Epeolatry Book Review: The Searching Dead by Ramsey Campbell

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Title: The Searching Dead
Author: Ramsey Campbell
Genre: Dark Fantasy
Publisher: Flame Tree Press
Release Date: 16th Feb, 2021

Synopsis:1952. On a school trip to France teenager Dominic Sheldrake begins to suspect his teacher Christian Noble has reasons to be there as secret as they’re strange. Meanwhile a widowed neighbour joins a church that puts you in touch with your dead relatives, who prove much harder to get rid of. As Dominic and his friends Roberta and Jim investigate, they can’t suspect how much larger and more terrible the link between these mysteries will become. A monstrous discovery beneath a church only hints at terrors that are poised to engulf the world as the trilogy brings us to the present day…

I have read Ramsey Campbell over the years, along with other authors published by indie horror press Flame Tree (launched in 2018). I’ve enjoyed them.

So, when the opportunity came to review Campbell’s latest—I leapt at it, albeit with mental reservation; I am not a trilogy reader. The subtitle The Three Births of Daoloth did recall to mind a Tom Baker ‘Dr Who’ 1970’s episode (nothing wrong with that either—I loved Baker as the time travelling Dr).

When I reached the end of The Searching Dead, it’s fair to say I still wasn’t certain who or what Daoloth was, which felt like a bit of a let-down and a swizzle.

For me, this was a book of two halves. I enjoyed, very much, the set up and back drop of 1950’s Liverpool (where my parents lived and grew up) but the second half, which I kept hoping would deliver more horror or a bit more supernatural oomph at least, for me it didn’t. And by the last few chapters I’d given up hope and therefore lost interest. It’s fairly clear Campbell’s novel is Book 1; everything is being set up. But nothing is being explained or resolved, merely hinted. There’s only so much hinting you can do over 240-odd pages without losing this reader’s interest.

So, the pluses: Liverpool, grey, and dreary in 1952, still in the grip of rationing. It is meticulously realised and clearly vivid in Mr Campbell’s personal memory. The city stands out as another character in its own right, including the cinemas the teenage protagonists (the self-titled Tremendous Three) patronise and the roads and parks they explore. 

Being a keen film buff, I did spot the odd implied inaccuracy – e.g. the 1953 film, From Here to Eternity won Best Supporting Actor/Actress Oscars not the two top Best Actor/Actress awards, much to Hollywood star Burt Lancaster’s chagrin. 

The engaging main protagonist, the teenage Dominic Sheldrake—who narrates the story—is a likeable, observant, thoughtful lad whose anxieties and obsessions leap off the page. Dominic attends a Catholic upper school run by strict monks; he gives a fair amount of discussion regarding religion—how it should be taught, how it’s perceived, but is actually lived and practiced by the adults. Dominic also worries a lot about telling lies and defining the shades of truth.

One teacher in particular bothers young Sheldrake more and more—Christian Noble. Noble organises a history trip to the WW1 battlefields of France after his aged father tells creepy stories at a school assembly about a field in France which seems to have an evil energy of its own. Noble has his own agenda—the scenes where he pushes his toddler daughter, Tina, around the graveyard/park in her pushchair whilst having strangely adult conversations with her—those scenes fairly hum off the page with spookiness. The school trip to France is another highlight with Dominic and friends stalking their teacher on his weird night-time activities.

Noble preaches at a local church and has enticed Dominic’s near neighbour, Mrs Norris, a lonely widow, to join the congregation. It is Mrs Norris whose character eludes, opaquely hints—but never directly—about how she is now ‘enjoying’ the company of the late Mr Norris, whom Mr Noble has brought back in some way. The scenes in the Norris’ tiny terrace are very effective, claustrophobic, and unnerving.

Dominic’s staunchly religious parents are horrified but cannot deny the terrible disintegration which befalls Mrs Norris. They believe it’s merely spiritualism, but Dominic comes to suspect a much darker truth about Mr Noble’s church.

At times, when the teens are in full Famous Five P.I. mode, the story reads more like an Enid Blyton adventure than a horror novel. After a while it does get a bit boring: all the teen chats, the night stalking, the eavesdropping… and nothing much happening. Even if the dead are back, we never see them or get much idea of them doing anything—well, as yet. Obviously there two more books to come. I won’t be returning for Books 2 and 3.

However, as always, Mr Campbell’s stylish writing and clever and elliptical use of language is a master class in itself.

Another issue for me was the patchy editing/proofreading. There were typos and frequent incorrect punctuation, especially with the layout of speech.

So, four stars for the writing, half a star taken off for the errors and slapdash proofing. Sorry, but it does matter to this reader.

Many thanks to Flame Tree Press for supplying a hard back copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Available from Bookshop and Amazon.

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