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Wednesday, September 5, 2018

THE WAY OF THE WORM by Ramsey Campbell -- a review

THE WAY OF THE WORM by Ramsey Campbell

Review by Gary Fry

And so we reach the finale of Campbell’s Daoloth trilogy, the author’s latest attempt to scale the peaks of Lovecraft at his finest. I reviewed the first two volumes when each was released, and links can be found here [THE SEARCHING DEAD] and here [BORN TO THE DARK]. In summary, let me say that I found the two books excellent entries in the series, both satisfying as standalone works and thrumming with anticipatory materials in advance of the last one. The simple question now is, can Campbell live up to promises he makes in those previous novels?

The answer is yes. Quite triumphantly.  

THE WAY OF THE WORM is relatively straightforward plot-wise. It’s 30 years on from events depicted in BORN TO THE DARK, and our hero, Dominic Sheldrake, is approaching his dotage. His son, now an adult with a family of his own, is heavily invested in the Noble family and their (nefarious) plans for the world, but Dominic won’t give up on him any time soon, particularly as another child is involved (a granddaughter). Cue a sequence of scenes in which Dominic openly infiltrates the religious group’s meetings, covertly spies upon the Nobles’ home, and even reveals to police evidence of a crime which results in a court case threatening to imprison the sinister family.

The story unfolds at a headlong pace, the prose as refined and pared as we’ve come to expect from later Campbell. Indeed, it’s the sheer stylishness of the writing that makes the author such a joy to read in his maturity. Every paragraph offers a strikingly original or oblique descriptive phrase that brings the material to such vivid, weird life. An example is his depiction of a simple stone icon:

I could have thought the wide thin disconcertingly human smile and the enormous eyes that glistened like globes of black sap were greeting me. The sinuous trident of a tongue protruded from one corner of the mouth while the tip of the tail wormed its way into the other. I found the face so disagreeably fascinating that I almost forgot to mute my phone, having let the icon rest on my lap like a quiescent pet. I cared not at all for the intimate weight, and was lifting the image—clamping it between my hands in case exerting force lent me some sense of power…

Items in Campbell’s world are experienced in an embodied way (“globes of black sap were greeting me…quiescent pet…intimate weight”), rather than merely cited as being there (as they might be in the work of a merely competent writer). When extracts are singly quoted (as above), they serve as a worthy example of refined writing, but when packed together page after page, this offbeat imagery and peculiar manner of perceiving the world induces a unique accumulative effect that, to be appreciated, must be experienced.

It is this command of prose that becomes essential as the story develops along outre lines. One extended, multi-chapter scene involving a chase around the environs of Liverpool is gripping, evocative and pungently unsettling. In other work, Campbell rarely gives us a full glimpse of his things – usually they’re off-camera, hinted at, maybe even just imagined by characters – but when a trio of mutated entities pursue Dominic and his two ageing friends, we’re treated to a whole range of overtly bizarre descriptions involving travesties of flesh and sardonic minds at work. It’s a riveting set-piece.

No less gripping and impressive are Dominic’s trance-induced regressions, hinting at a Jungian collective unconscious / race memories. The book’s court case is similarly masterful, its dialogue – as is the way with Campbell’s later work – rhythmic in quickfire combinations, with said-isms reduced to only what are necessary. A character waking from sleep and not yet possessing a focused mind is rendered wryly readable, the author mangling speech in verbatim snatches – not so much a literary parlour game as grist to the mill of what Campbell’s trying to achieve across every page of this remarkably written book: a sense of dislocation, leaving the reader occupying a frightened, fragile and yet determined mind (Dominic’s…at least for the most part).

However, all this material, this triumph of technique, is preparatory work for the book’s – indeed, trilogy’s – grand finale. And here Campbell treats us to one of his most awesome imaginings, a world gone to seed and then brushed aside by an otherness it is impossible to communicate outside of the novel’s intense text. This vision relies on rhythm, diction, and artfully selected detail. It is, in short, a bona fide triumph of cosmic horror writing, and one which will leave you, as it certainly did me, reeling in equal parts delight and disquiet. It’s a truly wonderful ending to the series, and worth every effort it takes (this is effectively an 800-page / 300,000-word epic) to reach it.

Taken as a straightforward horror narrative, the trilogy is undeniably superb, but Campbell is up to other things here. A socio-political subtext is crafty and quiet, but sharp readers will detect allusions to cultural mores from the 1950s, 1980s, and post-millennial period. The underlying concern appears to be the perpetual conflict between order and chaos, involving conservative (with a small c, folks) and progressive proponents wrestling for control of territory yielded by the decline of Christianity. In all three of the novels, we confront manifestations of both radical left and hard right trends – ideologically oriented solicitors, overzealous police, et al. The final page of THE WAY OF THE WORM, with Dominic’s reflections on how hard it is to remain human, surely possesses socio-political ramifications, but I’ll leave it to other readers to decide where they stand on such issues. I anticipate a riot like one near the end of the book. But I half-jest.  

Does this final novel have any flaws? The only thing I considered slightly convenient was a scene in which Dominic arrives just in time to witness an act that, dramatically, he really needs to see. It’s no great problem, just perhaps an example of some creative licence which nonetheless felt like a contrivance (however necessary). But in the teeth of the pleasure the book offered me, I won’t dwell on such a piddling detail.

I can say without doubt that this sequence of novels is among – if not actually – Campbell’s greatest work. I suspect many people reading this review are aware of my enthusiasm for the author’s fiction – he simply speaks to me in that way we all cherish from those with whom we perhaps share psychological orientation and / or experiential profiles – but, sincerely, I wouldn’t wax as lyrical as I have here in the absence of genuine appreciation. THE WAY OF THE WORM is quite simply an outstanding conclusion to a remarkable trilogy, and if you, as a devotee of the horror field, choose not to read it, you’re foolishly denying yourself one of the finest pleasures our genre has yet to yield. Plainly put, it’s essential fiction for aficionadas of the dark. 

Preorder the book now at PS Publishing. A standard hardcover and a signed slipcased edition are available: ORDER HERE.

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