Born To The Dark (The Three Births of Daoloth #2)
David Allkins picks up Born to the Dark, the second in Ramsey Campbell’s Three Births of Daoloth trilogy, full of subtle cosmic terror, which demonstrates ‘skill gained from decades of writing’.
It is over thirty years since the events in the first book in the Three Births of Daoloth trilogy (The Searching Dead), with Christian Noble having vanished and the cast of characters having got on with their lives. In 1985, Bobby has become a right-wing journalist; Jim is a police inspector; Dominic Sheldrake has married and become a film lecturer. His five-year-old son Toby is suffering from nocturnal seizures, and is admitted to a clinic (‘Safe To Sleep’) for children with similar problems. The syndrome is spreading across the country under the name of ‘nocturnal absence’. But Toby starts to talk about shared dreams of a face in the dark; Dominic begins to worry that the legacy of Christian Noble lives on, and is working towards some longer-term aim.
While this is the second book in a trilogy, it can also be read as a solo volume: it covers all the need-to-know parts quickly in the first chapter. The main fact the reader needs to know is that Noble is dangerous, Dominic has had experience of this, and then the narrative starts to build.
While the first book was about a child facing supernatural evil, this story is about a parent becoming afraid for their child. Dominic’s concerns for Toby begin with the ordinary moment when a child says something strange – something that could be read as anything – until he realises how it relates to Noble’s writings. Of course, as his fears grow, Dominic’s relationship with his wife becomes strained, leading to the risk that he could lose his family even if he saves his son: another very real adult fear.
The Lovecraftian cosmic terror which began in the first book continues here with the protagonist’s dreams and visions. Campbell moves into a wider-ranging exploration of horror at the vast scope of the universe and its unknowable, vast, uncaring forces. The themes of cosmic horror are contrasted with the book’s references to Christian faith: Dominic is running a course on the Christ-figure in film. It can be argued that while religion is about forming a connection with god, cosmic horror is about the possibility that if a god existed, it would be beyond the cares or the comprehension of humans.
Of course, this fits into the way Campbell’s prose renders the world: the everyday becomes a source of paranoia and fearful implications through a slow and carefully managed build-up. Not just in situations such as being confronted by the police, this paranoia can be found in the mentions of disturbances ascribed to rats, or in a field that appears to have gained a sense of wrongness just by being near the ‘Safe To Sleep’ Clinic:
‘Hoping I hadn’t much further to tramp through the oppressive vegetation – the swollen stalks that kept nodding closer, the smell that reminded me more of mold than grass, the omnipresent barley greenish pallor that made the field look like a faded representation of itself.’
This book treats the 1980s with no shiny nostalgia for fashion and the culture. It’s an era of casual racism, social unrest, and the demonisation of people who need social security. There’s also a reference to the ‘Satanic Panic’. Bobby’s book ‘The Entitlement Trap’ – arguing that people were tougher and better at coping when they were young – is linked to the aims of the clinic’s management:
‘The world isn’t ready for the truth yet, but the children will be. Anybody who’s involved will. We can’t stop what’s coming, we can only prepare and they’ll be more prepared than most.’
This idea is made even more disturbing with what Toby and the other children refer to in their drawings and stories. But – as this extract shows – the antagonists do not drop into rants; they conduct themselves with a calmness and self-assurance which makes their actions even more disturbing. There may also be a link to another aspect of 1980s culture: the fear of possible nuclear war. Do they think they are shaping children to survive the end of the world? Is that what is planned for the final book? While Ramsey Campbell has previously explored experimentation with dreams (in his 1983 novel Incarnate), the use of children here may be inspired by The Damned (UK, Joseph Losey, 1962) where radioactive children were created to survive a nuclear war.
Born To The Dark demonstrates how Campbell has risen to a level of skill gained from decades of writing. It takes cosmic horror, removes all traces of slimy tentacles, and turns it into something that asks if the human mind could stand contact with the face of god. This is combined with Campbell’s knack of giving the reader just enough information to understand that something is wrong – and making everyday things sinister. The final volume in this series looks to be spectacular. But for now, this is a great story that can be enjoyed on its own, and one which is highly recommended for all fans of British horror novels.
Born to the Dark (The Three Births of Daoloth #2) is available from Flame Tree Press