Forbidden Tomes: ANCIENT IMAGES by Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey Campbell is a tragically underrated horror author, despite being at one point christened Britain’s Stephen King. He has a plethora of bizarre and disturbing genre works, most published in the 70s and 80s, but they’re incredibly hard to find in bookstores. In honor of Campbell’s legacy, I’ll be reviewing the first book of his that I encountered, ANCIENT IMAGES.

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I am particularly attached to this book because of its affection for horror films. The plot follows film editor Sally Allen, ensnared in a dark mystery after her colleague gets ahold of an extremely rare Lugosi/Karloff print – and dies violently afterwards. As she tracks down the film’s origins, beyond a terrorized set and a Gothic horror story apparently based on true events, she uncovers a nightmarish legacy. The film is cursed, and whoever possesses it is destined to meet an awful fate. Sally must uncover the nature of this curse before it gets her, too.

Any horror film fan will get giddy at the mention of Karloff and Lugosi. It’s delightful to read about this fictional collaboration of theirs, which is suppressed for being ‘too frightening…’ and for other, darker reasons. The mystery behind the cursed film set and the effect it has on anyone who views it is ingeniously evoked. I’m a sucker for stories about cursed films/books akin to “The King in Yellow,” and this is a whopper of a curse, especially because of the enigma surrounding its consequences.

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Campbell is cruelly good at withholding information and keeping the reader wondering – that, I think, is his strength. His prose is reserved, and the revelations are all the more shocking for their mundane appearances. He knows how to subtly hint at the horrors to come without revealing too little. Sally’s encounters with the ancient force are subdued, often so much so that she doesn’t realize what happened. That is what frightened me the most about the book – the not knowing. The quick flashes and quiet hints are monstrously chilling.

Of course, when the mystery is so enticing, the unmasking is bound to disappoint a bit. Campbell doesn’t quite match his buildup with his climax. In spite of this, the ending is still well done, and honors everything that came before. Horror novels always have a hard time ending themselves – but “Ancient Images” does well enough.

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This is the type of book that seems to belong exclusively to the 80s – the supernatural mystery tale of a hip young person hunting through a trail of unexplained deaths. I miss this vintage form of plot, and am always thrilled to find a relic like this that adheres so successfully to it. Campbell is an undeniable master of the genre, quietly placing his horrors around the protagonist and unleashing them only when the tension has begun to suffocate the reader.

“Ancient Images,” while not his most famous book, is worth a read for any fan of this ‘classic’ brand of horror. Pick it up on a blustery autumn evening, when the shadows begin to look like something else, something that watches. It is sure to haunt you.

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