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  • TITLE: Ancient Images
  • AUTHOR: Ramsey Campbell
  • PUBLICATION YEAR: 1989
  • AWARDS:
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Were all Horror novels of the late 80s this boring?(1) I mean, Jeez, it's like author Campbell delibertly chose storytelling techniques to limpasize this one below even Warhol's 1964 film Empire, a single, camera-running shot of the Empire State Building where the only thing that moves in its 8 hour running time is a bird flys through the frame.

Okay, that's too harsh. Nobody is below Warhol.

Ancient Images is the 3rd person limited narrative from one Sandy Allan, film editor for the Metropolitian Television store, who, upon seeing her friend and mentor Graham Nolan fall to his death from his apartment rooftop, has come to righteously seek answers and reasons. She is further motivated because Graham had just completed his life's work of locating the very cultish, supposedly lost horror film entitled Tower of Fear from the 1930s starring Karloff and Lugosi, and was chasing the thief who stole this precious, single copy of Tower of Fear from his apartment and onward to his calamitous sidewalk header. But after that somewhat startling opening, Sandy settles into typical police procedural doldrums, going from one person to the next, gathering clues, finding her cats curiously dead, driving around London, seeing gravestone epitaphs like "he led me off my way and tore me to pieces"(p.209), having more threatening experiences, and--of course--feeling jumpy 'cause she thinks she's being followed by a shadowy presence all the time.

Finally, nosy Sandy sniffs out a bad doogie in a farm conglomerate out in the country called the Staff o' Life. Turns out it's an old fiefdom that's pretty much run like an old fiefdom in present day, raising and tending wheat fields under the benign aristocracy of the royal Redfield family. Apparently, they bought the rights to Tower of Fear then destroyed the negative and all copies because the director dissed the family with pranks like turning the "braids of wheat shaped like horns of a satyr"(p.278) on the Redfield coat of arms. Cost the film's director his life, too.

This is the point in the book where scarecrows get animated and poor Sandy reacts like you'd expect. There's something about the "inexorable power of a thirsty earth, a thirst that must be quenched"(2). Oh yeah, I almost forgot, there's a protest march goin' on called Enoch's Army and a kid named Arcturus for no reasonable reason, and this group finds themselves on the outskirts of Redfield's thatched roofs about to be gobbled by the land, I guess. Don't worry, it all turns out according to script.

The film? Oh, we get a viewing in a forced, histrionic sorta way and it's a tosser. With stereotypical assurance guaranteeing cluelessness—"Karloff [is] sinisterly unctuous, Lugosi resoundingly polite"(p.275)—there's not enough in the film to warrant Redfields' over-reaction, but for those of us who know, there's enough for a damnation. Tower of Fear ends up mirroring Ancient Images: motivations for believable actions are subtle enough for an extended creepiness, but the absurdities of the surface story despairs deeper perusal. And, Ramsey Campbell's reputation(3), like Karloff and Lugosi's, is larger than the sum of these products.

The Redfield Curse demands a sacrifice every 50 years. You know you have it when you don't read a book better'n this in 50 years. Have mercy and don't eat the bread from England.

 

1) No, I checked. King was in his Misery phase, Straub published Koko in 1988; Koontz's masterpiece Watchers was '87, and Silence of the Lambs was 1988, going on in 1991 to be the last film to Grand Slam the Academy Awards (best director/actor/actress/picture/screenplay). Seems pretty much like PEAK charting to me, especially when, coming in 1991, Kathe Koja with The Cipher, will change Horror's face with inner-personal, almost spiritual yet selfishly-existential investigations from the bedrock of humanity's tainted and deliciously deluded moral universe.

2) Blurb from DJ inside cover flap.

3) Hasn't someone, somewhere declared Ramsey "England's Stephen King"? Oh, no, that was Clive Barker gettin' the crown, wasn't it?

 

Postscript: Thinking this book through leads to more allusions that distinguish Campbell, but not necessarily this read. Take Enoch's Army, for instance. Enoch talks about re-discovering the Old Knowledge. "We had a blueprint for living, and civilization tore it up," he says. Campbell makes this teasingly ambiguous because Enoch's right, just misguided by the foundations of the Old Knowledge. Campbell also gains points for making the quest a movie"images for you to put in people's heads"(p.112)in which nobody will believe its reality, and has far less impact as an artifact than it did as a myth. "Nothing you should regret missing,"(p.281) Sandy says after view it, de-saturating its fervid quest. Along with the bloody sacrifices, author Campbell leaves a lot of irony dripping into the ground.

 

© copyright 11/20/2013 by Larry Crawford

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