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Sunday, September 10, 2017

BORN TO THE DARK by Ramsey Campbell -- a review

BORN TO THE DARK by Ramsey Campbell
A review by Gary Fry  

The second in Campbell’s Brichester Mythos trilogy, this novel takes up the ongoing story of Dominic Sheldrake’s engagement with nefarious Christian Noble about 30 years after the first book’s events (for my review of THE SEARCHING DEAD, see here). It’s now the 1980s; Dominic has a family and a job as a lecturer in film studies. He hasn’t been involved with the Noble family since the 1950s, but all that changes when his son develops a sleeping disorder in need of specialist treatment. Dominic’s wife is drawn to an organisation which, on the surface at least, purports to practice revolutionary new methods but, it soon transpires, has a less benevolent intention.

That’s the basic story of BORN TO THE DARK, and Campbell spends 270 pages dredging compelling tension from such minimalist parts. While THE SEARCHING DEAD (the first of the trilogy) drew on a wide range of supernatural episodes, both suggestive and concrete, this novel is altogether quieter, building to a crescendo of unease rather than presenting frights throughout in an episodic fashion.

After informing the reader (both familiar with and new to the series) of previous events in a deftly handled opening chapter, Campbell takes us to the main scene of the drama: Dominic’s family. He’s married a smart, protective woman called Lesley, and they have a fine son, Toby. It’s the dynamics between these three, along with other characters such as Dominic’s father and his old friends, that form the basis of the novel’s anxieties. After securing a place for the boy at the aforementioned institution, Dominic begins to suspect malpractice there, whereas his wife questions such accusations. Matters grow so strained that their marriage is jeopardised, and it’s down to Dominic to prove that his concerns are genuine.

What follows are countless scenes of gradually escalating subterfuge involving covert telephone calls, surveillance, infiltration, and even engagement with medical treatments (this latter results in a wonderful passage of visionary prose, all blackness and silence and packed with mouth-watering portents). With such an accumulative approach, the novel exudes a form of menace heightened by all that’s at stake on a personal level for Dominic. There’s a lot of dialogue in the book, perhaps more than is common in Campbell. Set-pieces are dramatized via interaction, even the extended, evocative conclusion. In previous novels, Campbell would have just a single character exploring “that place”, but in this one there’s a companion, and it works just as well.

The ending is both spectacularly complete and indicative of developments to be explored in the final novel. It leaves the reader feeling both satisfied and hungry for more. Campbell’s skills in building tension here are second to none. He draws upon a wide range of suggestive techniques to create a hypnotic atmosphere. Inside “that place”, shadows of banisters beyond a flashlight beam become a giant centipede scurrying along the wall. A sound beneath a dressing table (rats, perhaps) becomes the whisper of a face trapped in one of its top drawers. Mirrors never quite show what they should. And so on. Coupled with Campbell’s peerless command of rhythm, the whole section wields the power of hypnosis. I loved it, just as I’ve relished previous end-games in the likes of THIEVING FEAR and CREATURES OF THE POOL.

Earlier on in the book, Campbell’s dextrous command of other literary methods intensify and deepen its textures. Both literature and film serve as thematic quilting points; by virtue of Dominic and his wife’s academic professions in the humanities, the novel becomes enmeshed in artistic materials it explicitly addresses. Political developments examined in the first novel are similarly addressed in this one, with the spectre (or, depending on your affiliations, the necessity) of Thatcherism lurking behind many public exchanges. I suspect there are parallels between British economic history and the Nobles’ aspirations over the 50-year course of the trilogy, but until I read the final novel it’s too early to draw conclusions. I also have suspicions about the role of the number three in the books –Three Investigators, a game called Trio, the three syllables (and imminent births) of Daoloth – but again, that’s for later.

As in THE SEARCHING DEAD, a changing cultural landscape presents characters with unfamiliar situations to tackle. A dyed-in-the-wool feminist solicitor perhaps oversteps her professional remit with ideological blinkeredness. The police – well, certainly some of the police – are corrupt. The medical world isn’t to be trusted, either. And is the church really keeping up with such a mutated modern world? This sense of society’s principal engines, its essential institutions, being infiltrated by furtively invisible hands lends the novels’ depiction of the imminent collapse of stuff on which we all rely – folk at the end of emergency service calls, or even the land and sky – additional fragility, a tainted atmosphere that grows more pungent at every turn.

Indeed, it’s this mix of the personal and the universal, of Dominic’s familial woes and his tenuous place in the world at large, that prove to be the novel’s finest achievement. This is a book that eschews the standard horror novel’s reliance on regular “scary” set-pieces, focusing instead on an evocation of fear that inhabits and invades all aspects of everyday lives: marriage, parenthood, employment; memory, spiritual orientation, dreams; the future, death, the cosmos. BORN TO THE DARK finishes with a staggering set-piece, but it’s taken 270 pages to build to that, and for me that makes the whole immensely more satisfying.

Is there anything else I can say to convey my feeling that the novel is an essential read? How about this: I started it at 8am and finished at 3pm the same day. Everything about it held me solid in my seat. It’s another deft and compelling masterwork.

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