The Searching Dead
(The Three Births of Daoloth #1)
David Allkins reviews The Searching Dead by Ramsey Campbell, a 1950s tale of supernatural dread and the first in his new trilogy The Three Births of Daoloth...
Ramsey Campbell has been a significant presence in British horror fiction ever since the publication of his anthology Demons by Daylight in 1973, and his first novel The Doll Who Ate His Mother in 1976. Whilst he may not have received the mainstream success of James Herbert, he has a great catalogue of work to explore, and a full mantelpiece-worth of awards and honours. The Searching Dead is the first book in a new trilogy from Flame Tree Press, which has published and reprinted several of his novels.
At the start of the story, Dominic Sheldrake – along with his best friend Jim – is facing his first day at The Holy Ghost Grammar School, Liverpool, in 1952. Dominic realises that he’s already seen his new form master and history teacher, Mr Noble; Dominic’s room overlooks the local cemetery, and he’s seen Mr Noble pushing a pram through the graves. As the year progresses, the boys go on a school trip to France for a tour of the battlefields, a tour connected to a strange encounter experienced by Mr Noble’s father in the First World War. Meanwhile, Mrs Norris (a neighbour of the Sheldrakes) is undergoing a slow deterioration which started when Mr Noble joined her Spiritualist Church. Dominic persuades Jim and Bobby (their female friend) that they need to help him investigate Mr Noble, but as time passes, he finds himself involved in something a lot darker than he would have believed.
It’s easy to see Dominic, with his interest in writing stories, as a younger version of Campbell, but he does come across as a character in his own right rather than an author self-insert. Dominic is awkward and nervous, with a well-developed sense of guilt over his actions and the prospect of having to tell lies. He sees himself and his friends as part of an Enid Blyton-inspired mystery solving group called The Tremendous Three; he uses this both as the basis for stories about their adventures, and also to hold onto the notion that they should not drift away – despite getting older and going to different schools. This is not going to be a comfortable story about kids uniting to defeat a monster.
Campbell gives a wonderful impression of the historical time and place where the action is set. Major historical events, such as the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, are experienced – with people huddled around a single television set and a street party afterwards – but there are a lot of the little details of the period as well. The end of rationing; the last few trams in Liverpool; most people’s entertainment coming from the radio and the cinema. Another skill of Campbell’s is in referring to the smells of the locations, and the tastes of the foods, continuing to make the reader feel as if they are in 1950s Britain.
However, there’s also the sense of the world changing – and how this frightens people. The headmaster uses his assemblies to denounce scientific discoveries which he thinks get too near the secrets of God, and films like From Here to Eternity (US, Fred Zinnemann, 1953). He also rips up materials such as film magazines and comic books. Elsewhere, people fear communism hiding amongst them. The world wars, too, still cast their shadows, with areas where bombed buildings haven’t been rebuilt, and fathers who don’t talk about serving in the army. This isn’t a view of the British past that presents it as a golden age. It shows a time when people were starting to see wider possibilities for their future but were still held in place by faith, prejudices, and the shadow of history.
As well as recreating this historical period, the narrative also manages to be very frightening. Campbell doesn’t try to provide the literary equivalent of jump scares: he doesn’t start writing passages saying how frightening something is; how it’s like something frightening; and that you, the reader, should be frightened. I suspect we’ve all read something like this before and have been left with the sense that the writer was trying too hard. Instead, Campbell is able to do something more disturbing: create a sense of dread through careful suggestion and details. The shape you see at a corner, which might – when you think about it – be something other than what it appears. A sound that doesn’t make sense to the listener: ‘a high giggle so scrawny that sounded as if its owner scarcely had a mouth’. The child that’s creepy because she has a too-wide vocabulary and says strange things, such as being able to ‘see past the sky.’ Or what it’s like to sense the alighting of something not-alive on your skin.
All this means that, by the time the extent of Mr Noble’s abilities become apparent, you’re already in a state of tension at what could be coming. Campbell has spoken of his admiration for M. R. James, and this also feels like a classic ghost story in its sense of Englishness, with the internal guilt and confusion of the narrator, and paranormal events set in everyday surroundings like suburban homes and cinemas. While it’s possible to see some Lovecraftian themes in this story, you could also say it has links to folk horror: it references beliefs that are ‘older’, and customs involving graves.
Considering this is the start of a trilogy, The Searching Dead works perfectly well on its own terms as a young boy’s encounter with the supernatural. You can see how the story may progress as it approaches the present day, especially with one character established as having disturbing potential for the future. But at the moment it’s a great chilling recent-history horror story, creating shudders in this reader, and I heartily recommend it as one of the scariest British ghost stories of recent years – and created by an expert in the craft. It left me looking forward to the second volume.