(2017 / 2021) Ramsey Campbell, Flame Tree Press, £20 / Can$32.95 / US$24.95,
hrdbk, 247pp, ISBN 978-1-787-58558-4
The Searching Dead is the first of a trilogy of novels collectively known as The Three Births of Daolith and will be followed by Born of the Dark and The Way of the Worm. All three of them were previously published in limited editions by PS Publishing at the end of the last decade with beautiful cover illustrations by Les Edwards. Now (2021) they are being published by Flame Tree Press who are dipping into Campbell’s back-catalogue by publishing some of his classic horror novels like The Hungry Moon and The Influence and newer ones like The Wise Friend.
Here, in this first book we are in 1950s Liverpool, in the company of schoolboy Dominic Sheldrake who is about to start at secondary school at a Catholic Grammar School. This might mean the end of “The Tremendous Three”, his primary school gang consisting of himself, and his friends Jim and Roberta, or Bobby for short, as Bobby will be heading off to another school, although the three will still meet up on bus journeys and in their free times by going to the cinema, or after school. However, the three of them also live on in story form as Dom writes about the adventures of “The Tremendous Three” while devouring science fiction novels and anything else recommended he should read, much to the disgust of some of Brothers/Priests/Teachers at his new school, some of which don’t think much of his writing either.
One teacher who encourages him is the enigmatic Mr. Noble who can be seen at night pushing a pram around the cemetery across the road from where Dom lives, and can be heard talking to the child in the pram, or is he talking to the dead in their graves? Mr. Noble also seems to be involved with one of Dom’s neighbours, Mrs. Norris, whose husband has recently died, but is taking some comfort from attending a spiritualist church which Mr. Noble attends and he seems to have connected Mrs. Norris with her dead husband. But Mrs. Norris’ happiness soon turns to dread at the persistent attentions of her dead husband and she begins to deteriorate physically and mentally. Meanwhile at school, Mr. Nobel’s aging father gives a talk about his experiences in the First World War and mentions an eerie battlefield in France, so it’s no surprise to Dom that the school makes a trip there, but what is Mr. Noble’s real reason for going there? And when he sneaks out of their hostel in the dead of night, Dom has no choice but to follow to see what he is up to...
The Searching Dead is quiet, subtle horror demonstrating Campbell’s skills at stirring unease in the reader as Dom relates his encounters with an increasingly dishevelled and unhinged Mrs. Norris, heightened by visits to her house and having to deal with her dog. Dom’s excursions into the dark, foggy streets on his own are filled with dread and menace, and so is a visit to the basement of the church Mr. Noble founded. The Tremendous Three might be on the case, but it is a lot darker than the derring-do exploits that Dom writes about, and there are strains within their group, and growing seχual tension between the three. Their parents don’t seem to be getting on either in this post-war world with the coronation of the new Queen and Bobby’s father questioning the place of the monarchy and the ruling classes in British society. Above all of this is Campbell’s brilliant evocation of 1950s Liverpool trying to move on from the ravages of the war: Campbell lives in the northwest of England. Campbell has always been a master of narrative drive delivering novels full of cliff-hangers and ominous revelations and The Searching Dead shows him at the height of his powers. Highly recommended.
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