The Last Revelation of Gla'aki by Ramsey Campbell
Understatement. Double meanings. Subtexts. Outre anecdotes. Anxiety. And funny as heck. That's Ramsey Campbell, and that's his brief novel The Last Revelation of Gla'aki. It is a brilliant reimagining of the cursed coastal village gimmick, in which the protagonist suffers peculiar and liquescent transformation after an infernally ritualized paper Chase.
A few choice excerpts are below. I read the story a year ago, and posted these favorite bits in Facebook.
19 September 2017
[Campbell knows how to set the scene:]
....Just now the town seemed to be slumbering. A few families lay on towels on the beach as if they were hoping to bring out the sun. Old folk in wheelchairs drifted along the promenade while parents pushed children in buggies at the pace of the somnolent waves. At the ends of several pedestrian crossings Belisha beacons exchanged somnolent blinks. A Crazy Golf course was in use, though the players weren't much livelier than the statue that appeared to be shading its eyes to watch them as it gazed stonily out to sea. Beyond the hotels Fairman saw amusement arcades jittering with multicoloured lights, souvenir shops wearing bunches of hats, a fish standing as tall as a man to hold a menu in its fins. Close to the far end of the woods a string of cars crawled up the incline of a roller coaster, and a big wheel turned sluggishly for a few seconds before reverting to stillness.
Fairman slowed down as he passed the Church of the First Word. Though he hadn't been speeding, he felt as if he had, and in any case he needed to find his hotel. There was the Staymore, the Toprooms, the Seaside Dreams, the Kumbak... Eventually he located the Wyleave, a hefty structure with three storeys and a stained-glass awning, near the middle of the row. Across the road graffiti were attempting to bring a Victorian shelter up to date. Fairman drove around the Wyleave to the car park, where half a dozen vehicles took up almost half the space, and trundled his overnight bag into the hotel....
....Mrs Berry was rising from behind her desk when he stepped into the lobby. He might have thought she'd been waiting up for him. His key gave a hollow rattle as she retrieved it from its pigeonhole.
"Ready for bed, Mr Fairman?"
"I've some reading to do first."
"Of course," she said as though he'd reconfirmed her notion of the typical librarian. He was heading for the stairs when she murmured "Dream well."
"I don't really go in for it."
"We all do, Leonard." She touched her forehead, and the patch of brow as well as her fingertip grew momentarily pale. "If you don't," she said, "you'll never know what's in there."
That was the kind of observation Sandra had least patience for, he thought as he climbed the stairs. She hadn't even let him finish telling her what he knew about Deepfall Water, although it wasn't a great deal. He'd found none of it worth mentioning in the essay that had ended up online.
Had a cult ever really made its home beside the unfrequented lake? In the 1960s the notion had been revived after Thomas Cartwright, a minor artist specialising in fantastic and occult themes, moved into one of the lakeside houses and died as the result of some kind of attack. A police investigation had proved inconclusive, and a family who were supposed to have abandoned the house before Cartwright took it over had never been tracked down. If the houses had at some stage been served by a private graveyard, no identifiable trace was found, though some tales suggested that the stone tombs had been pulverised beyond recognition. We Pass from View, an occult book by local author Roland Franklyn, even claimed that they'd been destroyed by the police.
Fairman had thought this unsuitable for mentioning in Book Hunter Monthly, and Sandra hadn't wanted to hear any more. She would have liked his other anecdotes even less—schoolboy stupidity, he imagined she would call them. They dated from his days at Brichester High, a quarter of a century after the Cartwright business. The lake had become a place you dared your friends to visit after dark, and he'd assumed his fellow pupils had borrowed the idea from films, though the originator of the challenge had lived on the edge of Brichester nearest the lake. Those who ventured there brought back increasingly extreme stories: the lake had begun to throb like an enormous heart, or a procession of figures as stiff as bones had been glimpsed among the trees on the far side of the water, or a globular growth on a stalk in the middle of the lake had turned so as to keep a party of teenagers in sight, and they'd realised it was an eye. How could any of this have been visible at night? At the time Fairman hadn't been surprised that the adventurers had ended up with nightmares, but once the headmaster learned of the visits to the lake he'd forbidden them. Apparently his fierceness was daunting enough, since the lake reverted to the status of a rumour. Since then, so far as Fairman knew, it had been visited mostly by the kind of people who tried to plumb the depths of Loch Ness, and they'd found just as little evidence of anything unnatural....
....Could people really still be swimming in the sea? He had to squint into the gathering dusk to be sure that the restless shapes were large jellyfish. As he unwrapped his dinner a wind fluttered the newspaper; in the dimness it looked as if the fish was struggling to demonstrate some kind of life. The batter was crisp, and though he might have called the fish a little rubbery, it tasted as he remembered cod tasting in his childhood....
....Fairman drove around the Wyleave [hotel] to the car park, where half a dozen vehicles took up almost half the space, and trundled his overnight bag into the hotel.
He suspected that the wallpaper along the corridor leading to Reception had been there before he was born. It was embossed with a pattern of fish leaping out of equally stylised waves, an image no doubt meant to evoke the seaside. The pattern flocked into the lobby, where a woman with silvery curls and a long heavy suntanned face sat behind a massive counter of dark wood. For an instant she looked drowsy, and then she stood up from her desk, her pearl necklace emitting a tiny chatter as it shifted on her embroidered white blouse. "Mr Fairman?" she said, and with a widening smile "I'm Mrs Berry. Call me Janine. Welcome to the Wyleave."
She held out a hand that proved to be soft and moist and possibly frail, so that Fairman refrained from taking too much of a grip. "I've given you a view," she said. "Can you put your details down for us?"
He was surprised by how much the registration form required: not just his name and address and the registration number of his car but date of birth, occupation, even next of kin and where to phone them—his father's name and the number of the retirement home. "Such a lot for just one night," Janine Berry said. "Won't you give us more of a chance?"
"I'd be happy to, but my holiday's arranged."
"So what's brought you to us?"
"Of course," she said as though it had been less a question than a joke.
"We librarians do have other interests too, you know."
"I expect so," she said, though with a blink that looked a little puzzled, and slapped the nipple of a bell on the counter. "Tom, can you show Mr Fairman up to six."
The porter was a pudgy youth whose tan put Fairman in mind of batter on a fish, quite possibly a staple of Tom's diet. As he carried Fairman's luggage up a staircase enclosed by the omnipresent wallpaper Fairman tried asking "Been away for some sun?"
"Not likely," Tom said without turning to him.
Did Fairman sense resentment? Perhaps the tan was artificial. Tom was silent until he unlocked a room on the first floor. "We've got you here."
....He didn't think he would ever tell Sandra that he'd visited Deepfall Water. He'd hoped to bring his essay more to life, but perhaps he also meant to prove that he wasn't quite the bookish introverted fellow his schoolmates had thought him. He could see no reason to go at night, and even on a February afternoon the place had seemed unnecessarily dark, no doubt because of the trees that stooped close to the unpaved track from the main road as well as surrounding the lake. They overshadowed the row of three-storey houses that huddled alongside a cobblestone pavement at the edge of the water. All six roofs had caved in, and some of the floors were so rotten that they'd collapsed under the weight of debris. Great leaves of blackened wallpaper drooped off the walls of a house in the middle of the terrace, and Fairman had wondered if this was the one most recently occupied, nearly half a century ago. None of the windows contained even a fragment of glass, and he suspected his old schoolmates might have been at least partly responsible. The buildings seemed to gape at the expanse of water like masks lined up to demonstrate they had no identity of their own. He'd found the thought oddly disturbing as he went to the edge of the lake.
The murky water stretched perhaps half a mile to the trees where some of his schoolfellows had claimed to see a procession that shouldn't have been walking. He doubted you could see that even with a flashlight, given how close together the trees grew. The depths of the lake were even harder to distinguish. It was fringed by large ferns, but he'd made out just a few inches of the stalks beneath the surface, which was so nearly opaque that he might have imagined the mud was being stirred up by some activity in the lake. In fact the water had been absolutely stagnant, and he'd peered harder into it as though he was compelled to find some reason to have visited Deepfall Water. He'd had the odd impression that around it all the trees were craning to imitate him, enclosing the lake with an iris of darkness that was capable of shrinking the sky overhead. That must have been an effect of his concentration, along with the idea that his scrutiny could waken some presence in the depths; in fact, a sluggish ripple had begun to spread from the middle of the lake, followed by another and another. They'd advanced so slowly that their lethargy had seemed to take hold of him; he could have fancied that the waves of his brain had been reduced to the pace of the hypnotic ripples. The thought had jerked him back to consciousness, not least of the unnaturally premature dark. As the ripples grew audible he'd turned his back and retreated to his car. He'd heard water splashing the edge of the pavement by the time he'd succeeded in starting the engine. Of course the ripples must have been caused by a wind, since all the trees around the lake had bent towards the water.
[At the local doctor's waiting room.]
....That left nine patients, and Fairman found some of them difficult to ignore—a woman with grey swellings reminiscent of fungi on her legs, a man whose chin seemed to merge with his spongy throat whenever he was overcome by an apparently uncontrollable nod, a woman whose every protracted breath sounded like a renewed task. If everyone was seated in order she would be the last to see the doctor, and Fairman didn't think he could endure her sounds for however long that would entail—perhaps an hour.