Ramsey Campbell may well be the greatest living author of Cthulhu Mythos stories these days, despite – or, quite possibly, because – a great chunk of his career has nothing to do with it. Having cut his teeth on Lovecraftian pastiches – the cream of which were collected in The Inhabitant of the Lake – he then developed his own unique voice, with his second collection (Demons By Daylight) applying that voice to a mixture of Mythos and non-Mythos material – breaking new ground with the latter, and revolutionising the former by attacking Lovecraftian themes with a distinctly different worldview, sensibility, and set of writing techniques.
Since then, Campbell has mostly returned to the Mythos for occasional visits rather than extended stays, with 2002’s The Darkest Part of the Woods being a notable exception in that respect, and 2013’s The Last Revelation of Gla’aki being a sort of anniversary tip of the hat to the the eponymous Inhabitant of the Lake, Campbell offering a bit of authorial gratitude for all the good things Gla’aki has brought him over the years.
Now, still showing no signs of slowing down as an author, Campbell has offered us by far his most substantial Cthulhu Mythos work yet: a trilogy of books telling a saga spanning decades. It’s been referred to lazily in some quarters as the “Brichester Trilogy”, but this is an error – Campbell’s imaginary Northern England territory surrounding Brichester which was the backdrop to many of his early stories doesn’t feature here, with all three novels unfolding primarily in Liverpool. Its true title, once again, pays tribute to one of the entities which first put Campbell on the map: specifically, it’s called The Three Births of Daoloth.
The Searching Dead
Our narrator for the trilogy, Dominic Sheldrake, begins by taking us back to Liverpool in the early 1950s. Like the country as a whole, the city is still recovering from World War II – there’s still areas which have been turned to wasteland by German air raids. Among the wider social changes unfolding, Sheldrake is dealing with a more personal shift in his life – namely, his early years of secondary school and puberty, which he struggles through with Jim and Bobby (short for Roberta, but don’t let her catch you calling her that), his best friends from primary school.
Jim got into the same Catholic grammar school (staffed by a mixture of conventional teachers and monks) as Dominic, and tends to retain his conservative Catholic worldview more than Dominic does (who largely tires of organised religion and gives up on it by the end of the novel), whilst Bobby didn’t qualify for grammar school and goes to the local girls’ comprehensive and has absorbed a socialist worldview from her union-organising father. By the end of the novel, the three friends’ experiences of adolescence and developing adult interests will end up establishing a bit of difference between them – but early on, at least, they’re still the “Tremendous Trio” as Dominic likes to think of them, willing to play at the sort of juvenile sleuthing featured in Enid Blyton’s stories.
Truth be told, the Tremendous Trio thing has so far largely been a matter of primary school playground make-believe, though Sheldrake as an aspiring author has been trying his hand at writing stories about them. However, an actual bona fide case for the Trio raises its head in the form of Christian Noble – an eccentric teacher at Dom and Jim’s school. It seems kind of unusual for a teacher at a Catholic school to act as a medium at the local Spiritualist church – and stranger still when he seems able to call back the parishioner’s deceased loved ones more vividly than your typical medium. Mrs Norris, a friend of Sheldrake’s parents, at first seems to take comfort from being put in communication with her dead husband by Noble – but bit by bit his presence seems to eat away at her state of mind.
It gets stranger. Jim and Dom witness Noble engaging in some outright bizarre behaviour in the dead of night, during a school trip to the World War I battlefields of France – behaviour which takes on an even more disconcerting tone in light of some stories told by Noble’s father about the battlefield in question. Noble is dismissed from his post at the school after pressure from parents disconcerted by his religious outlook – but once he’s out of sight and out of mind the grown-ups are disinclined to meddle with his religious practices so long as he is keeping away from Catholic institutions. Yet still, Noble’s strange errands in graveyards, conflicts with his increasingly distressed wife and father, and other dubious activities continue – with Noble establishing his own church where he can act without scrutiny.
Just what does Noble do with these dead people he calls up, what role does his daughter Tina – incredibly precocious for a two-year-old – play in it, and what larger, darker force is behind all of this? Dom reckons that this is a job for the Tremendous Trio – but it’s only when all pretence of being a friends-forever gang of juvenile detectives falls away and Dom decides to confront things on his own that he encounters the next level of horror… and as the novel closes with the Nobles slinking away into exile, Sheldrake dreams of even more bizarre horrors to come, about an age of terror when no-one has a shelter to spare…
As he often does – especially when writing about his home turf of Liverpool – Campbell has gone a bit autobiographical when it comes to evoking the childhood of Dominic Sheldrake. Like Campbell, Sheldrake is born to a Catholic family, goes to a school run by the Christian Brothers, and has an early interest in writing, penning stories which he shares with his school friends for their enjoyment, with all of this happening in a Blitz-scarred Liverpool that feels a bit strange to read about now that the damage has been built over for decades.
At the same time, Sheldrake is not Campbell, and their biographies differ in a number of respects – mostly in ways which serve the story. For instance, whilst the monk who took Campbell’s English class didn’t mind that he was turning out ghost stories – and indeed had him read some of his output to the class – the monastic authorities at Sheldrake’s school are somewhat more monolithic in their general disapproval, with the headmaster taking an especially censorious attitude which means that the English teachers have to toe the line more carefully. (Sheldrake quickly realises that at least one monk has a lewd interest in the boys, at that.) The consequence of this is that Sheldrake becomes disinclined to share his concerns with his teachers as the novel progresses, various incidents (quite believably depicted) persuading him that there’s no friendly ear there, which helps to serve the isolation necessary for his lonely confrontation with Noble’s hideous activities.
Likewise, Campbell gives Sheldrake a much happier home life than he personally enjoyed, with Sheldrake’s parents being basically loving sorts despite their moralistic, conservative outlook, and at points taking a key role in siding with Sheldrake against Noble (and, for that matter, some of the more antagonistic monks). As he’s discussed in various autobiographical essays and comments, this was not the case in the Campbell home: a rift opened up between his mother and father early in his life, and between that and his mother succumbing to mental illness he had an extremely difficult time of it.
This informed some of his early novels, as I’ve gone into in other articles, but Campbell’s exorcised all that several times over and sees no need to retread quite the same territory with Sheldrake and his parents here. Again, the intact family and parental authority serves an important need in the story; Sheldrake’s parents at first provide an important source of protection, taking action to get Noble removed from the school, but as the novel progresses they become increasingly unhelpful, their authority less a welcome source of order and safety and more another obstacle which Sheldrake must navigate, and there’s a certain hypocrisy in when they choose to be religious bigots. They’re happy to hound Noble out of the school – but once he’s gone from there they don’t care to take up the matter further, and actively resist exercising any curiosity about his practices at his church or his home life.
It’s important to note that the action of the novel takes place not much more than a century after the laws on Catholic emancipation were passed in the UK, prior to which Catholics had been second-class citizens since the days of Elizabeth I. Though this isn’t directly referred to by the characters, the British cultural outlook of religion being a matter of personal conscience where you shouldn’t intervene in anything people are doing in that sphere so long as they aren’t trespassing on your turf arguably arises from the long history of religious conflict that began in the Renaissance and whose longer-lasting effects are still felt here and there (as in Northern Ireland’s sectarian conflicts).
Likewise, the sleuthing of the Trio is compared by disapproving adults to the sort of spying and informing which fascist regimes had encouraged during the War (and, come to think of it, the Soviet state was embracing during the era the novel takes place in). These attitudes are rooted in a sense that if it becomes alright to start interfering in the private sphere in one instance or another, then you end up on a slippery slope and the interference never ends; (characters are quick to compare it to what happened in Nazi Germany). British Catholics who know their history are likely to be aware that they’ve ended up at the sharp end of such persecution sufficiently often that it’s not worth their while reopening those cans of worms.
In some respects, this is entirely proper – religious persecution is ugly, thought policing is ugly, social persecution is ugly. Early on, the Trio’s reasons for gunning after Noble are a mixture of understandable reasons for concern and 1950s bigotry. The weird ritual in the battlefield, for instance, seems particularly odd, not least because it appeared to involve contact with something. Moreover, the way that people who get close to Noble tend to have their mental health unravel is a honking great red flag, and would in real life suggest an abusive personality that traumatises those who make the mistake of letting him into their life. At the same time, disliking him simply because he isn’t Catholic is a poor showing, as is being suspicious of him simply because he introduces his students to new ideas rather than indoctrinating them to a narrow dogma. There’s a certain Campbellian irony in that Noble’s early setbacks arise from the parents and school authorities choosing to take aspects on the less respectable motivations for suspicion whilst ignoring the actually substantive problems.
The thing about this “don’t mess with people’s private affairs” attitude is that it can simultaneously be an essential axiom of a free society and a figleaf excuse for not intervening in matters of severe abuse, depending on exactly how you define “private affairs”. Such backlash against Noble’s new church as occurs seems largely driven by intolerant bigotry, rather than any sort of nuanced understanding of the actual abuses happening there and the effects it has on his congregation; this is much like going after Scientology because you think that the Xenu story is stupid, whilst entirely ignoring the much more pressing issue that the official Church of Scientology operates a slave labour force and uses its status as a religion as a cover for this (despite its longstanding history of calling itself a religion when it suits its aims and a science when the FDA isn’t looking – there’s documentation from Hubbard himself which more or less directly admits that turning Scientology into a Church rather than a philosophical or scientific movement was a legal gambit as opposed to any sort of profession of faith).
Just as this attitude can make it more difficult for those trapped in abusive sects to break free from the cycle of manipulation and abuse, it can also make things more difficult for people in intolerable domestic situations – a situation where the harm disproportionately falls on women even today, and was especially the case in the 1950s society Campbell depicts. See, Campbell doesn’t outright throw out the idea of a parental rift from the novel – but rather than inflicting it on Sheldrake’s parents, he has the rift open up between Mr and Mrs Noble, with Mrs Noble at one point attempting to escape Christian’s clutches with little Tina.
Alas, the police march her back home, and more or less coerce her into going back to Mr Noble. Since Mr Noble puts up a pleasant facade, the police come to the conclusion that the problem is Mrs Noble being all emotional and silly, rather than there being any prospect that Mr Noble’s done anything bad. Since Mrs Noble isn’t walking around with a blatant black eye or anything, the neighbours – including Sheldrake’s parents – find no reason to intervene, and you get the impression that they wouldn’t have necessarily stepped in if she did have a black eye so long as there was the decency of some sort of excuse for it. (“She fell down the non-Euclidian stairs.”)
Another instance of Campbell drawing on his past for inspiration without necessarily regurgitating things as they actually happened is likely found in his depiction of how mental health matters were dealt with in the 1950s – with poor Mrs Norris’ trip to the mental hospital tiptoed around as something it was simply socially unacceptable to directly address. It’s established earlier in the book that the Sheldrakes and others have made a point of trying to look out for Mrs Norris following the death of her husband – but with her turning inward as his hideously changed remnant haunts her house, they back away from her rather than seeing this as an early symptom of trouble, and when she wanders into the middle of the coronation street party talking incoherently it feels like she’s spirited away to the hospital more to avoid social embarrassment than to necessarily help her in a substantive way.
Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about the book for me is not the world of the adults, but the world of Dom, Jim, and Bobby. As of the start of the novel they’re at the end of childhood; by the end they’re well into adolescence and no longer feel like children. The Tremendous Trio motif fits all this nicely; at the beginning it’s a charming game which still has vestiges of its appeal from earlier years, though Jim is already beginning to feel that it might be a little embarrassing to keep it going, in the middle it feels like all of them are having second thoughts about the whole thing but pay lip service to it partly to spare Dom’s feelings (since it represents a childhood ideal to him which hasn’t yet been eroded, unlike his religious convictions) and partly because Noble’s activities seem strange enough to merit it, and then by the end of the novel the Trio concept seems irrevocably eroded, with Jim and Bobby having moved on to other interests and Dom giving up on the notion and deciding to tackle things by himself.
There’s an interesting angle here, in that the more the Blyton-inspired touchstone of the Trio corrodes over the course of the novel, the more Lovecraft-inspired horrors seep in through the cracks. Again, it’s a gradual process. As the novel begins there’s little traditionally Lovecraftian at work, you’re just aware that there’s a dodgy medium at work who might be less of a medium and more of an outright necromancer.
Then, in that classically Lovecraftian move, Dom discovers a tome of forbidden lore. (There’s at least a good reason for the villain here to set down all their thoughts in a book, mind; the book is Noble’s extended letter to Tina, explaining to her the background to her existence and Noble’s.) It’s in that book that the word Daoloth slips into the narrative, and it’s through reading that book that Dom becomes determined to do something about Noble (though, having read Wheatley’s Devil Rides Out, he might have a somewhat optimistic idea about how easy it is to stop dark sorcerers).
Finally, as Blyton is exorcised from the book comprehensively, Dom’s conception of the Trio being unable to stand next to the reality of Jim and Bobby snogging in the back row of a cinema just as you’d never imagine any of the members of the Famous Five having their first fumbling sexual experiences with each other (or, for that matter, expressing sexuality in any respect at all), the protection of that worldview slips away from Dom, just like he no longer takes any comfort or solace in rote following of Catholic doctrine.
It’s only in these closing phases of the novel that the horrors encountered arguably go full Lovecraft (in an awesome nihilistic cosmic horror way, not a crappy racist way), with a decidedly curious form of necromancy practiced in the basement of the Trinity Church providing the climax of this novel, and an apocalyptic dream for Dom promising that the sequels are going to go into even stranger territory – a warning borne in the air about an age of terror where no-one has a shelter to spare. The Famous Five have fled and Dom cannot follow them, for he is now trapped in a Campbellian cosmos and there is only Daoloth to cry to now…
Born To the Dark
Three decades pass from the end of The Searching Dead, and Sheldrake takes up the narrative again in the mid-1980s. The Tremendous Three are in their mid-40s and don’t see enough of each other as they’d like. Jim’s grown up just as expected, becoming a police officer and retaining his faith. Bobby’s more of a disappointment to her family – her father’s trade unionist values clashing with Bobby’s stance as a Thatcherite right-wing journalist, and her mother not reconciled to Bobby being openly gay and in a happy relationship with a colleague.
As for Dominic, he’s given up on the writing in favour of academia, and teaches film studies at the local college. In the intervening 30 years he’s also met Lesley, fallen in love, gotten married, and the two of them are the proud parents of a little boy, Toby. Things aren’t quite as settled in their family life as they’d like, however; since he was a baby, Toby has suffered from these strange nocturnal fits. He’s not alone either – the condition, known as “nocturnal absences”, seems to affect a number of local parents – but hope’s to be had in the form of Safe To Sleep, a residential day-care centre which offers a special sleep-based therapy to help kids get better rest.
Dominic’s all for it at first, though he’s a bit disturbed by some of the stuff Toby tells him about odd dreams – dreams which put Dominic in mind of some of the material he read in Christian Noble’s diary back in the day. A few other incidents prompt Dominic to jump to the conclusion that Chris Bloan the paediatrician, the nice doctor who referred them to Safe To Sleep in the first place, is none other than Tina Noble, all grown up and using an almost-anagram of her old surname to obscure her connection to her infamous dad.
Poking into matters further, Dominic not only spots Christian Noble himself lurking inside the Safe To Sleep building, but has an unnerving chat with Chris where she flat-out admits that she is Tina, and that Safe To Sleep is the latest front for the Noble family’s occult activities. Her little boy Toph’s a quick learner in the family tradition, and the Nobles are using the children’s spirits to conduct astral projection experiments into the same realms of deep space that Christian had been using dead spirits to probe back in the day. More astonishingly still, Tina asserts that far from hurting the children, the Noble family are doing it to help them – that the meditative teachings of the Noble cult is investing the children with the strength and the protection they need to face what’s coming in the future. And from there things get really strange…
In this volume we start getting louder and clearer hints that perhaps Dominic Sheldrake is not as reliable a narrator as we might hope he is. For one thing, the Nobles’ assertion that the kids actually need to learn these lessons to survive the horrors to come might be cause to wonder whether their agenda isn’t as automatically malevolent as it’s so far been portrayed as. There’s every indication by the end of the book that, though Safe To Sleep is no longer a factor, they’ve actually accomplished what they wanted with the children in the time they had them, and so Dominic’s efforts have proved to be no impediment to them whatsoever.
In addition, whilst Dominic’s suspicions about Safe To Sleep broadly turned out to be right, his behaviour around those suspicions is outright alarming. It turns out that the sort of investigative snooping which we can accept in protagonists who are kids and younger teenagers (and therefore may not be in a position to directly confront their antagonists) looks really bad when middle-aged men turn their hand to it. What’s sort of endearing behaviour on the part of an imaginative schoolboy looks like paranoid, persecutory harassment when a 40-something college lecturer does it.
It certainly doesn’t help Dominic’s case that the whole Safe To Sleep scheme, whilst it differs in almost all of the specifics from the then-in-vogue “Satanic Ritual Abuse in nurseries” moral panic, nonetheless feels enough like one of them in its broad brushstrokes that whenever Dominic discusses the situation with others in any detail it’s clear they think he has lost his goddamn mind. (With exceptions – Bobby and Jim are always a bit more patient with him, for instance.)
Perhaps the most disturbing aspects of Dominic’s behaviour are the unspoken ones. There’s a tendency for people in the book – especially women, and especially Lesley and the divorce lawyer she consults with once Dominic’s behaviour becomes too much – to react to Dominic like he’s being loud and hectoring and physically imposing and generally throwing his weight around, in a way which feels at odds with the narration. Campbell is a competent enough writer that I don’t feel this is a mistake – I think quite frequently in the book Dominic ends up behaving much less calmly and rationally as he presents himself as being, and gives the people around him genuine cause for alarm.
On that subject, the divorce lawyer is portrayed as having a very ideological, second wave feminism take on divorce – namely, she seems to believe that breaking up a marriage is a politically noble act – which feels like in another author’s hands it would be a misogynistic stereotype wheeled out to express disapproval of divorce, here I have to wonder whether this is an instance of Dominic being less than charitable in his recollections of her.
Perhaps the biggest hint in the book is the last really happy family moment we get which isn’t spoiled by some intrusion of Noble-inspired dream voyaging or Dominic’s paranoid lashing-out. Dominic describes to us how he and the family sat down in front of the television and enjoyed a Rolf Harris television show, Toby taking an innocent joy in seeing how Rolf constructed these vague shapes and splotches of paint and then, adding just a few crucial lines and bits of shading here and there, transformed them into provide the context needed for us to suddenly see what he’s been painting all along.
In narrating this Dominic mentions how Rolf was exposed as a sexual abuser in one of the most disturbing trials to arise from Operation Yewtree, and notes that in the year in question (1985) Rolf would have made his infamous public information film, educating children on staying safe from pedophiles even as he was actively carrying out abuse himself. He uses this to make a point about how memory can be treacherous, and how things we find out later on can put our recollections of earlier events in a different light.
Maybe I’m particularly well-placed to pick up on this point because I’m of Toby’s generation and I remember enjoying Rolf Harris’s shows when I was little and seeing his public education film in school, so the point about how the revelations about Harris makes you revisit and second-guess those memories of him is well-observed. Either way, I’m left wondering whether by the end of the next book we’ll be left with a very different interpretation of the events of the trilogy over all; it seems evident to me on the strength of Born To the Dark that there was stuff going on in The Searching Dead which went beyond even that which you could directly infer from the text there.
The Way of the Worm
Another three decades fall by the wayside, taking us to the present day. Dominic has retired from teaching and is dealing with bereavement after Lesley dies of heart failure, but at least he can rely on the support of Toby – now all grown up, having married his childhood sweetheart Claudine (who he befriended at Safe to Sleep in the previous book), and raising a lovely little daughter called Macy. They’re all very eager to help Dominic – but Dominic isn’t sure about the nature of that help.
You see, along with many other ex-Safe to Sleep patients, Toby and Claudine have joined a new religious organisation called the Church of the Eternal Three – a sect which exerts great influence by courting the membership of the wealthy and powerful. In fact, Toby and Claudine are closely involved with the leadership of the Church, and are very keen for Dominic to come along and join them in their worship – a meditative practice very obviously related to Safe to Sleep’s techniques. Dominic smells a rat – or rather, a worm by the name of Noble – and sure enough, when he comes along for a service the leaders of the sect turn out to be Christian, Tina, and Chris, back once again to exert their influence over Dominic’s friends, family, and neighbours.
Dominic isn’t going to passively take it. Instead, he sneakily leaves his phone behind in the auditorium when the congregation file out, leaving the Nobles (now calling themselves the Le Bon family) alone, in the hopes of recording something useful in the Nobles’ private discussions. What he uncovers is a deeply disturbing secret – one appalling even on an entirely mundane level and even more shocking if you consider the motivations behind it.
The other members of the Tremendous Three were the only ones who really gave Dominic’s worries any credence in Born To the Dark, were instrumental in various stages of his investigation, and ultimately ended up seeing things which convinced each of them that there was something to what the Nobles were doing that was truly unusual. Naturally, then, it’s to Jim and Bobby that Dominic turns now that he has this dynamite. Jim, though retired from the force, has the connections needed to make sure an investigation takes place; Bobby, still an active journalist, jumps the gun and publishes a story based on the recording on her blog.
What follows is a decidedly familiar media circus of the Twitter age, at the end of which it’s far from clear that Dominic has actually accomplished anything beyond deeply upsetting a lot of people. Are the Church’s zealots going to do anything, or are they content sitting there in silence behind their computer screens, waiting for the worms to come? Is Dominic crazy (toys in the attic!), or are supernatural presences making themselves known in his life? Has he stopped the Nobles in time, is he too late for that, or are those notions even valid? Young Chris Noble declares that everyone will end up living in a future of their own – but implies that Dominic will find himself living in the Nobles’ future. As the foundations of Dominic’s life are kicked out from under him one by one, it seems that the future is bleak indeed…
So, thankfully this is one instance where Campbell definitively sidesteps away from autobiography when it comes to Dominic – Ramsey is not a widower and hopefully won’t be for a good while yet. Still, with Dominic’s age having caught up with Campbell’s, it feels like the action is substantially more immediate. In the previous books, Dominic’s narration was describing things which from his perspective happened decades previously; it was self-evident that nothing too bad could happen to Dominic because from the internal evidence of the text he was clearly writing from the present day. Now there are no guarantees, the stakes are higher than ever – and it only now becomes apparent just how rigged the game was all along.
With a trilogy this long, a difficulty arises in terms of delivering an ending. The seeds sown so far demand something apocalyptic happening – but Dominic needs to survive to write down his account of the longest and strangest case of the Tremendous Three. Abandon Lovecraft-style cosmic nihilism and have Dominic and pals prevail at the end and you betray the original inspirations behind the book, you’re left with a massive anticlimax. (It’s always more exciting if the bomb goes off than if the bomb doesn’t go off; the final mission in Star Wars is saved from being an anticlimax largely because something planetoid-sized does indeed spectacularly explode at the end of the battle, just not the thing the Imperials were hoping to blow up.) On the other hand, “nobody accomplishes anything and all is hopeless” is perhaps more easily accepted as the conclusion to a short story, or maybe even a standalone novel, than to an entire trilogy of books.
Campbell squares this particular circle by basically having several endings to the book – there’s at least two plausible versions of how things pan out, and there’s even a potentially believable one somewhat earlier where the Nobles are defeated comprehensively and the Tremendous Three all survive, though it seem somewhat less plausible than the other endings. The most prominent ending, whilst not as apocalyptic as the one it follows, has Dominic resolving to seek refuge in his memories of the past – a solution which actually has some validity thanks to the meditative techniques of the Nobles, but which it’s strongly implied an only be at most a delaying tactic, for one wrong thought will bring about the future Dominic fears. (After all, didn’t the Rolf Harris reference in Born To the Dark act as a reminder that memory is treacherous?)
This would be a cop-out were it not for the groundwork rigorously established earlier in the trilogy. Daoloth, ever since Campbell first invented the entity back in the 1960s, has had connotations of doing wibbly stuff with time and offering sanity-blasting knowledge of the past and future, and the trilogy as a whole presents the trinity of the Nobles as bringing the past, present, and future together. The idea of there being not one future but a plethora of parallel ones works with the idea of Daoloth existing between dimensions. The entirety of Born To the Dark established the importance of these meditative techniques the Nobles teach and gave Dominic a chance to learn them. In general, the ending we get is an ending which manages to be both surprising when you get to it but also makes sense in the context of what has come before (and leaves me tempted to reread the trilogy to see if I can catch any acausal shenanigans on the part of the Nobles).
On a less cosmic and more more emotional level, the novel captures the frustrations of old age just as vividly as the previous volumes captured the frustrations of earlier stages of life. Dominic’s sleuthing, now that he’s a bit older, feels a little more to be expected of gentlemen of his maturity (“Old Man Seeks Cloud To Wave Fist At”), but not necessarily as respectable or innocent as his childhood detective work. Likewise, he seems here to be entering a stage of life when people are just as patronising to you as they are when you’re little – finding himself facing much the same difficulty in making his case to people as Noble’s father had back in The Searching Dead.
There’s also a pinch of social commentary again; whilst in the first book the problem was people’s tendency to mind their own business too much, here it’s more people’s tendency to fly off the handle without a full command of the facts. The Internet shitstorm Bobby sets off by publishing her article is just such an example. Campbell is canny enough to frame the situation so that it clearly isn’t a slam on #MeToo or similar movements – or at least, if you read it that way that’s likely to be you bringing your baggage to the table, because it doesn’t really resemble that. (In particular, it’s not about individuals bringing their stories to the fore – it’s about Bobby exposing someone else’s story, when the person in question clearly doesn’t regard their experience as abuse and certainly never gave their consent for the story being aired in public.)
It’s reminiscent instead of the sort of conversations around GamerGate you saw back when that was happening in corners of the Internet where nobody present had an especially acute axe to grind for or against GamerGate, and therefore nobody had looked too deeply into it and the end result was massive confusion. The ensuing conversations zoot off on tangents and focus on irrelevancies as a result and most of the general public don’t really grasp the central point – which is that if this one thing that Bobby’s exposed happened in the midst of the Church of the Eternal Three, what else is going on behind closed doors there? (Actually, it’s about ethics in ritual mass manipulation…)
It’s got all the plausibly infuriating frustration of an online discussion which has become comprehensively derailed from whatever constructive direction might have been accomplished prior to the derailment. Few other authors who’ve been writing as long as Campbell have really get the tone and style and general cut and thrust of Internet conversations to the extent that he does, but he showed in The Grin of the Dark that he was really adept at this sort of stuff and he continues to have his finger on the pulse here. Like it or not, Campbell is showing us the way we often interact online, and it’s not an appealing picture. Maybe the unravelling of the world will be worth it if means we stop the slow drip of Trump tweets.
On the whole, then, The Way of the Worm brings the trilogy to a satisfyng close, and perhaps is its most terrifying episode; we’ve come a long way from The Searching Dead, where it seemed like mere ghosts were the main thing to be worrying about, and this final volume is perhaps the strangest and most hallucinatory of all the episodes of The Three Births of Daoloth, in keeping with our increasingly hallucinatory times.