Monday, February 3, 2020

Ancient Images by Ramsey Campbell (1989): The Wheat is Growin' Thin

Folk horror has been enjoying a resurgence in popularity in recent years, but it is certainly not a new subgenre. Fans have long spoken of the rustic, pagan, creepy charms of books and movies like Harvest Home, Blood on Satan's Claw, The Wicker Man (based on the near-forgotten 1967 novel Ritual by David Pinner), Witchfinder General, The Ceremonies, "Children of the Corn," "The Lottery," most recently Midsommar, and of course back to the greats like Arthur Machen. Rural landscapes, taciturn locals, primitive religious and cult practices, and doomed interlopers are the essential tropes that form the basis for this always-fascinating pocket of horror.

So I'm well chuffed to report that Ramsey Campbell's 1989 novel Ancient Images (Tor paperback, June 1990, art by Gary Smith) ticks all those boxes successfully. A measured, mature, and well-paced thriller that finds the prolific modern master Campbell plying his quiet horror trade in top form, I devoured this book in a matter of days, eager to get back to it every time I had to put it down.

Campbell in 1989, photo by JK Potter

Interestingly, the impetus here is utterly modern: the search for a lost (fictional) film. Tower of Fear stars horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, produced during the same era as their real dual-starrers like The Black Cat (1934) and The Body Snatcher (1945). Graham Nolan is a film critic for television news who has finally tracked down a copy of the film, suppressed and never released, after searching for it for two years. He invites his colleague, film editor Sandy Allan, from the TV station they work at, to watch it with him. When Sandy arrives at Graham's apartment that evening for the "premiere," she finds it's been ransacked, the film projector knocked over and empty film canisters strewn about... and no copy of Tower of Fear. Then she sees Graham on the roof of the adjacent building, and as Sandy rushes to an outer door, she can only watch in horror as he tries to leap back to his own building, but misses and falls to his death:

His mouth was gaping, silenced perhaps by the wind of his fall, and yet she thought he saw her and, despite his terror, managed to look unbearably apologetic, as if he wanted her to know that it wasn't her fault she hadn't been in time to reach him.

Upon learning of the rarity of the film, the police think that Graham chased a thief across the rooftops. Sandy thinks this makes as much sense as anything, and writes an obituary for Graham to be broadcast by the station, mentioning his search for Tower of Fear and its theft. A day later a snarky tabloid critic who knew Graham pays him a backhanded tribute in print, angering Sandy by the dent it makes in Graham's integrity. She confronts this pompous writer, Len Stilwell,  at a horror movie premiere with American film historian Roger Stone (our eventual love interest). Stilwell dismisses the two of them and their mission: "I write consumer reports, I've no time for cleverness. Nor to argue." Wow do you wanna smack the guy! (Was Campbell inspired by a real-life critic?!)

Armed with Graham's notebook that contains contact info of people who'd worked on and starred in the film so many decades before, Sandy begins tracking them down, determined to save Graham's reputation. The mystery grows, for director Giles Spence was killed in a car accident just after filming ended. Karloff and Lugosi themselves never spoke of it. Like so many novels before and since, this research quest is a pleasure to read. What sinister force made this movie such a troubled production, caused it to be banned, led its makers and stars into seclusion, secrecy, even death? I mean, I love this kinda shit!

Campbell shines as he creates the unique characters Sandy meets. To a one they seem agitated, even fearful, to have Tower of Fear brought up again and again; many principals are aging and their adult children don't want their parents bothered by some trash horror nonsense from long ago. Even Sandy's parents are put off by it, although Dad admits, "Neither your mother nor I have heard of it, though it's the kind of thing we would have lapped up before the war changed all that."

Legend Books UK, 1990

Sandy meets the editors and designers and and writers and actors who were involved with Tower of Fear, and as I said, it's a pleasure to read; Sandy is a smart and capable character. She even hangs out with a disreputable group of grungy young movie fans who put out a gore zine. His fictional cinematic creations and their intersection with real-life movie culture isn't cute or self-aware, nor is it pretentious or faux-intellectual (*cough* Flicker *cough*), it simply is.

But it's the creeping unease when dealing with those who helped make the movie, the paranoia and distrust, which Campbell conveys with such subtle mastery, that propels the novel forward. There are also notes of tragedy, particularly in the sad career of once-popular actor Tommy Hoddle, who'd provided the comic relief for Tower of Fear. Sandy tracks him to down at a beach resort town where he is playing in children's afternoon theater shows, this one a pathetic vampire spoof. She tries to engage him about the movie, to no avail, and succeeds only in terrifying the poor old chap...

Eventually, after much to-do that involves a burgeoning affair with Stone, professional pressures, and figures that flitter and caper just at the edge of perception—that hallmark of Campbell's off-kilter approach to chills and dread—Sandy finds the owner of the movie rights. This is Lord Redfield, of the township Redfield, known far and wide for its successful agriculture which provides the wheat for Staff o' Life bread, a popular brand whose commercials always seem to be playing in the background. Lord Redfield invites Sandy to his palatial home, and in Bond villain fashion, explains (almost) all to her. Political strings and newspaper ownership factor in, but there are still unsettling questions in Sandy's mind about the film and its relationship to Redfield... and sullen locals to avoid. She scales an historic tower, obviously the inspiration for the film, and traipses through the cemetery, where death dates have an uncomfortable 50-year regularity going back centuries. And that name: red... field. Uhhh, that can't be good. Folk horror fully engaged!

US hardcover, cover art by Don Brautigam

And I haven't even mentioned Enoch's Army. What's Enoch Army? It's a sort of leftover band of hippie revolutionaries who are trudging in a caravan through parts of England, looking for a safe haven to call home, but tabloids are biased against them (guess who owns one of those tabloids). Tensions are rising as no one wants these folks around. Campbell has them on a parallel with the search for Tower of Fear, both literally and figuratively. During her travels, Sandy comes across them in the road with police escort, but one of the children runs in front of her car and she nearly hits him and his mother. Apologetic, Sandy talks with them and then the leader himself, Enoch Hill. His words form the thematic core of the novel:

"Our way is to move on when the land wants to rest and dream, but the mass of men won't leave it alone. Man and the land used to respect each other, but now man pollutes the land...There'll come a day when the earth demands more of man than it ever did when man knew what it wanted... All fiction is an act of violence... Man can't resume his old relationship with the earth until we remember the tales that told the truth. We had a blueprint for living, and civilization tore it up."

Basically, Enoch himself made me think of Alan Moore.

UK hardcover

All these disparate elements are steadily making their way towards one another in Campbell's sure hand: Enoch's Army, those strange twig-like shadows hovering at the corners of the narrative, Lord Redfield, Tower of Fear, the harvest... step by careful unavoidable step. Beautifully paced, restrained, subtle, and intriguing, I've only sketched the aspects that make this such a satisfying read; it has to be one of Campbell's very finest works of the Eighties. It's also cool that Campbell is no mean film critic and fan himself, so you just know he had a high old time writing it (and he thanks our old pal Dennis Etchison in the notes for his help with cinematic minutiae).

Like the atmospheric black-and-white movies of the past that Campbell invokes, there is scarcely a drop of blood, but there is a great deal of suspense and mystery. If you love film history and behind-the-scenes accounts of film-making, the trappings of folk horror, or a sharp, well-crafted tale, this is a must-read. Ancient Images is also a great place to start if you've never read a Campbell novel. No doubt about it: this is a masterful piece of quiet horror. That quiet, however, just means you can't hear what's sneaking up behind you.

 She imagined the land was able to send something to hunt victims on its behalf...


B-T said...

Just read this at the end of last year. It was, as you recommend in your review, my first Campbell novel.
I enjoyed it, mostly, but admit that the constant "out-of-the-corner-of-my-eye/oh-well-it-must-have-been-the-wind" angle became kind of annoying after awhile.
Although it eventually became fun, wondering in what ways he would explain away these eerie little occurrences, and thinking he would eventually offer a corny or unfulfilling excuse, but he never did! He made it work every time!
I knew nothing about the book when I purchased it, and was intrigued by the lost Karloff and Lugosi film. Where it ended up was no where near my expectations.

Arkhivist said...

If Len Stilwell is based on a real critic, I might guess Leslie Halliwell just based on the names. The author of a Film Guide noted for its "laconic comments and dismissive attitude on more recent films," Halliwell had just recently died when Ancient Images came out.

Interesting piece about strongly place-based "English eeriness" that links works of the folk horror type (mentioning The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General) with other genres:

Graham said...

This is one of my favorite Ramsay Campbell novels, it's not just the respectful use of cinematic history, there's also a nod to the history of horror fiction. The lost film at the heart of the story is based off a tale written by what appears to be a thinly disguised version of M. R. James.

highwayknees said...

This sounds like the Campbell novel Ive been looking for...and it also brings to mind the extreme folk horror of my own favorite Campbell tome from recent years: The Darkest Part of the Woods, which I will forever urge anyone even slightly interested in his work to pick up and read a masterpiece! It has the frights and underlying sadness of his best work.It really left me shook.

Murray said...

One of my favourite RC books, too. A few years ago, the podcast A Very British Horror did a mock-film-review episode on Tower of Fear:

Rob said...

Ancient Images is my favorite Campbell novel I've read thus far. Folk horror? A lost Karloff/Lugosi film? What's not to like?!? It's been a decade or more since I've read it, but wasn't there a scene involving an old still picture come to life...similar to the scene in "It" with Pennywise? I remember being weirded out by that scene...hope I'm remembering correctly!

But what's with the hate for Flicker? I loved that book! Oh well....

TT. said...

Does anyone know what's going on with The Doll Who Ate His Mother? I thought I heard someone had acquired print and ebook rights a couple of years ago, but it still seems missing in action.

Zwolf said...

Cambpell's short stories are almost always great, but his novels are hit-or-miss for me. I've loved some, I've hated some. Fortunately, this is one of the ones I loved. And I'm thinking that if you haven't read _Grin of the Dark_ yet, oh my friend, go NOW and find a copy, because if you liked this one, you'll love that one! It's got a similar "looking for lost films" storyline, but gets even more sinister.

Now you've made me want to re-read both that and Ancient Images. Might get reading The Nameless out of my mind (that was one of his books I hated).

Griff said...

I really liked Flicker though.

Will Errickson said...

Regarding FLICKER, I read it about two-and-a-half years ago after it had been on my TBR for ages. I liked it at first but it kept going on and on and I began to find it tedious, pretentious, and just plain silly (“sub-sub”?!). It really began to grate on me, and I can’t quite put my finger on it since I thought I was really gonna love it! Same goes for BOY WONDER, another fictional film novel that I *loathed*. Just gave me the embarrassment cringes!

ssss said...

The Polish title of the novel was Wieza Strachu ( The Tower of Fear ). It was published in 1994 and had pretty cool cover art: