Ramsey Campbell is a grandmaster of horror. He has been around for ages and has been writing the entire time. He got his start writing Lovecraft Mythos books, creating his own corner of cosmic terror in England. Most Call of Cthulhu fans know him for his early work but the guy has kept writing and only gets better.
Personally, I am a little burned out on Lovecraft and the problematic issues that come with reading his stuff. When I heard that Campbell has returned to Lovercraft style stories with “The Searching Dead,” I was motivated to seek it out. A rave review convinced me otherwise and now I am glad I have read it.
The Searching Dead is about a young boy, Dominic, in Liverpool in the 1950’s. England is still rationing, neighborhoods are still devastated from German bombing and people are getting awfully worried about Communists. Dominic has two best friends that he formed a little child detective group with when they were younger. He writes about their fictional adventures, much to the embarrassment of his male friend.
One day, Dominic overhears his parents talking to a family friend who is convinced her church can raise ghosts. Dominic’s parents think spiritualism is a crock, but Dominic experiences a few strange incidents and becomes convinced that not only are ghosts real, but the church that is raising them is up to no good. To investigate, Dominic enlists his friends.
Now, this sounds like British version of “It”, or maybe a Hardy Boys Meets a Shoggoth, but the thing that elevates this book is the hyper-realism. There are weird things going on, but they are subtle, so obtuse, so damn-near-mysterious, that you would have to be a lunatic (or a reader) to assume any of this weird stuff is real. Empty coats look fuller than they should. There is a whisper in Dominic’s ear. A bunch of kids have bad dreams on a field trip. This is the kind of evidence that would make Fox Mulder roll his eyes and declare it swamp gas. Dominic believes, but his friends, parents and school does not. Dominic is truly alone in this really creepy situation.
And ghosts and cultists are not Dominic’s only concern. He goes to a religious school that already thinks he’s a walking sin machine. His parents really wish Dominic would not find out about any terrible conspiracies because that means they would have to do something and that would endanger their social standing as normal good citizens. Other adults are looking for commies and labor organizers with the zeal that should be reserving for cultists. Quite frankly, Dominic lives in a scary restrictive dystopia and its called the 1950’s.
Which is why I enjoyed the book so much. Sure, the creepy mystery and cultists were cool, but the setting is the real horror. It captures a weird moment in time and marries it with the helplessness of being a kid. Oh, and throws in some really creepy theories about death and the soul.
This is the first book of three, but it ends with a satisfying conclusion. Dominic solves the cultist church problem with a mixture of cleverness and pre-teenage tantrum-throwing. There is a final scene where Dominic witnesses something truly mind-blowing that is too creepy to give away here. This book is going to stick me with for a long time and I can only imagine what the other books will be like.