Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Ancient Images: Stay out of the Tower!

I’ve been a fan of Ramsey Campbell for a long time.  I came across “Cold Print” in the excellent Lovecraftian anthology Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos Volume II and went looking for more.  This led to Demons by Daylight, Campbell’s second collection of stories, and the first, as he admits in the forward, in which he was finding his own voice and leaving Lovecraft imitation behind.  Next came novels (The Hungry Moon and the wonderfully titled The Doll Who Ate His Mother were early favorites), and I had fun hunting for more of his seemingly innumerable short stories in various anthologies. 

My latest Campbell read is his 1989 novel Ancient Images.  I loved the lurid keyhole cover (left), but ended up being less enthused about the book itself. 

Ancient Images starts promisingly, with the rediscovery of a never-released horror film, Tower of Fear, starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff.  Film editor Sandy's friend Graham, the rediscoverer, soon meets a grisly fate and the film goes missing; this sets Sandy off on a road trip to find it and find out more about the lurking fear which seems to surround it.  Those associated with the film are reluctant to discuss it, and many have met grisly fates of their own... or begin to meet them as Sandy digs deeper.  Even her cats bite the dust.
So far, so good.  Campbell's signature writing style, where everyday objects and scenes are imbued with horror, is present here, and he also includes some interesting film history.  But Ancient Images quickly starts to drag.  Sandy isn't a very engaging protagonist.  When supernatural beings being to manifest themselves, they aren't very engaging either.  They also appear too often - it seems like Sandy sees (or thinks she sees) something lurking in the bushes every other page or so.  The lurkers are described as having flowers in their eyes, which somehow detracts from their horror.

As Sandy peels back the shroud surrounding Tower of Fear, the plot veers into shades of The Wicker Man, with pagan/harvest/fertility themes.  There's a creepy scene in a dark tower (of fear), and some lurking scarecrows (or are they?).  A wandering band of hippie-types called Enoch's Army is introduced.  I'm not sure why they were included or if there was a real-life parallel to them in 80's England.  The plot could have done fine without them.  Enoch's Army, Sandy, and the plot all stagger towards the oddly idyllic village of Redfield, where the wheat grows really, really well.  Then there is a lackluster and anti-climactic conclusion.    

I felt that Ancient Images might have worked better as a short story; as a novel, it wasn't entirely cohesive and seemed padded to reach novel length.  I kept comparing unfavorably to Campbell's more recent film-related novel, The Grin of the Dark.  The real disappointment is that the enjoyable concept of a forbidden, cursed, and ghastly horror film doesn’t really come to fruition.  When Sandy finally tracks down the film and views it, it doesn’t seem all that ghastly, and even worse, there doesn't seem to be a compelling reason for supernatural forces to take the trouble to haunt it.

Ramsey Campbell's still one of my favorite horror authors.  I just didn't feel this was one of his best efforts.

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