Friday, January 13, 2017

The Searching Dead: The Three Births of Daoloth Book One (2016) by Ramsey Campbell

The Searching Dead: The Three Births of Daoloth Book One (2016) by Ramsey Campbell: The great Ramsey Campbell looks both forward and backward in his newest novel: forward in the sense that he's writing something new for him (a bildungsroman and a trilogy of which The Searching Dead is Book One), backward in the sense that he's returned to the Lovecraftian themes and creatures of his earliest published work back when he was a teen-ager (!) in the early 1960's with a collection released by the Lovecraft-centric Arkham House.

The Searching Dead is also a retrospective narrative. And it may turn out to be a K├╝nstlerroman -- when the first book ends, it remains unclear as to whether or not our narrator will become a writer. He's still in his early teens.

Our first-person, teen narrator, Dominic Sheldrake, lives in 1950's Liverpool. A recently widowed neighbour starts acting strangely several months after the death of her husband. So too her dog. The neighbour initially praises the new Church she's joined, as it's allowed her to contact her dead husband. Soon this doesn't seem like much of a bargain: the woman starts behaving erratically. And Dominic starts to be convinced that something follows her around, something insubstantial that nonetheless has the power to attach itself to things living or dead and reshape them to embody its form.

Dominic has also just begun his year at a new school, a private Catholic boys' school, along with his best friend Jim. The third member of their childhood trio, Roberta/Bobbie, is still around as well. But puberty has started changing things for the three. And age has its other effects -- the imaginary trio of child heroes Dominic writes the adventures of in his notebooks, heroes who are even named after Dominic, Bobbie, and Jim, no longer have much allure for Jim and Bobbie. They're becoming kid's stuff.

As Dominic finds himself pulled into the increasingly strange events surrounding his neighbour, he discovers a connection between her and the oddest of his school-teachers. And the oddness of that school-teacher becomes more and more pronouncedly odd the longer and closer Dominic looks. Jim and Bobbie come along for the ride, for awhile. But everyone grows up, and the exploits of pre-pubescent detectives are invariably fictional. Which is too bad, as Dominic has stumbled across events that would probably require the combined efforts of the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, the Bobbsey Twins, and the Harry Potter gang to combat.

Dominic is a poignant, self-critical narrator, letting slip hints of what's coming (something dire) from his retrospective position. Campbell does a fine job situating his narrator in that liminal zone between child and teenager, with the attendant confusion amplified by the awful events into which Dominic finds himself being pulled. Dominic wants to believe in a world in which teen detectives save the day. But that belief stands revealed as a fictional conceit as the events of The Searching Dead unfold.

The evocation of a specific place and time helps make The Searching Dead one of Campbell's strongest novels. Post-war shortages, the continued existence of entire unoccupied neighbourhoods of Blitzed houses, the arrival of the first neighbourhood televisions just in time for Elizabeth II's coronation, the street parties that accompany that coronation, the day-to-day school activities of Dominic and Jim -- all these are beautifully and complexly depicted. And there's a sad and tragic scene in which the Liverpool police return a woman to the husband she's fled because clearly the husband knows best and the woman has no right to run away with her child from an upstanding male citizen.

We end with a scene that suggests mounting horrors to come while satisfyingly bringing to a close the first part of the story. The sinister, cult-like 'religion' of The Searching Dead seems entirely plausible. Its rituals make almost more sense than those of 'real' religions. Something is coming, something even the trees fear. Something else has already arrived. Its work is not yet done. Highly recommended.

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