I tend to find that some of the most effective horror is built upon a foundation of real life events and occurrences. This gives the story a certain level of believability and the reader can accept the fictional aspects of the story more willingly. With this in mind, I was almost wetting myself with anticipation when Ramsey Campbell began describing a lost Lugosi/Karloff film with a very ghastly past in his novel, Ancient Images.
From Samhain Publishing:
A lost horror film holds the key to terrifying secrets.
The legends have persisted for decades of a lost horror film starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi that was never released. Rumor has it that, for reasons long forgotten, powerful forces suppressed the film and burned all known prints. Nobody now living has seen the finished film. But that might no longer be true…
Film researcher Sandy Allan is invited to a screening of a newly discovered sole-surviving print, but then the film disappears and the real horror begins. Sandy’s search for the film leads her to Redfield, a rural community known for its rich soil, fertilized by blood from an ancient massacre. But Redfield guards its secrets closely, with good reason. During every step of her search, Sandy is watched, shadowed by strange figures. Is it paranoia, or is someone—or something—determined to keep the lost film and the secrets it reveals buried forever?
Ramsey Campbell has a style that slowly slithers its way into your psyche and nests there. If you are unfamiliar with his writing, he builds up the atmosphere around the plot with such subtlety that the reader does not even realize what is happening until that beast that has worked its way into your head is ready to strike. Ancient Images is no different as Campbell plays up the literary elements of the genre to perfection. Now don’t get me wrong- this story isn’t all about the words because Campbell throws in a healthy dose of nastiness in the form of ancient rituals and some truly “unique” townsfolk. There is also a bunch of gypsy/hippies that add a bit of the bizarre to the proceedings. These elements certainly help with the pacing and make the book more accessible to the “pulp” genre crowd.
The story is fantastic as Campbell builds and builds to what the reader expects to be a grand crescendo. Unfortunately, the elegance and tension of Campbell’s style may have built up my expectations a bit too much, as I was slightly disappointed with the ending. It was like watching the finale of a great film and the credits begin to roll just when you thought that another scene or two were on their way. It was also slightly disappointing to see the focus of the novel shift from this mysterious film to a pagan community who has relied on some very interesting techniques to ensure a healthy wheat harvest. The beginning of the book promises a story that would be a genre fan’s dream (Lugosi/Karloff lost film!!!!!!!) but ultimately, the story reverts to some well worn genre territory. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing since Campbell’s style is so distinct that, although the plot may seem familiar, the story as a whole certainly feels fresh.
Ancient Images is a well crafted tale with a very interesting premise. The prose is spectacular and the mood is brooding and malicious. If you’ve read Campbell in the past, well, you know what you are getting into and this certainly is one of his best works. If you are a Campbell newcomer, I can’t think of a better example of the man’s literary prowess.