Review by William Dean
September 27, 2017
I am a latecomer to Ramsey Campbell but had been familiar with the remarkable output of his imagination long before I ever picked up a book bearing his name. Anybody who has ever glanced at some of the more fantastical entries in the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game bestiary will have noticed, as I did, how many of the more extraordinary descriptions all came from works penned by this Ramsey Campbell. Such was the output of his youth – critically undistinguished yet joyfully imaginative Mythos pastiches, written in the 1950s under the mentorship of August Derleth in earnest imitation of Lovecraft – when Campbell was still a teenager. Campbell of course went on to become one of the world's most distinguished horror authors and even achieved that rarest of grails, recognition from critics outside of our much-maligned Horror genre. With maturity, however, came an urge to distance himself from Lovecraft. Although he has since repudiated that opinion, firmly acknowledging the quality of the Old Gent of Providence, it was soon quite rare for Campbell to write Lovecraftian fiction himself – with the significant exception of novella The Last Revelation of Gla’aki (PS Publishing, 2013).
The Searching Dead then is a return to Campbell's past - and in more ways than one. Not only is this a return to Lovecraftian fiction, it is also a poignant semi-autobiographical memoir of his early life in post-war Liverpool. This is not, to avoid any possible confusion, a novel about the supernatural experiences of Campbell’s childhood – to the best of my knowledge there were no more supernatural shenanigans taking place in his life than there were in anyone else’s.
Instead Campbell has drawn on what are obviously vast and sensitive memories from childhood and has used them to create this most marvellous setting for his tale. Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi identifies three primary elements in his definition of “Lovecraftian” fiction – the key one here is Lovecraft’s remarkable “sense of place”: his ability to create a semi-fictional geography – based on locations he knew well – and to steep it with the most creatively vivacious yet somehow realistic and believable life based on his own knowledge, travels and ideas. Collectively we tend to term it “Lovecraft Country” – Arkham, Kingsport, Innsmouth and so forth – and, as much as it is the monsters which get the popular focus these days, Lovecraft Country is one of his most powerful and enduring creations. Campbell is perhaps best known amongst Lovecraft fans for employing this approach in the creation of his “Brichester Mythos”. However, in The Searching Dead Campbell has, by recreating the Liverpool of his childhood, done something rather more poignant and, in my opinion, superior. The setting is a real one but Campbell, describing it through the memories of our 12-year old protagonist Dominic Sheldrake, imbues it with an incredibly rich sensation of life that I have rarely seen elsewhere in the medium of print. He has captured the spirit of the place – and of the people, and the era – just perfectly. If ever there were an example of high-quality and masterful literature to throw in the face of mainstream critics who, on principle, snub and deny the merit of the genre of horror: it can be this book.
That Campbell has recreated the world – and emotions – of his childhood and then, figuratively, insidiously wormed his Mythos into its depths should bring about a state of rapture in connoisseurs of Weird Literature. The tale is an incredibly able juxtaposition of a young boy’s gradual adolescent awakening taking place alongside his discoveries of a more occult nature.
At its heart the story is one about changes and growth – sometimes regretful, unwanted, alarming and terrifying: but inevitable. The games, companionships and comforting illusions of childhood begin to change for Dominic as his mind matures and he begins to question the world – religion; friendship with girls; patriotism; his relationship with his parents and other adults. Campbell recalls these sensitive changes as skilfully and movingly as any author I have read. However just as alarming to Dominic – and constituting the Mythos element of the story – is his growing awareness that something malign exists within the world, disguising itself as simple spiritualism, exploiting the relative tolerance of English culture and, gradually, bringing about something terrible.
One might ask which of these two elements – coming of age and the supernatural detective story – is the focus of The Searching Dead. Is it a memoir or a supernatural horror tale? In my opinion, within the framework of the story, the two are utterly inseparable. They work wonderfully together and Campbell’s narrative interworks the themes so skilfully that they are inseparable and support each other. I think either emphasis likely would have been enough to make the story worth reading all by itself but in combination they constitute the most sublime tale. I found it incredibly effecting.
There are, I think, many reasons I enjoyed this book so immensely. One is, I must confess, rooted in the personal and in my national identity: its evocation of an older England, warts and all, is superb. I myself was not alive, by some decades, in 1953 when the story is set – rather it was the hey-day of my grandparents. I am at the tail end of several generations of British people who were brought up on a diet of bizarrely fond reminiscences of the Second World War and its aftermath. That culture is largely gone today, save for its preservation in media and a few arcane traditions lingering in archaic social and academic British institutions – but I recognise it altogether in Campbell’s The Searching Dead: the now-peculiar-seeming cinema etiquette of the period; that children were expected to stand up whenever an adult entered the room; that boys should doff their cap – school caps, mind you! – to ladies (even just wearing caps!); the subtle distinctions between shorts and long trousers at school and the status they implied; the casual brutality of certain schoolmasters – those who were wrong ’uns and those whom you looked up to; the cultural memory of the Queen’s coronation and the rush to buy one’s first television in order to watch it; Sunday best; bus conductors; and so on. The book is filled with these charming incidental details. It would have been all too easy for such baubles to swiftly become superfluous and distracting but Campbell uses them judiciously enough to instead season his setting and to help ground the supernatural components – much as Lovecraft did with his semi-fictional New England. I must, at this point, add that if I had a concern for recommending this book it would be based around the fact that this cultural detail may be opaque or confusing to those not familiar with the period and culture – but my instinct is that they are presented less as obscure and byzantine references but rather as decorative ingredients which an unfamiliar reader will manage to absorb and get the sense of even if they lack a deep understanding of 1950s England.
This element aside, the story’s excellent pace and structure must be commended: it is a very fine and slowly building horror story, subtly built so as to preserve the integrity of the real-world context. Dominic gradually uncovers the truth in the manner, almost referentially, of a children's detective story. This deserves some more explanation as I believe that this component of the story alone demonstrates the quality of the plotting and writing; one imagines that, in the hands of a less gifted writer, the tale could quite easily devolve into ham-fisted pastiche. Yet Campbell, showing his ability, handles it with incredible delicacy. Dominic, like presumably Campbell and so many other British children (including myself), grew up reading the 1940s stories of Enid Blyton's "The Famous Five" – child detectives. Dominic and his friends have themed their "gang" (a word with much less sinister connotations at that age) on the books and, as an aspiring writer, he writes childish stories about their imagined adventures. As he and his friends investigate the happenings of the plot, Dominic is acutely aware of the similarities. We, the reader, may feel some pang of empathy and recognition from the games of own childhoods. But much as Dominic longs for the innocence, comradeship and happy-endings of those stories, he is aware that the real and adult world is a much darker and more baleful place. The Searching Dead is ultimately a story of our protagonist growing up and out of childhood. He learns the grim truth about life at the same time as he discovers the mind-warpingly horrific reality of the universe, and is granted an unfortunate peek at what we call the Mythos.
I have absolutely no hesitation is recommending this book to anyone who will listen to me. It is a remarkably sensitive supernatural horror story, carefully balancing Lovecraftian horror with Campbell’s tribute to a place and era. I can only imagine that Lovecraft would have admired this novel greatly – and likely envied Campbell’s skill with characters and emotions. More than any of this it is extremely well written; it is a fabulous example of how superficially simple prose can deliver so very much weight.
The Searching Dead is the first book in a planned trilogy entitled The Three Births of Daoloth. It stands very well as a self-contained novel and is very neatly concluded – so a potential reader need not fear they are committing to an unfinished tale – but it leaves enough loose ends and unrealised ideas to suggest that there is still a great deal to come. I look forward immensely to the next volume, Born to the Dark, which I understand will be published later this year.
I must finish with a few words about the edition itself – the book is published by British speciality publisher PS Publishing in a glossy jacketed hardcover. For bibliophiles there is also – sadly out of print – a signed edition complete with slipcase and art print. The cover art, by Les Edwards, depicts a skull apparently deep in the earth being enveloped and consumed by the roots of some plant or tree. It is simple but pleasantly unsettling and neatly connects to the tale itself. If the jacket is removed the same artwork lies underneath but unspoiled by any text.