(1989/2023) Ramsey Campbell, Flame Tree Press, £20.00, hrdbk, 296pp, ISBN 978-1-78758-763-3
Okay, true confession time, I have read Ancient Images before. Well, is that any surprise given that I am a Ramsey Campbell fan and Ancient Images was first published way back in 1989? I also have to put my cards on the table and say that I consider it to contain some of the scariest, tensest scenes in horror fiction, right up there with parts of Raven by the late, great Charles L. Grant, and also Do the Creepy Thing by the late, great Graham Joyce.
This novel could easily be classified as ďfolk horrorĒ and it probably is, an illustration that this bandied-about term of recent times can be applied to horror fiction that isnít that recent, and fiction that is a hundred years old, or older could easily attract that label.
For me, what makes this one of my favourite Campbell books is the pacing, but also the subject matter of a lost film Ė Tower of Fear - starring those two horror titans Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Iíve always been a sucker for novels about lost films, and if you are too, then seek out Rough Cut by Gary McMahon and The Witnesses are Missing by the late, great Joel Lane, but there are many other fine titles in this sub-genre, including Experimental Film by Gemma Files and Flicker by Theodore Roszak which possibly shares some of the themes of Ancient Images, although it should be pointed out that Campbellís novel came first.,
In Ancient Images, film critic Graham Nolan has finally uncovered a copy of Tower of Fear which was never released. He invites his friend, film editor, and colleague, Sandy Allan, over to his apartment for a screening, but when she arrives, Grahamís home has been trashed, and there is no sign of him or the film, but then she spots him on the roof of the next building where he jumps to his death. Given the rarity of the film, the police put Grahamís death down to chasing the person who stole the film, or it could be suicide, but Sandy canít forget the look on his face as he fell, and when Grahamís reputation is tarnished in an article, Sandy begins a quest to track down anyone still living who was involved with the film using Grahamís notebook and encounters actors, writers and other production staff along the way as she tries to learn why the film was suppressed, but some people would rather forget their involvement, or are they fearful about something else?
Along the way she encounters a film historian and a bunch of film nerds who produce their own fanzine called Gorehound, and also a group of hippies known as Enochís Army, who travel the country looking for a home, despite the distrusting locals who have been whipped into a frenzy by the tabloid press. The members of the army seem to spout some new-age nonsense about manís relationship with the land and not letting it rest and dream as well as over-farming and polluting it: humanity has forgotten to live with the land to its peril. Eventually her quest will lead her to Lord Redfield, who owns the rights to the film, but is more famous for his connection to the town of Redfield and the wheat produced for the Staff oíLife bread who are famous for their Hovis-like adverts. Redfield almost spills the beans about the film and its suppression. But Sandy is not convinced and she has to dig deeper including a visit to a tower and a graveyard where the dates revealÖ
Ah, that would be telling, suffice to say that I consider this to be one of Campbellís finest novels, helped by his own considerable knowledge of film (he is the President of Manchester's Fantastic Films Society), the brisk pace of the novel, wonderful characterisation, and intensely creepy set pieces Ė youíll spot them when you read this novel Ė which is told in a way that almost mirrors the films made during the period which Tower of Fear was produced, in that it isnít gory, it is full of dread, and mystery and intrigue and shadows, and half-glimpsed things at the edges of Sandyís vision. Some people may read the novel and be dissatisfied by the ending, but I can easily imagine the story as a black and white film which finishes almost abruptly with the words THE END appearing on the screen.
There is also an afterword written by Campbell in 2011 addressing the origins of the novel, his love of film and the issues that horror, and horror films, in particular, faced back in the 1980s. Highly recommended.
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