The Searching Dead is published by Flame Tree Press (following its original publication several years ago in a limited edition by PS Publishing) and is the first part of Ramsey Campbell’s Daoloth trilogy, to be followed by Born to the Dark and The Way of the Worm. Set in Liverpool in 1952 it follows the story of schoolboy Dominic Sheldrake and his friends Jim and Bobby. Dominic, the narrator, lives with his parents and attends a local all-boys Catholic school. When his class goes on a school trip to France to visit some war sites, Christian Noble, one of the teachers, starts to display some sinister behaviour, drawing the three friends into a terrifying encounter with forces beyond the grave.
I’ve been a fan of Ramsey Campbell since I first came across his short stories in the 80s, which further lead me to his novels. His writing career began many years ago, initially emulating the Lovecraftian mythos stories, but he quickly moved on to finding his own distinct voice and occupying his own place in the list of genre greats. Campbell has a wonderful ability to render even the most mundane object unsettling, and possesses a superb skill in creating funny situations that often quickly give way to disturbing ones, with a deft turn of phrase. It feels like much of the childhood scenes in The Searching Dead might be drawn from Campbell’s own life, and that autobiographical aspect (Dominic has a desire to become a writer) befits the novel. There are several scenes which are so brilliantly written as to evoke a real sense of dread and disquiet, and he manages to balance the coming-of-age story perfectly against the main strand of the narrative, which is the cosmic horror suggested at by the antagonist Noble. The more overtly horror aspects of the book are subtly done, with numerous instances of Campbell’s skill in creating scenes worthy of nightmare. Most horror novels would be proud of having just one of these scenes, but The Searching Dead achieves this over and over, accumulating the dread until the overall affect is immensely disturbing. Despite this just being the opening book of the trilogy, there’s a sense of one chapter closing and another opening as the narrator hints at the horrors to come. I really liked the character of Dominic and I’m interested in hearing what happens to him as he grows older. No doubt the darkness that he’s escaped from is only a temporary respite. I suspect Christian Noble and his dark church is not done with him yet. This is a superb slice of cosmic horror, one that works on many levels, and is a worthy read. Recommended.