"The Searching Dead" Book Review
Written by Stuart D. Monroe
Published by Flame Tree Press
Written by Ramsey Campbell
2016, 245 pages, Fiction
Released on February 16th, 2021
Ah, cosmic horror. It’s the tried-and-true drug that everyone turns to at least on occasion. After all, we all started out with the Godfather of Eldritch Horror, H.P. Lovecraft. There may be readers out there who escaped his clutches, but I’d be staggered if I ever met one. You could say it’s required reading despite all the other stuff that comes along with his stories.
Similarly, every horror author has tried their hand at it. My first published short story, “From the Drop”, is a straight-up Lovecraft pastiche set aboard a crab fishing vessel in the Bering Sea (yes, I’m a Deadliest Catch fan). In that space, there are very few authors who have more of a flair for it than Ramsey Campbell. His early writing was directly inspired by the man’s work, and he’s written many a tale of madness from beyond the stars. When you have a true master revisiting the mythos, it’s essential that you stand up and take note.
Naturally, I was on his newest book, The Searching Dead, like flies on shit. It’s the first book in his upcoming “The Three Births of Daoloth” trilogy, and Ramsey Campbell is at the peak of his craft, the literary equivalent of a well-aged bottle of Balvenie. He’s not just spending a little time with cosmic terror of unimaginable proportions – he’s wallowing in it!
Dominic Sheldrake is a teenager in Liverpool, England. It’s 1952, a time when society operated under very different rules and ways. Dom and his best friends, Jim Bailey and Roberta “Bobby” Parkin are already entrenched in navigating the mysteries of adolescence and impending adulthood when they meet Christian Noble, the new teacher at Holy Ghost. Dom is extremely taken with the strange contrarian pedagogue, particularly his non-Christian beliefs and habit of strolling through graveyards with his extremely creepy infant daughter, Tina. Word is going around that Mr. Noble is a spiritualist of a completely different sort, a man who claims to be able to literally bring your loved dead back to you for conversation and companionship. The Sheldrake’s widowed neighbor, Mrs. Norris, begins to come unglued, and soon Mr. Noble is under scrutiny from The Tremendous Three (Dominic, Jim, and Bobby), as well as his employers. What is Noble really bringing back from the other side? Why are these visitors so hard to get rid of? And what lives beneath that battlefield in France?
The Searching Dead is classic Ramsey Campbell, written with care and a playful love of using the language to make the horror more resonant. I’ve always enjoyed that you must slow down to read him. He opens with a flourish and some intense foreshadowing before settling into the horror…but only at the edge of your senses. It gets closer by fractional degrees. His patient form of torture is almost maddening, but that’s what makes his work rewarding. Along the way he sprinkles in scenes and imagery that are stark and horrific – the battlefield ringed by vegetation trying to desperately grow away from the soiled ground is a strong one that dug a deep, dark hole in my brain. The evil gets closer and more visible; the confusion and manipulation from outside forces in Dom’s inner monologue become almost a shriek. The Searching Dead becomes extremely hard to put down at that point while still showing amazing restraint (it is the first in a trilogy, after all).
Running through it all (and often overpowering the horror with a truth that pierces with both reality and relevance) are the themes of adolescent coming of age, the mystery of death, the backwardness of classism and racism, and the power of friendship. Virtually every adult in this story will make you want to knock them out, but they will be oh so familiar, too. Campbell is saying a lot about the perils of organized religion and what an experience it is to start realizing that it’s not always “for the Bible tells me so…”
By contrast, the teenage protagonists are just extraordinary. Adolescents are naturally great protagonists, and this trio is both a classic love triangle and a detective team. It’s fun, and the darkness of the story frankly requires it (that’s how you know the horror is firing on all cylinders). The Searching Dead also works wonderfully as a coming-of-age story that can stand alongside the best. There’s a moment where Bobby is talking to the two boys about Noble’s freakishly advanced and headstrong toddler and she says that maybe Tina is the way girls NEED to be. The boys don’t get it at all, but you do. That moment hits like a ton of bricks. In the middle of all that madness, she’s hit on deep truth. Only a writer as good as Campbell can get that in with all the cosmic fuckery about!
You’ll get quite lost in the sections that cover Noble’s diary. It’s the most Lovecraft of the entire book, a firsthand tale of what sending the dead out in search of an identity will get you. The prose is both crisp and archaic, and it feels like going back to the first horror stories you read. That’s a great feeling. The constantly changing facial features of the unquiet dead is pure nightmare fuel. And that glimpse of Daoloth? Campbell has legitimately upped the game there. Simply put, I cannot fucking wait for Born to the Dark.
The Searching Dead is your own glimpse of a master at work, one who’s clearly enjoying the murkiness of the water and the fear of what you can’t see…yet. The personal horror of adolescence mixes with the horror of a society nearly as cold and indifferent as Daoloth itself to create a cosmic horror that’s familiar in its trappings but at the same time so different at heart from old H.P. that you could say it’s alien.
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