Though Ramsey Campbell is my favorite horror author, I somehow manage to always be “late to the party” when it comes to his newest releases. In the most recent case, however, it was entirely my fault: I ordered a signed, limited edition copy of his novel The Searching Dead (2016), and it took me over a year to get around to reading it! The book was so pretty that I think I was afraid to touch it, at first.
But I’m glad I did, because it is the first in a trilogy of cosmic horror called The Three Births of Daoloth! After I finished The Searching Dead, I immediately ordered the second volume, Born to the Dark (2017). The third volume isn’t due to be released until later this year, I believe, so this post is about 2/3rds of the trilogy!
What initially struck me when I started diving into the novels? How unusual it is to see a structured trilogy in the horror genre. There are, certainly, many horror series, such as Brian Lumley’s Necroscope series (18 books) and Brian Keene’s The Rising series (5 books) but it is relatively rare to see trilogies planned from the beginning as such.
Campbell’s Three Births of Daoloth is a return to some of his earliest work in cosmic horror, his Lovecraft-inspired The Inhabitant of the Lake (1964). Campbell’s contribution to cosmic horror is referred to as the Brichester Mythos, after the fictional town of Brichester that he invented as a setting for many of the tales. As Campbell himself described, he first returned to Brichester at the prompting of a friend at his publishing house, resulting in the 2013 novella The Last Revelation of Gla’aki.
The same friend encouraged him to pursue a trilogy next. Somewhere — and I am infuriated that I cannot find the link again — I read that Campbell opted to pursue a trilogy of cosmic horror because he felt that he could use the format to do better justice to the ideas that he had explored decades earlier.
One reason that I suspect that horror is not often explored in trilogy form is that it can be difficult to maintain the tension and horror over three books. Campbell circumvents any problems by having his novel follow the same character over three different time periods. The Searching Dead is set in the 1950s, while Born to the Dark is set in the 1980s. The third novel will presumably be set near the millennium, though no details have been released about this book yet. The result, at least over the two books released so far, is that they follow the same characters but have extremely different feels to them.
The Searching Dead introduces us to our narrator, Dominic Sheldrake, as he starts classes in a new Catholic grammar school in Liverpool. He and his longtime friend Jim Bailey struggle to fit into the strict disciplinary atmosphere of the school, but one teacher captures their attention. Mr. Noble has very unconventional ideas about life, reality, and religion, and the two boys occasionally spot him involved in strange behavior: lingering around cemeteries, and having whispered conversations with people or things that are just out of sight and never seen.
Christian Noble’s father, a World War I veteran, gives a talk at the school about the horrors of war, during which he seems to imply that he awakened something ancient and powerful while sleeping in the trenches in France. Dominic’s curiosity is sparked when Mr. Noble encourages a school trip to that very same area of France, and it is further stoked when he witnesses Noble performing a strange ritual in the dead of night during the trip.
What is Noble trying to accomplish, and how is it connected to the strange church that he has founded, at which he claims to be able to contact the loved dead of the parishioners? As the Tremendous Three — Dominic, Jim, and their friend Bobby — explore the mysteries of Noble further, they draw his attention, and the ire of those that serve him.
The Searching Dead will remind some of the first half of Stephen King’s It, or Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life, in that it follows a group of young friends as they are threatened by forces they don’t understand and are ill-equipped to defend against. But Campbell brings his own unique ideas and vision to the coming-of-age horror novel. Christian Noble is a really effective villain, incredibly intelligent and evil yet simultaneously cowardly in a particularly diabolical way. Noble’s infant daughter Tina is also a brilliant creation, far too intelligent and well-spoken for her age and clearly more aware of her father’s doings than she lets on. The revelation behind Noble’s actions and his plan is incredibly clever and satisfying and a wonderful twist on the classic Lovecraftian trope of a “scholar seeking forbidden arcane knowledge.”
Born to the Dark picks up thirty years later. Dominic is now married, with a young son of his own, and the Tremendous Three are only occasionally in contact. Dominic’s son Toby suffers from a mysterious epileptic seizure condition that has resisted all conventional forms of treatment. When his wife finds a new clinic that has had great success in treating similar sufferers, the couple jump at the chance. But before long, Dominic starts to suspect that all is not what it seems at the clinic, and that his son may be in deadly peril when participating in its rituals. His investigations lead him back into conflict with Christian and Tina Noble, but nobody understands the threat the pair poses — not his wife, not his son, not his old grammar school friends. Can Dominic save his son from their influence, and turn back the pair’s machinations once again?
I was really pleasantly surprised at how eager I was to follow the life and exploits of Dominic and his friends thirty years later. Settling into the second novel, all the characters — Noble and Tina as well, in a twisted way — felt like old friends. The Noble’s new scheme extends brilliantly the ideas that were explored in The Searching Dead, so much so that I am eager to see where the third novel goes. Especially since, in the first two, it is strongly implied that the climax might very well be the end of the world.
I had a bit of a revelation while reading Campbell’s trilogy. Ramsey Campbell is a master at presenting uncomfortable social situations that are the written equivalent of nails on a chalkboard, and I finally figured out why: Campbell’s stories depict a world which is almost completely bereft of empathy. In The Searching Dead, Dominic is only able to get his parents to care about Christian Noble while he teaches at his school — once Noble is gone, everyone stops caring. All the characters very much act like self-centered automatons, completely preoccupied with their own immediate needs, even when it is clear — to the reader, at least — that this could lead to horrific consequences.
I would go so far to say that such a lack of empathy in modern society is an ongoing theme in Campbell’s work. The supernatural horrors that the protagonists are exposed to are intensified by the fact that there is no comfort or succor from other human beings, who are all preoccupied with their own problems.
I feel that this blog post won’t do proper justice to the brilliance of these novels. The devil is in the details, so to speak, and it is difficult to explain how clever the stories are without giving away crucial details. Let me simply say that The Three Births of Daoloth are, so far, some of Campbell’s most compelling novels. I am excited to see how well (and horribly) things conclude in the third book.