Featured in Library Journal's Top 20 Horror Bestseller List
"An absolute master of modern horror. And a damn fine writer at that" - Guillermo del Toro
Book 1 in the Three Births of Daoloth trilogy.
1952. On a school trip to France teenager Dominic Sheldrake begins to suspect his teacher Christian Noble has reasons to be there as secret as they're strange. Meanwhile a widowed neighbour joins a church that puts you in touch with your dead relatives, who prove much harder to get rid of. As Dominic and his friends Roberta and Jim investigate, they can't suspect how much larger and more terrible the link between these mysteries will become. A monstrous discovery beneath a church only hints at terrors that are poised to engulf the world as the trilogy brings us to the present day…
What is the book about?
Liverpool, 1952. On a school trip to France teenager Dominic Sheldrake begins to suspect his teacher Christian Noble has reasons to be there as secret as they're strange. Meanwhile a widowed neighbour joins a church that puts you in touch with your dead relatives, who prove much harder to get rid of. As Dominic and his friends Roberta and Jim investigate, they can't suspect how much larger and more terrible the link between these mysteries will become. A monstrous discovery beneath a church only hints at terrors that are poised to engulf the world as the trilogy brings us to the present day…
What are the underlying themes?
The confused and frustrating yet exciting experience of adolescence. Friendships that will last a lifetime. The 1950s, that strange remote place. The unknown territory that awaits us on the far side of death. And looming over all this, a cosmic terror older than the world and as vast as the universe.
•This book epitomizes the weird horror genre with its strong currents of paranoia and disorientation. A sense of wrongness persists throughout the proceedings, casting a pall of dread over everyone and everything that happens. This is a true tour de force and a primer on weird fiction by a genuine modern master, inspired by the work of H.P. Lovecraft, weird pioneer and creator of the Cthulhu Mythos. Bit by bit, Campbell ratchets up the sense of foreboding, leading his characters further and further down a terrifying rabbit hole. They sense that things are wrong, and their fate will not be a pleasant one…even as the story propels them inexorably toward the darkness at the root of their torment. In the end, it is the harrowing mood that powers this book most memorably, the ominous possibilities and unsettling secrets lurking just under the surface of postwar Britain in the early 1950s. In other words, this is a perfect weird horror novel, one that will question your perception of reality even as it tells a classic coming-of-age tale and explores the doomed march of human history against a backdrop of hidden, capricious, and unnatural forces. – Robert Jeschonek
"This is Campbell at the height of his powers, proving once again that he is a master of the genre."– Publishers Weekly Starred Review
"A return to and a revisioning of some of his earliest imaginings, the trilogy is a kind of autobiography of its protagonist, in which his lifelong struggle with a supernatural agency occurs against the backdrop of post-war British history. The result is a magisterial work, though such a description scants the novels' propulsive readability. It's another remarkable achievement in a career full of them."– Locus Magazine
"The first book in his upcoming "The Three Births of Daoloth" trilogy, The Searching Dead is Ramsey Campbell at the peak of his craft, the literary equivalent of a well-aged bottle of Balvenie."– HorrorDNA
"This novel is not only the start of an awesome horror epic by a master, but also a compelling coming-of-age story about a budding writer finding his way in a terrifying world."– Library Journal
1952: The Nocturnal Gardener
"Don't forget your cap, Dominic," my mother said, which was one reason why I overlooked so much that day.
I wasn't likely to forget it or the rest of my school uniform. The tie was helping the stiff shirt collar chafe my neck while the heels of the new shoes scraped the backs of my heels with every step I took. My parents had made me wear the outfit for our Sunday stroll in Stanley Park, parading me for everyone to admire when I would have liked to go unnoticed. While I didn't mind my first long trousers, I thought the cap and tie and blazer were unreasonably green, not much less bright than the trees shading the pavements on both sides of our road. Besides, the uniform felt as though the summer holidays had ended sooner than they should. My face was growing hot as the September afternoon, because my mother seemed to think I might let her and my father down, when he said "Best foot, son."
He could have been counselling speed because of the rain in the air, but I knew the issue was the lady who was hurrying under the railway bridge at the end of the road. "Coo-ee," Mrs Norris called and waved as well.
The bridge amplified her voice, not that it needed magnifying, and I felt as if everyone was competing to be first to our gate. We reached it before Mrs Norris did, but then politeness overtook my parents. "How are you, Mrs Norris?" my father said.
Though she was almost within arm's length, she matched his shout. "Well enough, Mr Sheldrake. Really quite well."
I was always amazed by how large a voice lived inside so small a person, presumably a product of her deafness. She was the neatest person I knew, and I used to think that was because there was so little of her to keep tidy, unlike my awkward gangling frame. I see her in her pale blue suit and white blouse fixed at the throat with an oval brooch not much less broad than her neck, fawn stockings with seams straight as plumb lines, her regimented greying curls mostly hidden by a domed hat as shiny white as the heads of the hatpins. By the time I'd taken all this in my mother would have been urging "Dominic."
I fumbled to raise my cap an inch and felt my face grow redder still. "Good afternoon," I mumbled, "Mrs Norris."
"Why, Dominic, you look like a real little gentleman." As I wished I could yank the cap down far enough to hide my face, she turned back to my parents. "He's a credit to you," she cried louder still.
"We try our best." When Mrs Norris cocked her head to catch the words my mother not much less than bellowed "He's our future."
I saw my father glance about in case they were disturbing any of the neighbours. "Should you be getting home, Mrs Norris? I think we're in for a storm."
Her small eyes brought a gleam to her concise assiduously powdered face. "Would you like to hear what's bucked me up?"
While he didn't sigh aloud, I saw his chest swell and deflate. It was left to my mother to say "Do come in for a cuppa."
"If you're certain you've enough."
This wasn't a sly insult, not in those last weeks of rationing, but it provoked my father to unlatch the rickety gate he kept promising to mend. "We've always some for visitors," he said without making sure she heard.
At least I wouldn't have to stand politely by while the adults chatted. As everyone crowded onto the path, beside which there was just sufficient room for my mother's three rosebushes, the trees along the road began to hiss and then to rattle their leaves. By the time we piled into the front hall the downpour was turning the pavements dark as tar. "Good heavens," Mrs Norris protested, "God must have it in for someone."
My father scowled at the irreverence, and I knew my mother would have sent me out to play except for the rain. "Find something to do in your room, Dominic," she said.
"I've got my book to read, or I might write."
"That's a good boy," Mrs Norris cried, planting her purple handbag on the tall but tiny table under the laden coatrack by the stairs so as to extract her purse. "And what do good boys get?"
Not only the question embarrassed me. I knew she was thinking of her late husband. Her eyes had begun to glint with moisture, and I yearned to look away as I mumbled "Dunno."
She snapped her purse open and fished out a coin. "Here's a pence for a good lad," she said as Mr Norris used to.
Before my mother could complete the shameful prompt I babbled "Thank you, Mrs Norris."
I earned my mother's frown all the same, having grabbed the penny in such haste I nearly dropped it. "Make yourself scarce now, son," my father said under his breath.
I didn't need urging. I hung my cap on the hook that bore my new raincoat and fled upstairs, past the framed mottoes on the wall. My mother's mother had stitched "Keep The Home Fires Burning", though I never knew if she'd done so after losing her husband to the first World War, and my father's was responsible for "Thou God See All", which used to confuse me by not being quite the phrase I'd been taught at school. As I reached my room my mother called "Don't forget your knees when you sit down."
She meant the trick I'd had to learn, tugging up my trousers to keep the creases sharp. I shut the bedroom door behind me – almost, at any rate. To close it properly you had to lift it on its loose hinges, another of the items my father kept undertaking to repair. I draped my blazer over the back of the chair opposite the bed and sat at the table, half of which was occupied by a Meccano bridge I'd built. Must I still feel guilty because I meant to listen, not to read or write? I made the halves of the bridge squeak up and down a few times, and fed the penny to my money box, a golliwog who raised his metal arm to drop the coin into his mouth, and then I gazed out at the graveyard.
My room had a view of Liverpool Cemetery – Anfield Cemetery, as it came to be known. Back then it never troubled me, not least because my parents obviously didn't think it should. I thought of it more as a park with stones and trees in, leading to the distant sight of the allotments where my mother had grown vegetables while my father was away at war. My sole uneasy moment had been the first time I'd heard the graves roar with an enormous wordless voice on a sunny Saturday afternoon – the sound of a crowd at a football match at Goodison Park beyond the graveyard. I should like to believe it made me dream of another immense voice, but I know better. No, I know far worse.
I heard the rising whistle of the kettle on the stove, and then china clinked downstairs, the best set that was reserved for guests. Either courtesy forbade conversation until tea was served or my parents weren't anxious to hear from their visitor. The rain had diminished to a drizzle, and a man was wheeling a pram along the nearest path. While I didn't find it odd that he'd brought a pram into the cemetery, it was unusual to see a man alone with one. His height was uncommon as well, and he kept stooping over the handle of the pram to address the occupant. As he passed my window I could see his long thin oval face so clearly that I saw he was talking about a mother. I leaned towards the window in case I could make out more words, and he met my eyes at once. He reared up to his full height, an action I found so daunting even at that distance that I nearly overturned the chair in my haste to hide. The next moment he returned his attention to the baby in the pram as if I meant nothing to him, and I was distracted by my mother's voice in the kitchen under my room. "Come and sit in the lounge, Mrs Norris."
I heard a discreet rattle of spoons against china as she carried the tray along the hall. Before anybody else spoke, the door of the front room shut tight. I thought I mightn't be able to hear unless I ventured closer, which would have meant owning up to eavesdropping if only to myself, but I didn't even need to strain my ears to hear Mrs Norris say "Thank you both for everything you've done for me."
The man and the pram were receding beyond trees that twitched with raindrops. "We've only done what neighbours should," my mother said.
"You'd be surprised how many that you thought were friends don't want to know you when you've had a loss."
"We've had a few in the family," my father said.
"That's why I wish you'd give our church a try sometime."
I imagined the frown that would be drawing his ruddy eyebrows together while he straightened his thick lips, an expression that made his broad big-nosed deceptively sleepy-eyed face look squarer still. "We've told you, Mrs Norris," he said, "there's only one church for us."
"I used to think that, even when I lost my parents. It was my Herbert convinced me to give the spirits a chance."
No doubt my mother was blinking more concern onto her roundish face. Her eyes always seemed enlarged by keenness, dwarfing her snub nose and compact mouth and dimpled chin. "We're glad if it brings you some comfort," she said.
"It's brought me much more. Nobody knows what our church can give them unless they find out for themselves."
"Mrs Norris," my father said, "we've already told you Catholics can't have anything to do with spiritualism."
"I wasn't thinking of you two just then. I meant a gentleman I brought into the church. Do you mind if I tell you about him?"
I barely heard my father say "I don't suppose it can do any harm."
"I was visiting my Herbert's grave out there at the back and I think the gentleman was looking for a relative. I don't like to pry, but he seemed a bit lost, so I did ask if anyone could help."
"What did he say to that?" my father said without sounding eager to know.
"He didn't seem too sure. I hope you won't think any less of me, but that's why I told him about our church."
"It isn't up to us to judge you, Mrs Norris."
Perhaps my mother found this unnecessarily gruff. "He joined, did he?"
"He did, and he's done so much more. It's as if he's been waiting for the inspiration all his life. For a start he's taught us how to bring our graves alive."
"I don't know if I like the sound of that," my father said.
"It's nothing bad. It reminds us how life goes on, not just on the other side. All we do is plant flowers there, or herbs bring you even closer."
"Closer," my father said like a denial.
"To our lost ones, except I shouldn't call them that. They aren't lost to us at all."
"We know we'll meet our family again," my father said, "but we aren't meant to in this life."
"You mustn't think me cheeky, but I can promise you you're wrong."
Though the silence felt as if my parents were willing it to end the discussion, my mother was apparently compelled to say "Will you have another cup?"
"I've had sufficient, thank you. Shall I tell you why you're mistaken?"
My father had been driven to the limit of civility. "Suit yourself, Mrs Norris."
"Because I've spoken to my Herbert and he's spoken back to me."
My father cleared his throat with such force that he hardly needed to add a remark. "Don't they put on that kind of a show quite a lot at your church?"
"Desmond." As an additional rebuke my mother said "Some people don't think it's a show."
"Mary, I'm trying to be nice."
"Don't fret on my behalf, Mrs Sheldrake. I know Mr Sheldrake is a convert to your faith just like I am to mine. We're meant to be the best defenders, aren't we, Mr Sheldrake?" When my father gave no response that I could hear, Mrs Norris said "I'm not talking about the sort of medium you know."
"We don't know any," my father said, "and I'm afraid we'll be staying that way."
Just the same, my mother said "What sort then, Mrs Norris?"
"He doesn't speak for anybody's loved ones." Without lowering her voice Mrs Norris managed to convey respectful awe as she said "He brings them to us."
"And just how does he work that?" my father demanded.
"Because coming to our church showed him his gift. That's what he says himself. You believe in not wasting your talents, don't you? It's in our Bible too, you know."
"I think Desmond was asking what happens," my mother said before he could speak.
"I told you, we hear from the people we went there to hear."
"You all do," my father said like some kind of question.
"Not all just yet. I was one of the first," Mrs Norris admitted with pride. "He says I guided him."
"No," my father said, "I'm asking if you all hear them."
"That would be wonderful, wouldn't it? Then people would have to believe. They wouldn't need any faith." All this might have been postponing the answer. "Just the people they belong to hear them," Mrs Norris said.
"If it helps you I'm glad for you," my mother said.
"I haven't made you understand yet. I don't just hear my Herbert, I can feel him there. He comes to me when I need him."
"I expect you have to be alone for that, do you?"
"It's when I'm feeling lonely, yes. Mostly in the night." Mrs Norris seemed to take a hint, perhaps an intentional one. "You'll be wanting to see Dominic is ready for his new school," she said. "Thank you for putting up with me and my palaver."
When I heard the front door shut I grabbed a magazine in case anybody came upstairs and suspected me of having listened. The Hotspur was a boys' paper, not a mere comic, and so had my parents' approval. "You're too old to look at pictures," my mother had been telling me for years. I did my best to concentrate on a heroic tale while I wondered what a visit from Mr Norris might be like. Even if he was as benign as ever, the notion of wakening to find him by the bed or even of waiting in the dark for him didn't take my fancy. Since he'd been in the graveyard by our house for weeks, I preferred not to think how he might feel.
The words on the page piled up like rubble among my thoughts, and I was still attempting to read when my father switched on the radiogram in the lounge. 'Sing Something Simple' was the signature tune a chorus began singing, which meant it was Sunday teatime. "We'll sing the old songs like you used to do...." All the songs dated from before I was born, and some might have been older than my parents. We'd had dinner at midday – sliced ham with salad from our allotment – and the evening treat was my mother's invention, boiled potato sandwiches with the last of the margarine that the bucket of water in the larder had only just held back from turning rancid. To drink we had orange juice, diluted close to tastelessness. My father left the doors of both rooms open to let the songs drift in, and they took the place of conversation until I risked asking "What did Mrs Norris say?"
"Just some grown-up things," my mother said. "They wouldn't interest you, Dominic."
"Was she talking about Mr Norris?"
Before my mother could reply my father flapped the napkin that he called a serviette and wiped his mouth hard. "Do you care more about him than your own family, Dominic?"
I didn't know if he meant my own parents or his, who had died when I was a toddler, my grandfather surviving the loss of his wife by just a few months. If my father had them in mind, I'd had years to grow fonder of Mr Norris. I was about to lie, though it would have made me feel as guilty as the reason, when my mother murmured "Desmond, maybe he's worried about tomorrow."
"There's no call for anyone to feel that way about it. It's meant to be the best school." Nevertheless my father relented. "Forget about the other business, son," he said. "Nobody was saying anything about him."
"That's right, Dominic. We were just talking about her church."
So my parents told lies. As I got ready for bed, having been sent upstairs for an even earlier bedtime than usual, the insight left me feeling more grown-up than thoughts of the new school did. It didn't help me pray when I knelt at the foot of the bed. I'd prayed for Mr Norris every night I was away on holiday with my parents, and I'd looked forward to telling him my adventures, which he'd asked for in the voice that in the space of weeks had grown as thin and pale and determined as him. I'd hoped my reminiscences would lend him new life if not cure him somehow – the railway journey to the Yorkshire coast, the stuttering of pistons and the busy clatter of the wheels, the salty smell of smoke as it billowed past the dwarfish aperture at the top of the third-class window, a tang like an omen of the seaside; the dogged race with luggage across stations to change trains as a blurred voice broadcast indistinct instructions; seagulls flocking on fish at Whitby like a greedy screeching blizzard; the sea view from our cliff hotel in Scarborough, where the distant flat horizon let me glimpse the vastness of the world; coach tours across the moors where hawks fell like arrows from the sky and signposts bore names that have stayed lively in my mind: Highcliff Nab, Ugglebarnby, Hutton-le-Hole, Falling Foss... I stored up all this and much more to revive Mr Norris, but when I went round to his house on my first day back I saw every curtain was drawn to shut out the sunny morning. I knew this denoted an event it was impolite to convey in plain words, and I knuckled my tears away as I ran almost blindly home.
I felt as if my prayers had failed, or I had. I did my best to believe in the ones I mumbled on the night before starting at the new school. Though the prospect made me feel apprehensively excited, I slept before the sun went down. Hours later I wakened in the dark. The barking of a dog had roused me, and now another one started to yap. I tried to ignore them, but curiosity sent me out of bed. I stumbled to the window and eased up the sash. As I craned across the corner of the table and out of the window, a breeze set the leaves of the trees in the graveyard swarming and then fumbled at my face.
The dogs were in the back yards of two houses down the road, near the allotments. The only activity I could see was the scurrying of a few fallen leaves across the grass between the graves. The dogs were as noisy as ever, but I was about to close the window when a movement drew my attention towards the allotments. For a moment I imagined one of the stone figures in the dimness beneath the trees had come to life. No, someone had stooped to pick up some item. No doubt a gardener was collecting vegetables, even if it seemed an odd hour for the task. The figure straightened up with its prize, and I didn't want to be caught watching. I inched the sash down, shutting out some of the canine clamour, and went back to bed. I was almost asleep when a thought overtook me, after which I found it hard to sleep. There was a hedge between the cemetery and the allotments, which meant the figure couldn't have been where I'd thought I saw it. It had been in the graveyard.