The following review is by Paul StJohn Mackintosh.
The Way of the Worm is the concluding novel in Ramsey Campbell’s “The Three Births of Daoloth” trilogy, already well known to many Lovecraft eZine readers from The Searching Dead and Born to the Dark, all from PS Publishing. The series follows the successive life stages of narrator and protagonist Dominic Sheldrake, from his Liverpool schooldays right the way through to later life and widowerhood, and his entanglement over the decades with the Noble family and the sinister forces behind them. The Way of the Worm does represent a sort of culmination and conclusion, though not an especially happy one, and delivers all the apocalyptic awfulness that any cosmic horror aficionado could wish for, combined with a sensitive and searching rendition of grief and loss, all wrapped up in sublime prose. Fully in command of his material after the earlier instalments and innumerable other works, Ramsey Campbell is not about to disappoint.
In this instalment, set nominally in the present day, Dominic Sheldrake, now a retired university professor, is mourning the death of his wife Lesley at the opening of the book. His son Toby, now grown since the events of Born to the Dark and married with a daughter of his own, is in thrall to the Church of the Eternal Three, the new vehicle for the occult machinations of the Noble family, antagonists in the preceding volumes. Many characters and fixtures from the earlier accounts recur in this conclusion, including Sheldrake’s lifelong companions who constitute the Tremendous Three, and Safe to Sleep, the Nobles’ front organization in Born to the Dark. Knowledge of this backstory is recommended to get full value from The Way of the Worm, but certainly isn’t essential to enjoy or appreciate it. Daoloth, the Render of the Veils, is itself a trope from far back in Campbell’s Lovecraftian writing, but is not used for any kind of pulpy Yog-Sothothery: the book’s eschatology is frightfully well realized, and the horrors that do manifest are all too credible in context.
Thanks to his seamless dovetailing of the uncanny and the mundane, Campbell is able to ring the changes on a striking number of situations throughout the book: family drama, cult expose, courtroom clash, chase, vision, apparition, transfiguration. The Noble family’s familial affairs turn out to be grotesquely intertwined. They meet an appropriately awful fate, but that’s only the gateway for something even more awful. Without any spoilers, you could cut out the supernatural elements of the story, and still be left with a chilling and ultimately appalling narrative. Cult practices, mob hysteria, cyberstalking and child abuse scandals get at least as much airing as Cthulhu Mythos elements. Yet the style remains consistent throughout, and none of these aspects jar against each other. Campbell is that deft at handling his narrative.
“Soon the oldest will regain their hold upon the world,” proclaims Christian Noble, but plenty of ghastliness is in store before those end times. Some of the horrors in The Way of the Worm are as unearthly as any polypous demigod rising from the sea; others are ones you could all too easily encounter in real life. Pray that you don’t.
Paul StJohn Mackintosh, August 2018