Over 25 years ago Campbell wrote a book called MIDNIGHT SUN, which he now, with typical humility, describes as a “honourable failure”. Would that the rest of us could pen such failures! I know I’m not alone in considering that novel a very fine contribution to the field of cosmic horror, but perhaps we should be happy that the author is never satisfied with his stuff and always aims higher.
In interviews around that time, Campbell claims that “maybe in another 20 years” he’ll have “another go” at scaling the peaks ascended by Lovecraft and Blackwood. Well, he’s done so already in several works–THE DARKEST PART OF THE WOODS (2003) and ‘The Last Revelation of Gla’aki’ (2013), both considerable successes – but when I heard that he’d chosen to write a trilogy of novels focusing exclusively on a Mythos theme, I grew more than a little excited.
And so here we have the first entry in what promises to be Campbell’s most ambitious project yet. I understand that these three books will focus on different stages of its narrator’s life, documenting the decades in which Campbell himself has lived and worked. This opening piece is set in the 1950s, in the author’s native Liverpool, and anyone who’s read a little about Campbell’s youth will realise that quite a bit of this (with significant exceptions; for instance, the narrator’s parents appear rather less fractious than Campbell’s own were) is autobiographical.
Campbell’s post-WWII Liverpool is packed with evocative details, from bomb-damaged downtown property to cinemas in the city centre, from adverts saturating high streets to daily life at a Catholic school. Scenes in which the narrator’s juvenile self attends classes, hangs out with friends, and negotiates an ever-perplexing adult world possess an air of fond nostalgia, something which feels quite new in Campbell’s work. Indeed, the tone of this book put me firmly in mind of King’s IT and other works of that stripe.
But it’s not only the minutiae of ’50s English city life under scrutiny here; Campbell also explores social developments of the era, with much reference to international conflicts, gender politics, the resilience of religion under attack by new sciences, Trade Unions, and much more. This novel, fundamentally the intimate tale of a boy entangled in the activities of his decidedly sinister schoolteacher, has a broader dimension which hints at all the cosmic material which will surely be explored in later volumes.
Such rich, detailed world-building lends the book intricacy and completeness. The narrator’s early life is depicted with merciless attention to the circumstances which mark his development from reticent child to teenage artist. It is here that I believe that Campbell’s autobiographical material becomes more prevalent, with memorably vivid passages concerning how it feels to start out as a writer: the nervousness when revealing new work, the transformative impact of latest literary enthusiasms, even the way writing fiction helps one to understand one’s own life and can even lend one courage (like Burt Lancaster, the star of the piece can never die).
I feel that this is perhaps the book’s most significant theme: the role of fiction, particularly from the 1950s and the ubiquity of cinema, in shaping the way people in the modern age think about themselves and their actions. Campbell’s young characters are constantly borrowing phrases from the films, structuring their lived experience with mimicked behaviours.
Indeed, the more fiction the narrator writes, the more he comes to think of himself and his friends as characters in a story – and so they are. His tales of an intrepid gang become entwined with the narrator’s retrospective account of his youth, to such a degree that the older incarnation inevitably wonders how much he’s recalling in accurate detail and how much he might be elaborating according to fictional conventions and how they patch up incomplete memory.
This is a deep (and yet unobtrusive) strand of the novel, but let me not suggest that the book welshes on its horror material. Campbell’s tale of a young boy becoming involved with the dark shenanigans of a guru-like adult has more than a hint of King’s REVIVAL about it, but while King focuses intertextually more on Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN (despite his prefatory reference to ‘The Great God Pan’), Campbell’s novel feels more firmly rooted in the world of Machen’s seedy suburban adventure.
Something is amiss at an elderly friend’s house. When this lady suffers a breakdown as a consequence of some species of meddling by the insidious schoolmaster, the narrator’s boyhood self must figure out why and what caused it. This leads him into a sequence of events whose underlying pungency and escalating dread peak in images of hallucinogenic weirdness (a scene in a cinema’s bathroom is particularly fine) and a tantalising vision of imminent cosmic terror.
The narrator, looking back from a hitherto undisclosed future time period, repeatedly claims that the world is over now, but this first novel hints at only a third of the reason how. Its concluding scenes, one of them set under a creepy old church, provide both a fitting ending to this low-key exercise in mounting unease and a mouthwatering taste of what’s surely to come.
Well, that’s the traditional horror narrative, right there. But as I hope I’ve made clear, THE SEARCHING DEAD is about so much more than dark frights. Campbell’s parallel depiction of his narrator’s sensitive youth, particularly the social and existential forces which make him what he’ll become (a reflexive adult author), is tender, true and (in a great many places) painful. Indeed, prior to the unsettling finale, the narrator witnesses something equally disturbing in his personal life, and the way this prompts his literary aspirations, even reorients his religious affiliations, feels both right and real.
It’s a powerful ending to a novel which looks set to become one third of Campbell’s masterpiece: a novel about who he is as a man and what he’s always striven to achieve as an author. Bring on BORN TO THE DARK, I say. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I relished every page of THE SEARCHING DEAD.
Check out more reviews on his website: www.gary-fry.com