You may purchase The Searching Dead here.
My dear unknown friend,
I do not suffer from anxiety. I have come perilously close to crush depth below the Pacific ocean on a number of occasions, leapt from airplanes and been involved in a number of similarly hare-brained endeavors yet, knock on wood, anxiety free. There is one exception to this rule and that exception is named Ramsey Campbell. He knows how to get under my skin so well that if I am reading an anthology only to discover the next story is by Mr. Campbell I must pause, take a deep breath, and then, thus braced, I may enter his contribution. His work exemplifies like no other Mark Fisher’s understanding for the pull and attraction of Lovecraftian fiction:
“The allure that the weird and the eerie possess is not captured by the idea that we “enjoy what scares us”. It has, rather, to do with a fascination for the outside, for that which lies beyond standard perception, cognition and experience. This fascination usually involves a certain apprehension, perhaps even dread — but it would be wrong to say that the weird and the eerie are necessarily terrifying. I am not here claiming that the outside is always beneficent. There are more than enough terrors to be found there; but such terrors are not all there is to the outside.”
This review has been gestating for a long time. First I must thank Justin Woodman and his wonderful blog Whispers From The Ghooric Zone since it had completely slipped my mind this trilogy was forthcoming. If you do not already have Whispers in your RSS feeds or similar service I would heartily recommend it, Justin’s blog is a daily source of inspiration and delight. Once the book arrived from PS Publishing I ensconced myself in my reading chair and dove in. When I had finished reading I realized the size of the task before me. It goes without saying. It’s Ramsey Campbell, the book is ferociously good. Let me add here, I know very little of Mr. Campbell’s life. I value privacy and hold other’s in regard so caveat emptor, I only know from interviews dimly remembered he grew up in Liverpool so when I say The Searching Dead has the feel of an autobiographical work takes this with a grain of salt.
Once I finished my first reading of The Searching Dead I went back and once again read earlier books from Ramsey Campbell’s career; Ancient Images, The Darkest Part of the Woods and Midnight Sun. In addition to these I read again Joel Lane’s remarkable essays, “Negatives in Print: The Early Novels of Ramsey Campbell,” “Beyond the Light: Recent Novels of Ramsey Campbell,” and “Writers in the James Tradition: Ramsey Campbell,” all of which have been lovingly collected within the volume This Spectacular Darkness, issued by Tartarus Press in 2016. It was Lane that provided the key as to why I was growing obsessive with this review, revising it at least twice:
“While the horror genre in general has become increasingly preoccupied with its own cultural identity and power to generate images, Campbell has pointedly made use of horror as a source of metaphors; his underlying concern is with society and culture.”
In short, Campbell matters.
Referring back to Lane, this time from the titular essay of This Spectacular Darkness, “Campbell has brought both the ghost story and the Lovecraftian ‘cosmic’ horror story into the frame of social and psychological allegory developed by such authors as Theodore Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison and, more recently, Jonathan Carroll. As such his work points to the breaking down of traditional categories and the evolution of the supernatural horror genre into new forms.”
This is what makes ‘The Three Births of Daoloth’, as Campbell has dubbed the trilogy, an exciting prospect for both long time fan as well as those new to Mr. Campbell’s oeuvre. Within The Searching Dead Mr. Campbell combines the traditional ghost story with cosmic horror using both forms to examine a culture and society undergoing a tenuous moment of transition. Mr. Campbell intertwines existential and ontological horror (the horror of the human heart and Lovecraft’s indifferent cosmos) through his leitmotifs of abandoned buildings, cinema, communication and seeking redress to power. The Searching Dead is a Rosetta Stone of Mr. Campbell’s career thus far, one that delighted me so that it sent me gladly back to those earlier works for a deeper immersion. For newcomers The Searching Dead is a gentle, yet thorough, introduction to the joys of Ramsey Campbell’s work that has undoubtedly reached one’s ears on multiple occasions.
As I wrote previously The Searching Dead is the first book of a trilogy, a cycle Mr. Campbell has named ‘The Three Births of Daoloth’. This trilogy is set to mark the three stages of the narrator’s life, one Dominic Sheldrake, who at the start of the novel is himself in the tenuous years between childhood and adolescence. Along with his friend Jim, Dom is setting out on his first year in Holy Ghost Grammar in the year 1952. The two are joined by Roberta aka Bobby to form “The Tremendous Three” as Dom himself has named their group as they adventure about post-war Liverpool. This is a Liverpool still in the grips of rationing, entire blocks still bombed out and abandoned from the war, where families with television sets invite those without to watch Elizabeth II’s coronation. It is also a Liverpool where schoolchildren wear caps and doff them to their elders, brothers at Holy Ghost Grammar occasionally cane their students, one generation struggles to hold fast to old ways as another looks eagerly forward to the new and in one chilling scene the police return a housewife who has fled her household to her husband because, obviously, the man of the house knows best.
Dom’s neighbor, Mrs. Norris, lost her husband recently and, as is appropriate, has been attending to the proper period of mourning. Yet lately her spirits have improved remarkably. It seems she met a young man while visiting her husband’s grave, a young man who has started attending Mrs. Norris’s Spiritualist Church services with her. This young man has started to teach the congregation new practices. Well, in truth he says these are far older practices, practices that include lessons on how to bring the graves of their beloved alive. Dom’s parents, being Catholic, have no need of such things though, being polite, they are sure to stay sympathetic to Mrs. Norris and leave her to her own devices.
Dom’s bedroom window overlooks the cemetery. He’s reasonably certain he’s seen the young man in question, wandering the graveyard. He’s nearly as certain that same young man caught him peering through the curtains. He’s also fairly certain this same young man is their new history teacher, Mr. Noble, who has cunningly maneuvered himself into chaperoning Dom’s class on a trip through rural France for reasons known only to himself.
If you have yet to read The Searching Dead I would consider holding off in the reading of the rest of this review until you have done so. I won’t be tipping any great reveals within this yet I would feel remorseful if I stole any of the myriad pleasures awaiting you within the novel itself.
One of the first points that struck me while reading this novel was how evocative Campbell’s Liverpool of the 1950’s was within The Searching Dead. As I said earlier it has the air of an autobiographical work yet is that not the mark of an accomplished writer? It took me a while to pin down exactly what it was about Campbell’s Liverpool that kept pulling at me. Please do not take this the wrong way, I adore Bradbury with all my heart and read his works on an annual basis yet there is an air of remove to their reminisces of boyhood adventures, a chimerical quality that places them nearly in the company of fable. Campbell’s Liverpool on the other hand reminds me more of the work of Graham Greene, particularly in the descriptions of the landscape Dominic travels on his way to Mr. Noble’s church in the later part of the book.
It wasn’t merely the descriptions of the landscapes that brought on this comparison, and it wasn’t until my second reading of The Searching Dead that I finally had the moment of awareness. What brought the comparison to mind was the manner in which Campbell handles Dominic’s feelings about religion. This made me recall Greene referring to himself as a “Catholic agnostic”. Once that key fit I was drawing links like a conspiracy theorist with the Warren Report so we’ll simply stop before I embarrass myself further.
This site is named LovecraftZine and there are Lovecraftian scenes aplenty within The Searching Dead to keep all satisfied yet as Joel Lane noted it seems as if Ramsey Campbell takes as much of his writing prowess from M. R. James as he does from Lovecraft. This is highly evident within the novel as Campbell’s skillful handling of Dominic’s next door neighbor, Mrs. Norris, chillingly testifies. In The Weird and The Eerie Mark Fisher identifies two components that constitute the uncanny, the weird which is an overabundance, an excess rupturing into or pushing through, which Lovecraft excelled at, or the eerie, the failure of absence, ghosts, the cry on the moor with nothing to give voice. With the happenings in Mrs. Norris’s house Campbell delivers us unto that delightful state of frisson as to exactly where we stand on this spectrum. It’s imaging what was going on in that house I find myself returning to again and again, pondering what that poor woman was subjected to haunts me weeks after my last reading of the novel.
I would be remiss if I did not talk about the physical appearance of the book itself. The striking cover art by award-winning artist Les Edwards is not only on the dust jacket yet also reproduced on the hardcover itself in a glossy wrap-around finish. Michael Smith deserves special recognition for the design and beautifully crisp layout of The Searching Dead, the font choice in particular was remarkably well-chosen to place one slightly outside the norm without drawing undue attention unto itself. Again I find myself wishing North American publishers took as much care with their layout and design.
I must force myself to stop here. As must be painfully obvious by now I loved this book and could spend hours following one thread after another in this engaging and utterly stimulating masterwork. To read The Searching Dead is to relax comfortably in the knowledge you are in the presence of a master storyteller at the apex of their craft, one who has studied and absorbed the works of past masters and brings those insights to bear with a thoughtful dignity. The fact there are two more volumes awaiting us in ‘The Three Births of Daoloth’ fills me with excitement and delight. I eagerly anticipate the hours I will spend lost in Mr. Campbell’s creations.
You may purchase The Searching Dead here.
Featured image by El Amigo Chico. You may see of their fabulous photography here.
Soundtrack for this review: