of silent film comedian Tubby Thackeray going for it, giving the readers some good, firm plot to grab onto.
The subplots about Ellen’s position at a care home and Hugh’s job at a supermarket are tickly good fun, with some wickedly unpleasant supporting characters. Ellen’s foray into the publishing world with Charlotte as her editor also makes for a fun read, with anecdotes that are possibly drawn from experience.
Campbell’s sharp writing keeps things interesting, but the going does get quite frustrating in the middle, with all the characters suffering from some impediment or other. The end, however, rewards the reader with a nice, weird twist and great imagery. As a whole Thieving Fear is a low key affair, but it does deliver where it counts.