Over the summer, I blogged about the first two books in the “Three Births of Daoloth” trilogy by Ramsey Campbell, an ambitious work of cosmic horror that spans decades and follows the struggles of Dominic Sheldon against a family that threatens to destroy not only his family and life but the very world.
This October, the third book in the trilogy, The Way of the Worm, was released, and I wasted no time in reading it.
In my humble opinion: Ramsey Campbell has accomplished a rare and impressive feat: the creation of a compelling, intriguing, and haunting trilogy of horror. As I noted in my previous post, it is relatively rare to see trilogies in horror that are a single, complete story arc.
In The Searching Dead, we were introduced to Dominic Sheldrake in grammar school. His new teacher, Christian Noble, strikes him as odd, and soon he and his two friends Jim and Roberta (Bobby) find themselves trying to find out what Noble is trying to accomplish, and how it is connected both to the nearby cemetery as well as Noble’s spiritualism cult. By the end, Noble and his infant daughter Tina have gone into hiding, seemingly defeated for the moment — but Dominic nevertheless has a terrifying premonition of apocalypse.
Born to the Dark takes place thirty years later. Dominic is now married, with his own young son Toby. Toby suffers from a strange seizure condition, and he and his wife enroll him in Safe to Sleep, an organization that has had great success in treatment. Indeed, Toby starts to do much better, but Dominic has reservations about Safe to Sleep and its methods. Soon, he recognizes the hand of the Nobles in the treatments, and tries to convince his skeptical family and friends that the threat of his childhood has returned. In the end, the Nobles are driven out of sight again, but they leave behind a warning to Dominic — that they can come for him whenever they want.
In The Way of the Worm, perhaps 20 more years have past. Dominic’s wife has passed away, and his son has his own daughter, Macy. Dominic’s son and his family have joined a New Age church, and want Dominic to participate, as well. But when he visits, Dominic finds that it is the final stage of Christian Noble’s mysterious and apocalyptic plan, and the Nobles — Christian, daughter Tina, and her son Christopher — are no longer even hiding the ominous and mystical nature of their work. Dominic brings together his friends Bobby and Jim, all seniors now, to make one last effort to stop the Nobles.
Reading The Way of the Worm, one is overwhelmed with a feeling of existential despair. Though Dominic has had happiness in his life, he has sacrificed so much of it to fighting the Nobles, and has done so almost completely alone. By this final book, his wife is gone, the rest of his family are willing participants in Noble’s cult, and much of the community is also wrapped up in it. Loneliness and hopelessness are constant throughout the tale.
It is, however, a perfect ending to the trilogy, and contains a number of unexpected and very satisfying — and horrifying — twists. The Nobles are at the height of their power, and some of the most terrifying scenes of the entire trilogy happen in this final book, as they should.
A key element of any horror story is “sticking the landing,” and I was very curious — and even worried — about whether Campbell would be able to provide a satisfying ending after so much build-up. I’m happy to say that he was able to do so. The ending itself is completely horrifying in its implications, and it is topped off by a brief stinger that adds a terrible irony to the entire saga.
The implications aren’t all spelled out explicitly, however. One thing I’ve noticed with Campbell’s writing is that he will often slip ideas and events into a tale in such a smooth elegant way that an inattentive reader might miss some of the best parts. One of my favorite Campbell novels, the unconventional mystery/horror story Ghosts Know, seems to have confused a number of readers, who gave it negative reviews on Amazon! One reader complained that the final revelation of Ghosts Know didn’t make any sense and wasn’t explained; it was perfectly obvious and natural, however, if you were paying attention. Campbell writes very carefully and I would even say strategically, and taking the time to digest details will make the novel even more rewarding. The same applies to the entire Three Births of Daoloth trilogy.
Daoloth, by the way, is Campbell’s own contribution to the Cthuhlu mythos of H.P. Lovecraft; Campbell got his own start in horror fiction writing tales in the style of Lovecraft. His first collection of stories, The Inhabitant of the Lake, was published by Arkham House in 1964. Daoloth first appeared here, in a story titled, “The Render of the Veils.”
[The image of Daoloth] was not shapeless, but so complex that the eye could recognize no describable shape. There were hemispheres and shining metal, coupled by long plastic rods. The rods were of a flat grey colour, so that he could not make out which were nearer; they merged into a flat mass from which protruded individual cylinders. As he looked at it, he had a curious feeling that eyes gleamed from between these rods; but wherever he glanced at the construction, he saw only the spaces between them.
— The Render of the Veils
Daoloth doesn’t make as overt an appearance in The Three Births of Daoloth trilogy — as in most of Campbell’s later work, the influence of cosmic horrors is much more subtle than Cthulhu stomping around eating unlucky sailors. The cosmic horror is clear and present in the novels, however, and is well-conceived. As one would expect from a genuine master of the field.
Ramsey Campbell has written many, many great works. The Three Births of Daoloth trilogy may, however, be his magnum opus — at least until he writes something else!