Reviewed by Stewart Horn
It’s Britain in the 1950s, and the horrors of both world wars are still raw in the memories of the population. Dominic Sheldrake is a sensitive schoolboy who writes adventure stories starring himself and his two friends. He attends a catholic grammar school and is intrigued by new and iconoclastic teacher Mr. Noble.
Mr. Noble helps at a spiritualist church, apparently helping the bereaved to speak to their loved ones, but he has a far darker plan, using the souls of the dead to find and summon an ancient evil.
With nods to Lovecraft’s The Dunwich Horror, Machen’s The Great God Pan, and his own early work, Campbell creates a gradually escalating nightmare in which not just Dominic and his town, but the whole of mankind, are in danger.
However that’s just the top layer of storytelling. The atmosphere of blitzed post-war Liverpool is perfectly convincing, and the constant contrast between Dominic’s fluctuating and uncertain internal monologue and the adults’ reactionary attitudes is mirrored in other themes and subtext. The adults remember the world before the war and want the status quo back; Dominic himself is on the edge of puberty and sees relationships with friends threatened by increasing social and sexual complexity: Mr. Noble seems like an agent for change but in fact seeks to turn the clock back by millennia. The dichotomies reinforce each other to make a highly effective piece of work.
As ever, Campbell’s prose is precise and elegant, and he conjures fear from barely heard whispers, or half-glimpsed faces that may only be billowing fog, so it’s creepy too.
I was furious when the book ended because I’d forgotten it was part one of a trilogy, and I want the whole story. However, the big reveal in the church cellar is a dramatic one, and I have another two books to look forward too.