Set in 1952 and 1953, The Searching Dead (the first volume in a projected trilogy, The Three Births of Daoloth) starts with young Dominic Sheldrake attending a new school, The Holy Ghost, where his form tutor, Mr Noble, turns out to be something of a misfit among the otherwise strictly Roman Catholic staff. Mr Noble has recently started attending a local spiritualist church, not to make contact with any of his own dear departed, but to help the bereaved with new techniques for bringing back the dead — techniques which work rather too well. It’s not long before Mr Noble is fired from his position at The Holy Ghost, but Dominic — who, along with friends Jim and Bobby (Roberta), make up the Tremendous Three — realises he’s only going to get up to much worse now he’s free of restraint.
If Dominic’s gang’s name, the Tremendous Three, sounds a bit Famous Five-ish, that’s only because it’s how Dominic wants to think of them. He’s as keen on writing stories about the trio’s imagined adventures as he is about clinging to the ideal of their childhood friendship. But the reality of Campbell’s post-Blitz Liverpool, with its casually strict parents, repressively religious teachers, and the burgeoning realities of adolescence, are more than enough to undermine any sense of simple Blytonesque adventure. And that’s before the horrors kick in.
Part of the Lovecraftian feel of The Searching Dead (which has none of the grotesquely comic feel of Campbell’s most recent Lovecraftian fiction, The Last Revelations of Gla’aki, and in fact often feels quite low-key and restrained for the often hallucinatory Campbell) comes from parallels with “The Dunwich Horror”. Mr Noble was conceived shortly after his father, a soldier in France during the Second World War, came, during that conflict, to a field he felt held a presence that was hungry for the dead. And the feeling that Mr Noble himself is somehow, in part, parented by that presence (just as the Whateley twins were by Yog-Sothoth in Lovecraft’s story) is intensified when we meet the next generation, Mr Noble’s precocious two-year-old Tina.
Knowing something of Campbell’s own life, it’s impossible not to read biographical elements into The Searching Dead. Dominic has obvious parallels to the young John Ramsey Campbell: raised as a Roman Catholic in 1950s Liverpool, spending his Saturdays watching films at a variety of local cinemas (Dominic tries to sneak into his first X-rated one, about giant ants), and making his first steps in developing as a writer (Dominic finds that he prefers Lucky Jim to The Devil Rides Out, for instance). At the same time, I can’t help reading a shadowy sort of inner biography in the contrasting Noble family. Reverse the sexes, and that family sketches Campbell’s own from when he was growing up. Two-year-old Tina Noble is the entire focus of the mentally-unbalanced/visionary Mr Noble, to the extent that Tina’s mother is ousted from the family; Campbell himself has written about his mother’s increasing mental illness, and how she forbade his father from having any contact with his son, despite living in the same house. Even the presence (and death) of Mr Noble’s father echoes that of Campbell’s maternal grandmother, who lived with Campbell and his mother for a while before her death. It’s as though the biographical portrait of Campbell-as-Dominic is completed by its shadow in Campbell-as-Tina.
The whole novel has a stifling air of religious repression, where conventional religion is used by adults as a force for coercion, control, and setting harsh limits on the inner development of the adolescent protagonists. In contrast, Mr Noble’s beliefs, though horrific, at least seem to be offering genuine truths (he does make the dead come back, after all), however bleak those truths are. But his answer to conventional religion’s repressive frustrations of inner growth is a cosmic breaking of the limits of self that can too easily result in having one’s individuality devoured by something far larger, and darker. In The Searching Dead, death is not the end, but the beginning of a far greater terror, when memory — one of the defining features of selfhood in this novel (and, so the prologue implies, in the trilogy as a whole) — becomes increasingly difficult to hold onto.
I’m really interested to see where Campbell takes this series. Obviously, the title implies Daoloth, the dead-devouring entity that begins to come through in this book, will be making two more appearances, presumably at significant later stages in Dominic’s life. Hints at the start and end of the novel imply things aren’t always going to go as well as they do in this one, whose ending, nevertheless, addresses the loss of childhood innocence thanks both to events in the normal world (the implacable advance of adolescence putting its inevitable strain on relationships in the Tremendous Three, for instance) and in the wider realisation of more terrible truths compared to which Dominic’s conventional religious upbringing, repressive though it is, is a comforting childhood dream.