The Way of the Worm by Ramsey Campbell

The Way of the Worm, cover art by Les Edwards

The concluding book in Ramsey Campbell’s Three Births of Daoloth trilogy brings things up to the present day (the previous two being set in the early 1950s and 1980s). At the start, a now retired Dominic Sheldrake finds himself living alone after the death of his wife. Though her loss haunts him, it leaves him free to investigate the dubious religion, the Church of the Eternal Three, their son Toby and his family (wife Claudine and daughter Macy) are involved with. Many of the children treated at the Safe to Sleep clinic from the previous novel, Born to the Dark, are now grown-up members of this church, and Dominic suspects his old adversary Christian Noble, along with Noble’s daughter Christina and her son Christopher, are behind it. He allows himself to be initiated into the Church with a guided meditation, and if what he experiences during that isn’t enough to confirm his fears, they’re only deepened when he’s given a copy of this new religion’s icon, an Ouroboros-like many-armed creature which Dominic’s granddaughter disconcertingly calls his “worm”. By this point, he’s met with the Nobles again — now going under a new variation of their surname — and is convinced the Church of the Eternal Three needs to be stopped.

The Searching Dead, cover by Les Edwards

I like the way Campbell has structured his trilogy. Rather than simply splitting a long story into three parts, he’s revisited the life of his main character at three significant stages in his life — adolescence, middle age, and old age — in each of which Dominic encounters the Nobles again and gets a deeper glimpse into the horror they’re helping bring into our world. In the first book of the trilogy, The Searching Dead, Dominic was on the verge of his teenage years, and though he was hemmed in by the old-fashioned beliefs of his parents and teachers, and a religion he could no longer fully believe in, his hopes were firmly set on his future. Adulthood would bring an end to the childhood loneliness he sometimes felt, and he faced up to the supernatural with a genuine conviction that it was a wrong he must set right. But if childhood is a time of hope and ideals (even if also of fears and self-doubts) middle age, in the second book, is a time of compromises. In Born to the Dark Dominic has a family of his own, and so, surely, a guarantee against those moments of childhood loneliness. But family (as so often in Campbell’s fiction) is something that must be fought for, and in this book Dominic kept his family together only by compromising his beliefs, and the horror, in its second incursion into our world, felt larger still, perhaps already too large for any human being to stand against.

Born to the Dark, cover by Les Edwards

In The Way of the Worm, with Dominic approaching the end of his life, there’s the inevitable loss of friends and loved ones, and a feeling of having lived too long with the results of earlier compromises. All this brings a last-ditch determination to his efforts to finally defeat the Nobles. But at the same time there’s a real sense of a life derailed by this need to fend off inhuman horrors — “I was starting to feel as though [Christian Noble] and his family bounded my entire life,” Dominic says at one point — and even, at times, of responsibility, either for not having acted decisively enough beforehand, or for inadvertently helping these cosmic forces on their way.

Set against this is the Nobles’ unshakeable belief that what they’re bringing into our world will come anyway. They are simply ushering in what no-one can stop. There’s a horrific self-assurance to the Nobles, whose eerie family of three, and the beliefs they espouse, sum up another theme that’s often appeared in Campbell’s fiction, the lure of giving up one’s individuality in order to join something larger than oneself (often something supernatural), particularly when the alternative is a (much more human) isolation. Such families and cults (the two becoming difficult to separate, at times) have often appeared in Campbell’s fiction, as with the family of occultists who pop up briefly in The Nameless, looking “manufactured by whatever factory produced families for television series… all their instant identical smiles gleaming”. The Nobles have a similar air of not really being three individuals, but three barely-separable faces of a single, perhaps inhuman entity (“a mask worn by a void”, as Campbell says at one point). In Campbell’s fiction, genuine, human families are constantly embattled and vulnerable, but the supernaturally-allied cults and Noble-like families which seem to share a single, bleak, soulless soul get that sense of belonging without the need to fight or compromise, they merely have to surrender what makes them human.

Providence issue 8, art by Jacen Burrows

I said in my review of Born to the Dark that Campbell’s trilogy felt it was heading for an apocalyptic ending similar to the one Alan Moore presented in Providence, and although that has elements of truth, I think Campbell’s is not quite as bleak, simply because it retains its human focus to the end (as Moore’s does not). Something that can come through in horror — as in, for instance, Alien, which is all about the urge to survive even against the worst odds — is a sort of triumph of humanity not because it wins in the end, but because it has at least fought; and not because it has attained its ideals, but because it at least believed in them and tried to live by them. Humanity may have to be fought for and, yes, inevitably lost, but there’s a real victory to be claimed in its never giving up, despite its failings and vulnerabilities, its losses and compromises.

Which seems like a very un-Lovecraftian conclusion to a Lovecraft-inspired trilogy, but it’s certainly one I’m more inclined to agree with — and I’m not sure a three-book series could have been sustained with only a sort of cosmic despair to drive it on, anyway. (Though the cosmic despair is there. I’m not saying the ending is at all triumphant.) The Three Births of Daoloth is a real achievement, I think, and a deepening of themes that have run throughout Campbell’s work. I’m certainly he gave the idea of writing a horror trilogy a go.

Carrie by Stephen King

First edition cover

In books I’ve covered on Mewsings before (John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids and Chocky, H M Hoover’s Morrow books), telepathy is associated with childhood, and with reaching out to make a deeper emotional connection than is possible in these books’ often repressive environments. Telekinesis, on the other hand, seems more associated with adolescence (along with poltergeist phenomenon) and the release of long-withheld inner rage, the prime example being Stephen King’s first novel, Carrie (published 1974).

The book has a sort of Cinderella-gone-wrong plot. Carrie White is bullied at school by a whole class-full of (morally) ugly sisters, then bullied at home by her wicked un-stepmother of a mother, a woman whose highly judgemental “peculiar religious views” have effectively turned Carrie’s home life into an endless series of sermons on sin:

“Momma was the minister, Carrie the congregation. Services lasted from two to three hours.”

Mrs White refers to her God’s “kind, vengeful hand”, though you have to wonder what God she’s really worshipping when, at one point, she says:

“We know thou bring’st the Eye That Watcheth, the hideous three-lobbed eye…”

If “lobbed” (from a recent paperback edition) is a misprint for “lobed”, then she may actually be invoking the entity that comes for Robert Blake at the end of Lovecraft’s “The Haunter of the Dark”, whose last words are “the three-lobed burning eye…”

Carrie showed signs of telekinesis in childhood — when she was a baby, her mother found her levitating a toy over her crib, and there was a (perhaps Haunting of Hill House-inspired) rain of stones on the White house after the child dared to speak to an older girl sunbathing in a neighbouring garden — but things really kick off when Carrie has her first menstrual period in the showers after a school sports lesson and the other girls mock her mercilessly while she, never having been prepared for this by her mother, thinks she’s dying.

One of the girls, Sue Snell, quickly regrets tormenting Carrie, and tries to make up for it by acting as Carrie’s unelected fairy godmother. She convinces her boyfriend, Tommy (they’re both “Popular” with a capital P), to take Carrie to the school prom. Meanwhile, the ugliest of the ugly sisters, Christine Hargensen, is banned from attending the prom after she walks out of a week’s worth of detentions given to her for what was done to Carrie. In revenge, Christine decides she’s going to humiliate Carrie even more, and sees her going to the ball as the perfect opportunity.

Carrie started out as a short story (which King abandoned, until his wife rescued the typescript from the bin and got him to continue), and feels quite light in plot. The text is peppered with newspaper reports, extracts from articles and books, and snippets from the “White Commission Report” held in the aftermath of Carrie’s unleashed rage, which adds a sort of commentary to the events of the plot, and also serves to bulk up the narrative. And the unleashing of Carrie’s rage is a lot lengthier and more destructive than I was expecting, having only seen Brian De Palma’s 1976 film before this read of the book. In the film, Carrie rains destruction on the prom dance hall; in the book, she pretty much destroys the town, spreading fires, bursting fire hydrants, and exploding at least one gas station (which reminded me of a similar scene in Hitchcock’s The Birds, a film which also seems to me to be about the bursting out of repressed emotion).

Blood runs throughout the novel. “Blood was always at the root of it, and only blood could expiate it,” Mrs White muses at one point, and she links blood with sexual passion, and so with the “sins” of adolescence, and of being a woman. But “blood” can also mean family, and anger, and the blood that rises to your cheeks when you’re humiliated.

It’s part of the novel’s tragedy that, after a lifetime of constant disparagement and bullying, Carrie doesn’t snap till she’s first been shown a little kindness. It’s not just the fact she’s drenched in pig’s blood in front of the whole school, but the contrast it underlines with the glimpse she gets beforehand of how it might feel to be normal, accepted, even loved.

After Carrie herself, the novel’s most interesting character is Sue Snell, who finds herself taking part in tormenting Carrie even though she knows she shouldn’t, and who is the only “ugly sister” to really try to make up for it. The best and most unexpected part of the novel, for me, occurs near the end, when Sue finds the now terminally-wounded Carrie lying amidst the ruins of a formerly quiet American town. Carrie has, till now, shown a modicum of telepathic ability, but here she finally gets to use it in the same way as Wyndham’s Chrysalids kids and Hoover’s Children of Morrow. Sue allows the dying Carrie into the deepest parts of her mind, in an attempt to convince her she really was trying to be kind, not cruel, in getting Tommy to take her to the prom. Sue feels Carrie uncovering her basest emotions — more than she herself was aware of — but also, most poignantly, remains mentally linked to her as Carrie’s mind fades into a dying babble, and then into death itself, in a far more affecting end than De Palma’s hand-from-the-grave jump:

“The mixture of image and emotion was staggering, indescribable. Blood. Sadness. Fear.”

King gets his equivalent of the “it’s not over yet” ending, too, with hints of another girl, elsewhere in America, growing up with the same ability. Will she be made into a monster like Carrie, by the cruelty of those who are supposed to love her?

It’s quite a good, if light, read, unrelenting in its portrayal of just how destructive (in the emotional as much as the telekinetic sense) and inescapable are the effects of a lifetime of judgement, and psychological and physical abuse, on a child. Although, by the end of it, Carrie has done monstrous things, she’s not the novel’s real monster. That role is played by almost everyone else in the book who doesn’t give her the kindness and understanding she needs, or if they do, do it too late.

Stranger Things

Stranger Things season 1 poster by Kyle Lambert

Although the most obvious (and avowed) influences on Stranger Things are the early works of Steven & Stephen (Spielberg and King), I think the real core of the show’s success comes from a less obvious direction, and one not rooted in the show’s celebrated evocation of the 1980s. Because, for me, the impact of Stranger Things comes not from nostalgia but from its depiction of childhood, both as a time of extreme vulnerability to the darker forces of the world (as experienced to the greatest degree by the characters of Will and Eleven), and of imaginative engagement in the world’s wonder & strangeness (the D&D boys, whose Dungeons-and-Dragoning has perfectly prepared them to deal with a world of monsters, parallel dimensions, and mind-powered super-kids). Innocence, in our post-Game of Thrones era of TV where cynical, self-interested characters are the norm, and are often the shows’ heroes, is a very rare quality, perhaps because it’s so difficult to do convincingly (without lapsing into sentiment or mere victimhood, for instance). But when it is done convincingly — and when it’s brought face-to-face with real darkness — it has genuine power. The most obvious recent example I can think of, and the thing that feels, to me, closest in many ways to Stranger Things’ success (including its reliance on a very talented young cast), is the Harry Potter films.

This is perfectly brought out by another Netflix series, the German-made Dark (from 2017), which at times seems like it was created as a result of someone describing Stranger Things (perhaps down a crackly phone line) to Werner Herzog in one of his more sombre moods. It contains many of the same elements of Stranger Things: missing children, a small-town setting, a sinister government scientific establishment where science-fictional experiments seem to be going on, a link to the 1980s (Dark opens in the present, but some episodes are set in the 80s, and there’s a strong generational link to that decade), supernatural travel between two realms, flickering electric lights, abandoned railway tracks through woodland, and your by-now-standard emotionally damaged police detectives. But whatever the similarities, the differences in tone are polar. Dark, for instance, has plenty of montage sequences in which we see various characters isolated in states of lonely misery, with the occasional couple hugging in a desperate need for solace, all backed by the more dour kind of pop song. (Stranger Things does do this, when a body is removed from the quarry lake and Peter Gabriel’s version of “Heroes” plays in the background. But Dark seems to do it at least once an episode, and not as a moment of dramatic climax, more as a feeling that this, in the world of Dark, is what daily life feels like.)

Dark (which, at the moment, I still haven’t finished watching, so it may change) is all about how people are fundamentally isolated from one another, and how everyone picks up dark secrets and emotional wounds as they enter adult life, which further isolate them and undermine their attempts at relationships. Stranger Things (which I’ve now watched twice through in the time it’s taken me to get halfway through Dark) is about the complete opposite: how facing darkness can bring people together, and how the way to overcome the darkness is, ultimately, to break through the barriers of isolation and make human connections (most obviously, for instance, in Eleven’s learning to trust other people after her horrendous upbringing at the Hawkins National Laboratory, but also in the way memories of kindness are used to break through the Shadow Monster’s control of Will in season 2). Stranger Things’ catchphrase is, after all, “Friends don’t lie.” I’m not sure if Dark has a catchphrase. It’s a show that’s more about silence; perhaps its image of dead birds falling from the sky would serve.

Having said that, I do think Stranger Things’ darkness is properly convincing. On first watching it, my initial impression was that someone had made a list of all their favourite scenes from 70s and 80s horror and kids’ adventure movies, particularly of the Spielbergian variety, and arranged them into a workable story. But then I realised the show’s creators were using those scenes’ existing associations to give them an interesting twist, usually taking them in a more disturbing direction. Even when the reference seems just a subtle joke — as when Mike, Lucas and Dustin dress Eleven in a blonde wig, echoing the way, in ET, Eliot’s sister dresses ET in a blonde wig — it can’t help adding an emotional resonance. ET in a wig is funny because it’s a ridiculous image; Eleven in a wig underlines the fact that she’s been treated throughout her young life as somewhat less than a human being (her shaved head and number tattoo have obvious associations with Nazi concentration camps), which has left her as much an alien in our world as ET was. There’s a palpable sense that, in looking through Mike’s sister’s bedroom, or being dressed in a play-box blonde wig, she’s been given a tiny glimpse of the upbringing she was denied.

The sort of darker twist I mean can be seen in another ET parallel. In Spielberg’s film, when Eliot’s mother comes home while Eliot is showing the alien his Star Wars toys, Eliot has ET hide in the closet, which becomes a joke when his mother looks in the closet, sees ET, and assumes he’s just another toy. In Stranger Things, when Mike and El are at Mike’s house (he’s showing her his Star Wars toys) and his mother comes home, Mike has El hide in the closet but she’s terrified, as it reminds her of the isolation cell her “Poppa” Dr. Brenner would lock her in if she didn’t do what he wanted. The scene feels that much darker for being an echo of ET’s light comedy.

The best parallel, for me, was another ET swipe, when the kids, reunited after the first season’s quarrels, are escaping from the “bad men” of Hawkins National Laboratory on their bikes. In the equivalent scene in ET, when it looks like the kids are finally cornered, ET uses his powers to lift them into the air so they can fly away, still pedalling. It’s the film’s signature wonder-moment. In Stranger Things, a much more down-to-earth and practical El lifts an oncoming government van and throws it at their pursuers. ET is an alien temporarily stranded on our world; El is a young girl forced to become a weapon by government “bad men”.

The theme of innocence brought up against darkness is at the heart of many of my favourite films, and certainly the ones that affect me the most, including Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and the more recent book & film of A Monster Calls. (Another favourite, Amelie, contains no supernatural darkness, but is still about an innocent, in this case a young woman facing the much more mundane darkness of loneliness. In fact, Alien is about the only one of my top favourite films I can’t fit into the innocence-versus-darkness theme, but perhaps that’s because it’s even more primal, being about sheer survival.) Anyway, Stranger Things (seasons 1 & 2) certainly grabbed me in the same way, and I hope it manages to keep some of that innocence going in future seasons.