Sunday, April 9, 2023

Ramsey Campbell's Ancient Images (1989).

I think I'll have to start out with an apology.  It's directed at not one, but two recipients.  The first is Will Errickson.  He owns the popular blog, Too Much Horror Fiction, which serves as a great resource for unearthing the all the ghastly glories from the days of Gothic fiction past.  If you're the kind of discerning reader who likes the sort of charm that's found in those old types of paperbacks with lurid art decorations featuring a colorful variety of assorted nightmares from previous decades, then Errickson is the guy you need to talk to in order to sate that particular fix.  No matter how niche you may think your taste in the old classics are, whether it be a like for names like Shirley Jackson, Ira Levin, Richard Matheson, or even more obscure names like Thomas F. Monteleone and Kathe Koja, Will's blog will always be there to both assure you that you're not alone, and help re-introduce you to a lot of obscure names that sometimes don't deserve to be forgotten.  The best part is that he accomplishes all this in a crisp yet descriptive prose style that is fitting for the type of blog he runs, and the particular tomes of terror that he was able to unearth dredge up from the crypt of yesteryear.

If it sounds like I'm going out of my way here to sing the Will's praises, then the sad news is there may be a reason for that, so I figure its best get the apologies up front and let everyone know that what I'm about to say next is nothing personal.  I also mentioned above that there was just one other person to whom a bit of groveling is in order, considering the places this review is going to head as it goes along.  This other guy is just some scribbler by the name of Stephen King.  Have you heard of him?  Well, whatever the case, even if you're a complete newcomer to the Horror genre, you can take my word for it that this second person I have to apologize to is a good place to start when it comes to the real subject of this review.  It all has to do with a book called Ancient Images by Ramsey Campbell.  Now if neither the name, nor the title is familiar to you, then I'm not surprised.  Nor is it anyone's fault, although that faint and distant sound of sorrow you might be hearing right now is probably Will Errickson wailing and gnashing his teeth, while tearing his hair out.  In some ways, it's just possible for me to sympathize with such a reaction.  However, the sad truth is every artist is at the mercy of the audience.  Which means all fame is a victim of memory.  Writers like King are lucky in that he's become (by his own admission) the world's most recognizable brand name in the history of the Horror genre.

For people like Ramsey Campbell, however, the luck just never really appears to have been in the cards.  If you type in his name on Google Trends, the results are not what you'd call inspiring.  The search engine's recall doesn't reach back further than the year 2004.  And the further away you get from that point, the lower Campbell's fame and reputation seem to dip.  It bottoms out around December of 2006, and he's never really broken past the 25% mark since.  That's a good marker for showing that your reputation is in danger of sinking away into the cracks of history.  The final kicker is that in the US, at least, there are just two states where anyone shows any awareness of who Campbell is, and his entire reputation is confined to both New York and California.  That's not niche.  It's barely even an afterthought.  It's also kind of the reason I decided to bring Uncle Steve along for the ride.  In addition to being the best-selling Boogeyman of all time, King has forgotten more valuable information about the Horror genre than most of us will ever be able to recall under our own efforts going forward.

His memory of the Gothic is long, and one of the shames of real life is that I don't think we've ever capitalized on that as much as we should, while there's still time.  There will come a day (say sorry as hell) when such an immediate fount of knowledge will no longer be available, at least not as far as our own current perception of things goes.  When it does, it will be like watching a valuable treasure chest of information and genre knowledge sinking under the waves for the final count.  That's one of the great losses that can happen when a Titan goes silent, and the same can even be said of Campbell as well as King.  In addition to being ink-stained-wretches, both men are fans of their own genre, and one of the good things to know is that Campbell has been considerate enough to leave his own thought on the field, and its stories recorded down for posterity.  King has managed to do some of this as well, in his 1981, book-length study, Danse Macabre.  It's in that non-fiction book, as well, that he provides readers with what has to be one of the few good introductions to who Ramsey Campbell is, and what he writes for a living.  As always, the first step in getting to know a forgotten name is to know about his context.

From what I'm able to tell, Campbell is one of those writers who owe their entire career to being in the right place at the right time.  He wound up as one of the many handfuls of genre practitioners whose efforts received a strong shot in the arm once the Horror field began to experience its real renaissance during the 70s and 80s.  This is something Errickson is able to discuss in greater detail with his overview history, Paperbacks From Hell.  The basic gist, however, is that for whatever reason, starting somewhere in the early 60s, the spectral world of ghouls, ghosts, and everything that goes bump in the night experienced a new surge of popularity that, for a time, allowed the genre to build its reputation up in the public conscious, one strength at a time.  It's nadir was reached between the Carter and Reagan administrations, before finally beginning to dwindle into the kind of set pattern it now finds itself in, somewhere in the middle of the 90s.  Campbell's career in this publishing boom period marks him out as a somewhat interesting specimen of the format.  Much like King, Ramsey is a boomer who got bit the fright bug as a young lad in Liverpool, and his enthusiasm for the dark soon found more or less the same outlet, in first the writing, and later the eventual publication of his name in magazines and books.

It's the sort of familiar career trajectory that Campbell shares in common with King.  The basic plot beats of this artistic development might almost be capable of graphing like the notes of a well worn, yet still useful symphony.  What's somewhat remarkable in Campbell's case is the timing and speed of his arrival on the scene.  The British author's own self-admitted big step "into the abyss of full-time writing" came in 1973 (14)".  His years of published apprenticeship began as far back as 1961, at a time when the zeitgeist of Horror was being funneled through the likes of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone, and Dan Curtis's Dark Shadows.  Campbell started out as something of a Lovecraft acolyte, even getting a job under the wing of Arkham House editor August Derleth.  As the Psychedelic era transitioned to the Disco Age, Campbell began to refine his efforts into the current voice he still has today.  This the part at which King's own study of the writer is able to help put flesh on the skeleton of the bare facts.  In chapter 9 of Danse Macabre King provide his readers with some very helpful bits of information.

King starts out by noting that Campbell is (or was, once upon a time) "part of a whole new generation of British fantasy writers who seem to be revitalizing the genre by cross-fertilization much as British poets helped to revitalize American poetry during the early sixties.  Besides Campbell...there is Robert Aickman (who could hardly be called a young Turk - but since such books as Cold Hand in Mine have brought him to a wider audience, it seems fair enough to classify him as part of the British new wave), Nick Sharman, Thomas Tessier, an American living in London, who has recently published a novel called The Nightwalker, perhaps the finest werewolf novel of the last twenty years, and a score of others.

"As Paul Theroux - another expatriate American living in London - has pointed out, there is something uniquely British about the tale of horror (perhaps particularly those which deal with the archetype of the Ghost).  Theroux, who has written his own low-key horror tale, The Black House, favors the mannered but grisly tales of M.R. James, and they do seem to summarize everything that is best in the classic British Horror story.  Ramsey Campbell and Jame Herbert are both modernists, and while this family is really too small to avoid a certain resemblance even in cousins twice removed, it seems to me that both of these men, who are worlds apart in terms of style, point of view, and method of attack, are doing things that are exciting and worthy of attention (376)".  Let me just pause right here to offer a brief, yet important after-the-fact observation, one that just goes to prove the adage about how hindsight is pretty much everything.  With the passage of years, it has now become possible to gain a clearer picture of what was going on in the field of British Fantasy during the years King was talking about.  Those words of his were written down between 1979-80, and as he was getting all this ready for publication, there were a lot of other artistic developments going on in the background of King's prose that tell a greater story.

It turns out that "whole new generation of British fantasy writers" who were busy "revitalizing the genre" back then has now been expanded to include a list of writers and artists who have now become greater household names than the one's King starts us out with.  This would include the likes of Alan Moore, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, and Dave Mckean.  At least these are the authors and creators who have gone on to achieve a worldwide level of fame as a part of that British Fantasy Boom that King talks about.  It's a crucial piece of information that serves to repurpose the context of the Danse Macabre scene setting given above.  With the clearer picture that we have now about how the artistic history shaped out, it becomes obvious that King's initial musings about British Fantasy are in fact one of the first notices ever given to the explosion in all the major Fantastic genres that would soon be inaugurated by Moore and Gaiman in the coming years.  King was therefore in the somewhat lucky position of being able to notice that at least something important was going on in the UK at the time, even if the picture was still not as clear as it later became.  The final irony here is that when we talk of people like Gaiman and Mckean, they're ususally lumped together with King.

That seems to be because of how their efforts shaped the history of the modern literary arts.  Peter Straub seems to have been aware of this, which is way in a later book of lit. crit. essays, he refers to people like Moore, King, Gaiman and himself as belonging to an informal group of clique of writers known as the New Wave Fabulists.  It's a moniker that still seems to be the best fit for a collection of disparate artists who nonetheless managed to come together and find ways of turning the mundane world around them into marvelous dream vistas of both terror and wonder in equal measure.  On the British front, guys like Al and Neil were accomplishing these feats with the publication of titles like Watchmen and The Sandman respectively.  Getting back to King's description in the Danse study, however, what becomes even more clear is that he initially saw Ramsey Campbell as very much belonging to, or forming a very crucial part of this then up and coming literary cadre of artists.

In terms of the writer's own efforts in all of this artistic ferment, King has the following to say. "Campbell, a Liverpudlian ("You talk just like one of the Beatles," a woman marvels to a writer from Liverpool in Campbell's new novel, The Parasite) writes a cool, almost icy prose line, and his perspective on his native Liverpool is always a trifle offbeat, a trifle unsettling.  In a Campbell novel or story, one seem to view the world through the thin and shifting perceptual haze of an LSD trip that is just ending...or just beginning.  The polish of his writing and his mannered turns of phrase and image make him seem something like the genre's Joyce Carol Oates (and like Oates, he is prolific, turning out good short stories, novels, and essays at an amazing clip), and there is also something Oatesian in the way his characters view the world - as when one is journeying on mild LSD, there is something chilly and faintly schizophrenic in the way his characters see things...and in the things they see.  These are the perceptions of (one of Campbell's other main characters from a different book from the one we're looking at here, today, sic) as she shops in a Liverpool department store in The Parasite:

"A group of toddlers watched her pass, their eyes painted into their sockets.  On the ground floor, red and pink and yellow hands on stalks reached for her from the glove counter.  Blind mauve faces craned on necks as long as arms; wigs roosted on their heads...The bald man was still staring at her.  His head, which looked perched on top of a bookcase, shone like plastic beneath the fluorescent lights.  His eyes were bright, flat, expressionless as glass; she though of a display head stripped of its wig.  When a fat pink tongue squeezed out between his lips, it was as if a plastic head had come to life.

"Good stuff.  But strange; so uniquely Campbell that it might as well be trademarked...Campbell has been turning out his own patented brand of short horror tale for some years now (like Bradbury and Robert Bloch, Arkham House published Ramsey Campbell's first book, The Inhabitant of the Lake, which was a Lovecraft clone).  Several collections of his stories are available, the best of them probably being The Height of the Scream.  A story you will not find in that book, unfortunately, is "The Companion," in which a lonely man who tours "funfairs" on his holidays encounters a horror beyond any ability to describe while riding a Ghost Train into its tunnel.  "The Companion" may be the best horror tale to be written in English in the last thirty years; it is surely one of the half dozen or so which will still be in print and commonly read a hundred years from now.  Campbell is literate in a field which has attracted too many comic-book intellects, cool in a field where too many writers - myself included - tend toward panting melodrama, fluid in a field where many of the best practitioners often fall prey to cant and stupid "rules" of fantasy composition.  

"But not al good short-story writers in this field are able to make the jump to the novel (Poe tried with The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym and made a conditional success of the job; Lovecraft failed ambitiously twice, with The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward and the rather more interesting At the Mountains of Madness, whose plot is remarkably Pym-like).  Campbell made the jump almost effortlessly, with a novel as good as its title was off-putting: The Doll Who Ate His Mother (376-78)".  We'll have to stop there if we want to stay on course.  However the point of all that preamble was to give readers an idea of how I first heard of the author King talks about.  As you might have been able to tell, it turns out the guy who wrote The Shining is also one hell of a better salesman than maybe even he realizes.  King's mini-essay into Campbell and his work did enough of a good job at detailing a writer that I'd never really heard of, except at second hand, that he accomplished the one feat all artists hope to succeed at.  He got me interested in the work of another latter day Gothic novelist.  My curiosity was gotten at enough, anyway, so that Campbell became a name I promised myself I would look into at some future date, and apparently that time is now.  All of which preamble leads us to the main subject.

The Story.

It looks like I'm going to have to owe Will Errickson a second apology here, and the reason for that is pretty simple.  If you're looking for a good synopsis of Ramsey Campbell's Ancient Images, then Will is the blogger whose probably hit on the best first introductions out there.  Which is a simplistic way of saying I'll have to turn the forum over to his own words for the time being, as he does a better job of telling you what the story is all about better than I can.  Here is the way Will describes it all:

"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.

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 (web)".

Conclusion: A Puzzling Missed Opportunity. 

There's one point in the rest of Errickson's review that kind of brings a rueful looking smile to my face.  In it, he is describing an imaginary situation that functions as a kind of background B plot to his novel's main action.  This concerns the travails and exploits of 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."  Errickson's comment on all this is what made me smile.  "Basically, Enoch himself made me thing of Alan Moore (ibid)".  What makes it all the more amusing is that an original hardcover edition that I ran across features a comment made by none other than Moore himself.  Apparently he liked what he read enough to record the following:

"Ramsey Campbell's prose settles upon the reader like a cold, luminous fog, evoking a rainswept, slate-grey England where things scuttle disquietingly at the periphery of one's vision and the past has uncomfortably long fingers.  With Ancient Images, Campbell offers us a tour through that unique landscape more creepy and compelling than any excursion he's made in years.  A brilliant, bad dream of a book (web)".  It adds a nice bit of complimentary irony to Will's observations, as well as perhaps an amusing bit of food for thought.  After having finished the book, it is just possible to imagine Moore paging through it all, and thinking something along the lines of, "Bloody hell, now why didn't I ever think up any of this"!  In some ways, I almost wish he had.  It might have been an interesting read.

The sad part is that I'm afraid I just can't say the same for Campbell's book.  Here's the part where I've got to be careful.  The last thing I want to do in a review like this is come off as a real life version of a fictional, snooty film critic named Len Stillwell, that the main character encounters during the course of the novel.  He's one of those types that carries around an encyclopedic criteria for what any given film is or isn't supposed to be, and which genres are higher or beneath one's consideration.  As Errickson points out, the guy is quite easily punchable.  In that sense, he's one of the good points of Campbell's book.  And he serves as warning of the kind of pitfalls you have to avoid when looking at any story told within the popular genre.  He's the kind of outlook I want to steer clear of.  Which is to say that I just hope what I'm about to declare next doesn't get me lumped in with snobs like Stillwell.  For whatever reason, the sad truth of the matter is that I came away underwhelmed by this one.  And perhaps its here that my initial sense of hesitation and apology begins to make a little bit more sense.  My hope is that none of it is for the wrong reasons, thought I know I can't stop others from seeing it in those terms.

The only defense I've got here is that all my reactions to the book were utterly genuine as the pages flew by.  It started out on an intriguing, curious note.  We're treated to a scene straight out of an old Michael Reeves/Vincent Price film, as Campbell delivers the most graphic scene in the entire novel, depicting the public burning of a woman in what is implied to be at or about Elizabethan times.  The second chapter skips ahead to the modern day and we're introduced to our main character, and the events that set the plot in motion.  Now to be fair, this is a strong introduction.  The first things that jump out at a seasoned reader of the genre is the notion of discovery, coupled with a cozy sense of familiarity.  The entire vibe of the opening chapter recalls the settings and aesthetics of the glory days of Gothic fiction.  We've got a typical modern setting with all the right notes of suspense waiting somewhere just out of a sight as the cast goes through what appear to be all the motions of a regular work day on stage.  The first hint of unease that Campbell lays out for his readers is that notion of a lost, forbidden film.  The icing on the cake here being that it features two Horror greats in lead roles.  I don't know if the sun has set on the fame of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, though I do know its a fate that ought to be avoided, as I've never seen other actors who are able to embody the idea of the Gothic genre better than either of them, and it's clear that Campbell himself feels very much the same way.

This is another highlight of the book's opening, and it really has to be stressed here that as a setup, the author is working with a potential case of real dynamite.  It's the type of scenario that begs to be told to its fullest, and there are all kinds of artistic potential waiting to be mined and excavated with a story idea like this.  My problem is I'm left wondering if Campbell did as good a job at digging the story out of the ground as he could have?  Let's take this issue in order, though.  Starting with the last good thing I can note about the book.  This would have to be its quick sense of pacing.  Campbell finds a way to keep the action moving at a breakneck pace that could wind up as something of a surprise to a lot of readers.  Most of the Tomes of Terror out there tend to be deliberate, slow burn affairs.  Looking back on the vast majority of examples that I've gone through in this genre, all of them seem to share this desire to take their time in layering one fear factor upon another in the build-up of suspense.  It's the kind of thing that makes logical sense for the stories being told, yet it's not stopped a lot of the audience from complaining that things are moving too slow.  Such readers may find Campbell's speed and agility gratifying in his skill at moving the narrative along.  For a brief moment there, I was one of them.

It doesn't take long before the first major death in the novel has occurred, and from there the plot is off to the metaphorical races.  After that a major (somewhat literal) fallout, we're placed inside Sandy's head as she makes her way from one moment or interview to the next.  These incidents are doled out in from one chapter to another, and most of them take up just five to seven pages at the most.  It's an execution which holds true for the entire novel from start to finish.  The longest page count I can recall anywhere in the book might be ones that go on for ten or fifteen leafs, and even then, the only reason for the extra space seems to have been because each was devoted to a central development or denouement in the story.  It was something I didn't pick up on at first until I realized I had already reached maybe the fourth of seventh chapter in the course of just a single sitting.  It was so out of the ordinary for me that I had to stop for a minute and marvel over it.  It's been a while since I've encountered that sort of a book, and the whole thing came off as a pleasant surprise.  At least at first.

After the initial thrill of a quick pace began to wear off is when the problems started.  Or at least this is how it happened for me.  I can't quite pin down the moment when the first notes of suspicion crept into my reading experience.  I want to say it all might have started around the time I'd reached chapter sixteen, or somewhere like it.  However, in retrospect, it seems more like the top shelf of my mind was just catching up to a misgiving that was planted somewhere on the basement level, perhaps as early as chapters ten and eleven.  That seems the most likely place where the novel's faults began to show themselves.  It's not the first major moment of horror in the story.  That comes right at chapter three, where the death of Sandy's friend more or less kick starts the whole plot.  The flaws aren't so noticeable there, however, because the reader realizes what they're reading is just setup.  We're meant to notice the first horror sequence, and then we're left with the sense of expectation that there's going to be more stuff greater than this waiting in the wings.  It's an expectation that the basic start of the novel primes the reader for.  The whole problem, however, is that this winds up an expectation that's denied.

To illustrate what I mean, let's take the second horror sequence.  Unlike the first opening shocker, this one starts out relatively innocuous.  Sandy comes home to find the inside of her apartment is in a bit of a shambles.  At first it looks like her two pet cats have got up to mischief, and managed to escape out a window.  When she goes to look for them, she's greeted at the entrance to her apartment complex by a neighbor carrying  bloody shopping bag.  Turns out the cats bolted from the apartment and didn't get out of the way of traffic in time.  The image of that bloody bag is decent enough as far as gore effects go, and the scene as a whole is fine enough.  It's kind of like a place-holder after the first moment of terror.  Something that's meant to alert the audience to the hint that there's more danger to this situation than the protagonist realizes.  The arrival of the bloody bag full of cat guts is able to deliver a gut punch of sorts, yet it's nothing major.  The ironic part here is kind of that the reader knows this is not as big a deal because once more, it ends on a note of promise that there is even worse in store.  And the audience is then geared up afterwards for the moment when everything starts to get all gnarly.  The trouble, however, is that the rest of the book is a waiting game for a pay-off that never arrives.

That's really the main crux of the novel's problems.  Campbell seems to do well with his initial setup, and then seems to have a hard time finding the right way to close his fiction out with any real sense of satisfaction.  Instead, what happens is the reader then follows along as Sandy goes on what amounts to a protracted scavenger hunt.  What these moments put me in mind of, more than anything, is the kind of detective novels written by the likes of modern masters such as P.D. James.  The would-be investigator is shown traipsing through one UK neighborhood and borough after another, interviewing all the participants she can locate who had ever worked on the Karloff-Lugosi film.  These are moments that should serve as plot highlights.  As it is more than possible for a good writer to be able to wring a decent amount of uncanny material out such a creative idea.  The story's basic conceit of tracking down a fictional film featuring Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster sounds like a surefire kind of bet for a Horror story.  The trouble is, as I continued to read along, I kept getting left with this lingering sense of frustration.  It was almost as if vital plot elements were being handled in an almost perfunctory fashion.

Various actors and behind the scenes artists are brought on to describe what happened, and yet none of it ever pops, or jumps off the page at you.  Now I'm willing to grant that backstory can be a difficult thing to dramatize in a narrative.  However, the real solution there seems to be that all the writer has to do is remember to find the right way of treating the backstory as if it were all an event happening in the present of the narrative.  Don't write such events as if they were distant occurrences happening to vague shadow figures.  Make the participants flesh and blood characters that the reader can care and about and invest their interest in.  This is just basic creative writing 101.  Campbell, however, seems to struggle with what ought to be a gold mine.  Rather than putting flesh and blood on the legacies of two Titans of Terror, both Karloff and Lugosi are left with the unenviable task of not being given much to do with the script that's handed to them.  It's almost like they're relegated to sideline observers of all the action.  The real story occurs to the people around them, while the two famous actors wind up killing time.

From there, the flaws in the story become more noticeable as things go on.  You discover that not only is the back story left wanting, what's even worse is that when it comes to building up and creating those vital moments of suspense that the Gothic genre relies on, Campbell once more finds himself stumbling over the right way to present such crucial moments.  The best example of the author's struggle comes from when Sandy is trying to escape from the top of an old dark tower in the middle of a field in the countryside.  The basic setup once more sounds like it should work, as Will Errickson outlines it.  

"Eventually, after much to-do that involves a burgeoning affair...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 (ibid)"!  The problem, however, remains Campbell's issues with delivery.  Here, for instances, is a description of when the main character arrives at the top of the aforementioned tower.  

"The landscape rose with her, flexing its fields of wheat.  She grasped the parapet with both hands, feeling as if the sky might sweep her from her perch.  If the wind hadn't already snatched her breath, the view would have.  Fields that the afternoon had polished yellow as honey stretched to the rim of the world, where the land and the sky turned pale.  At the eastern limit she saw the sea, the edge of an enormous scythe-blade.  A flight of birds swooped glittering from above the bunched town on her right toward the palace on her left.  There was a chapel beyond it, she saw, a squat gray building that looked older than the palace, old as the tower.  The birds flew up from the chapel like scraps of a fire and wheeled toward the distant sea, but Sandy's attention was still on the chapel.  Redfield had said that every one of his forefathers had a place there, and he'd told her to go wherever she liked.  She could see nothing about the tower to suggest the why the Redfields had objected to the story she'd read earlier, but there might be some explanation at the chapel.

"She gripped the parapet and walked around the tower for a last view.  She felt as if her senses were raising the top of her head to let it all in.  Clouds poured by above the tower, and she sensed the turning of the world; for a dizzy moment she felt herself clinging to the tip of the tower protruding from the world, racing through the sky.  The thought of climbing higher made her throat tighten.  She let go of the parapet and crossed to the trapdoor.

"A faint stale smell rose to meet her.  Rain must have seeped around the trapdoor and watered some growth on the steps.  If she didn't close the trap behind her on her way down, the steps wouldn't be safe for anyone who came up after her.  She climbed down as far as the dark, to see if there were any patches of vegetation she would need to avoid.  Having found none, she went back to shut the trapdoor (178-9)".  A brief unpacking of the following paragraphs should be able to highlight one of the major shortcomings of the book.  To start with, the style of the passages just quoted sounds leagues removed from the trippy landscape word paintings described a moment ago by Steve King.  The skillful, off-kilter vibe of the Macabre samples is here replaced with a clipped and precise prose line that somehow feels constricting.  The result is a series of narrative descriptions that somehow feels flat, and uninvolved.  That's kind of a mistake for a scene that's meant to function as one of the story's main set pieces.  In terms of plot structure, what Campbell is giving us here is the literary equivalent of one of those scenes in a Horror movie where the Final Girl is shown creeping her way through an old, dark house or threatening setting of some kind.  It may be a cliche, yet it can still be done right enough.

A capable writer should be able to pry some genuine chills out of the idea of a character wandering alone in the kind of place from which a horror can reach out and grab her at any second.  However, Campbell presses on with the same constricted prose line, and what should be a tense moment filled with the threat of unseen terrors lurking just out of sight instead winds up sounding like this:

"She closed both hands around the scaly ring and hauled at it.  When the door ignored her, she took a step down and threw all her weight backward.  The ring shifted in its socket, and she lost her footing and swung into space.  Her weight on the ring heaved the door up.  She had barely time to duck, pressing her chin against her collarbone so hard she couldn't breathe, when the door crashed into place, blotting out the light like a fall of earth.

"Her feet scrabbled at the dark that smelled of rot, her wrists aching from the slam of the trapdoor.  At last she found a foothold.  She let herself down onto the step and crouched there trembling and hugging her knees, cursing the Redfields for building their tower exclusively for men, with a trapdoor no woman could manage without endangering herself.  The steps were male too.  She gathered herself, breathing as deeply as she could with the stale smell, and stood up.

"This section of the steps would be the longest stretch of darkness before she reached a window.  She pressed her hands against the cold close walls and stretched one leg out, groping downward.  She stepped down, steadied herself, groped again.  Perhaps it wouldn't be such a task; her body was establishing a rhythm.  But she had climbed down fewer than ten steps when she faltered and held her breath.

"She had to go down, there was no other way.  The sound like hollow irregular breathing below her must be wind through the first of the slits in the wall, a wind that was intensifying the stale smell.  All the time she had been at the top she had seen nobody within a mile of the tower.  She mustn't imagine that someone was waiting for her just beyond the turn.  She thrust her hands against the walls as if the stone might lend her a little of it strength, and made herself go down (179-80)".  Bear in mind, this entire sequence of the main character making her way down to safety in the dark is meant to be one of the feature highlights of the novel.  However, while I can't vouch for others, everything about the paragraphs just cited doesn't work for me.  The diction is fine, yet it lacks any vital sense of attachment to what's going on.  Campbell's prose comes off as almost clinical in its seeming lack of concern for what is happening to the protagonist.  This shortcoming is matched by the scarcity of the incident described.  We follow Sandy along as she makes her way down a flight of stair without a light, while all around her it sounds as if she's being followed.  In the end, however, the sequence comes to nothing.

The author doesn't seem all that concerned with the potential for a more exciting and engaging Gothic situation.  One gets the impression that a writer with the skill of Shirley Jackson or M.R. James would have been able to invest the entire moment with a genuine measure of suspense.  Instead, Campbell appears to be laboring under the idea that detachment is the best recipe for delivering the desired effect of a Horror story.  While I'm willing to go with the idea that a certain amount of detached perspective can be a good thing, my own experience with the genre has been that a work like this is at its best when the writer has managed to bring the audience into an immediate and occasionally visceral rapport with a story's cast, that way when it's time to bring the actors wearing the rubber monster suit or bed sheets in from backstage, the readers or viewers are fully invested in what's happening, not matter the quality of the writing involved.  A good level of engagement can make even the schlockiest of material earn its place in the grand literary scheme of things.  The best type of this sort of accomplishment comes from those authors who are able to effect a seamless type of synthesis between setting and character.  Where the haunted landscape becomes almost an extension of the inner darkness of the main leads.

It's the kind of literary feat that authors as diverse as Poe, Hawthorne, Jackson, Flannery O'Connor, Stephen King, or even Campbell's lifelong inspiration, H.P. Lovecraft, was able to do with a consummate amount of skill.  The key thing all of these writers have in common is that they always made sure to find the right way into the emotional content, or perhaps a better phrase is the immediacy of their narratives to such an extent that they were able to convey a proper sense of fear to their readers.  This is the exact same goal that Campbell either strives to achieve, or at the very least it's the inherent challenge he finds himself having to face as a writer.  The sad part is that in this case, he's not proving very good at it.  If I had to look around for a reason why that should be in this case, then I do wonder if part of it stems from a misreading of another one of his personal inspirations.  Campbell has made no bones about the fact that his main inspiration as a teller of tales is the troubled eldritch scribbler from Providence.  It's no mistake to say that H.P. Lovecraft is the writer who casts the longest shadow over Campbell's career.  However, it is an error to claim he is the only artist that Ramsey has taken inspiration from.  Recently I learned that another of his literary models was Vladimir Nabokov.

Ramsey first encountered the Magician creator of Lolita as a teenager (1), and he seems to have been an under-recognized aspect of the imaginary environs known as Campbell Country.  If this is the case, then it makes sense to take Nabokov into account when it comes to looking at the way Ramsey composes his own works.  The reason for this has to do with the fact that Nabokov was one of the great planners and organizers of imaginative fiction.  Every novel or short story the Russian exile ever did was like an intricately composed architecture made of words, puns, allusions, and riddles.  In that sense, Nabokov was the possessor of a very rare talent.  And I don't think it's a story practice that you can just try to "emulate", no matter how good you think it is.  To do so would be to run the risk of a stilted artificiality where a more natural, organic and authentic narrative voice is called for.  This seems to be the trap Campbell has stumbled into without really giving it a lot of necessary thought.  He desired a bit too much to match the skill and overall poetic qualities of Nabokov that he appears to have overlooked the demands of both his own type of story, as well as a lot of its basic generic requirements.  It's the best explanation for the constantly flat, emotionless and unengaging quality of the entire work as a whole. 

This is a problem that extends all the way the very last page.  It is precisely at those moment when the narrative tension should reach it's height that the author doesn't seem to realize he needs to better engage with all of the qualities inherent to the story in order to bring its secondary world and characters to life, especially in those moments when the narrative needs it the most.  To give an example of the kind of letdown I had, that lack of immediacy extends all the way to the book's final denouement.  It consists of Sandy making a mad dash for the location of Enoch and his army, in order to warn them of the terrors that will await of them if they decide to settle in Redfield.  All of the action is confined to her perspective as we follow her along in the car.  Which means most of this crucial sequence is limited to her swirling thoughts as she tries to piece the entire puzzle together in her mind.  Now I was able to get some amusement from this particular bit of Campbell's writing, yet I think it's telling the only reason I'm able to say that is because I was making mental edits or dialogue insertions into what was otherwise the same frustrating sense of distance and overall, general lack of narrative urgency.

What happened was I began to imagine Sandy holding this kind of imaginary dialogue with none other than Lugosi and Karloff on the nature of the plot she finds herself in.  They would function as a kind of Greek chorus, commenting on aspect of the mystery the main character is trying to solve, and slowly pushing a horrifying realization to the front of their mind.  In fact, the funny thing about this bit of reader editing is that a line spoken by Lugosi in one of his more underrated films, The Island of Lost Souls, just sort of occurred to me as the perfect note to end their joint commentary on, right before the big reveal.  What the most famous cinematic Count says there just seemed appropriate to what was happening in the story at that moment.  "Not man! - not beasts!! - THINGS"!!!  It's only in retrospect that I begin to realize what my own imagination was up to with all that.  This minor interpolation of "choral dialogue" winds up serving two functions.  First off, it helps to build the right amount of dramatic tension that's necessary for any Gothic story to have the proper effect.  In other words, it's the best solution that some basement level part of my mind could conjure up in terms of the fear factor.

In the second place, having Frankenstein and Dracula whispering to the main character like a pair of ghosts, telling or reminding her of the actual, unpleasant truths of her situation, represented a good way of showing the protagonist fitting all the pieces of the puzzle together in such a way that it allows the final unveiling of the horrors in Campbell's novel have a greater sense of import and impact when they are finally brought on stage.  Also, I have to admit I'm the kind of genre fan that gets a kick out of the idea of a semi-spectral version of Boris Karloff bringing things full circle by re-using that most famous line of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead (a quote which was originally meant as a parody of the great Universal Horror icon) by having him simply declare: "They're coming to get you, Sandy".

The sad part is that this is a bit of amusement that readers won't be able to find in the actual text itself.  Instead, Campbell is leaves us with the annoying inability to properly engage with his plot.  The monsters at the heart of the tale are finally shown, and the worst part is one gets the sense that they didn't have to be as great of a letdown as they turn out to be.  It seems clear enough the Campbell is basing his entire plot around ancient, Celtic, Green Man myths.  An idea such as this can make for a very good shilling shocker (nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the fiction of Arthur Machen, who perhaps still stands as the reigning monarch of British Folk Horror).  The catch, however, is that reading Campbell's own treatment of the material in comparison with "Magic Machen" demonstrates just how much care the former author put into his creations, and how removed Campbell seems to be from his own creative idea.  It's the worst possible situation for either an author or a story to be in, regardless of genre, and when this happens, there's little choice except for the story to suffer.

Now if I'm starting to sound like a broken record, then I apologize.  It's still the truth that the last kind of review I wanted to come away giving this book was a negative one.  My hope is the fact that one of the characters in Campbell's novel is a snooty, stuck up film critic might have been of at least some kind of help.  When a smart reader comes across a guy like Len Stillwell, the correct response to such figures (even if they're just words and ink on a page) is to go: "Right.  So whatever else you do, don't be a snob like this person".  I'm starting to think it's the kind of motto that all potential critics need to print out and pin up on a wall where they can see it every time they warm up the keyboard and start collecting their thoughts.  It's especially good advice to try and live by in an age where hyperbole and trolling are in danger of becoming the norm rather than a fringe exception in critical circles.  To do otherwise would be to toss both art and the ability to enjoy it out the window in favor of something a whole lot worse.  With all this in mind, all I can say is I always wanted to like Campbell's story.

You're going to have to trust me when I say the fact that I came away with a complete opposite response to the entire book is just as big a disappointment to me as it might be to others.  To any and all out there who are able to claim they got an honest enjoyment out of this novel, more power to ya, then.  I sincerely wish I wasn't somehow naturally barred from the club on this one.  I mean by all rights, this is the kind of scenario I should be able to sink my teeth into.  So it begs the question of what am I, as a reader, not getting out of this?  What's the missing ingredient that keeps me from enjoying it as much as I ought to?  Well, believe it or not, I think it's just possible that Stephen King is the one to provide an answer here.  Going back to the pages of Danse Macabre, Steve drops an interesting observation about Campbell's writing skills.  It's a casual toss-off, yet I wonder if it might also be the solution to my whole conundrum with this book.  It's one of those situations where going back to read King's musings on Campbell can sometimes take on a new, eye-opening perspective in the wake of reading through a book like Ancient Images.  A good for instance is Campbell's tacit admission on his own writing process.

"How does writing novels differ from writing short stories?  I think a novel gathers its own impetus.  I have to creep up on it unawares, thinking to myself, 'Maybe I'll start it next week, maybe I'll start it next month.'  Then one day I sat down, began to write, and looked up a noon, thinking: 'My God!  I've started a novel!  I don't believe it (379)".  This, to me, looks like one of those statements that contain a lot of information that both critics and readers can learn from.  It's an example of the author giving something of the game away in terms of how he approaches his own artistic craft.  In Campbell's case, what he tells us paints a the picture of a writer for who the practice of writing might be there, yet it doesn't come easy.  A look at Campbell's bibliography reveals an artist with an output just as prodigious as King's, and yet the way he talks about it makes it sound as if things never sail as smoothly as it does more often than not for the guy who wrote Carrie.  King has stated time and again that its all a matter as just turning on his word processor, and then beginning to type down the ideas as they come.  In comparison, Campbell comes off as an interesting type of procrastinator.  Always telling himself, "I'll get to it a little later".  With all due respect, I'm not sure if that's a good mindset for the writing profession.  In On Writing, King has spoken of the creation of stories as a job of commitment.

Every would-be creative scribbler has got to first learn if they can knuckle down, and dedicate their time and effort to the work.  And think I King is on target when he labels the ability to tell stories as "just another job like laying pipe or driving long-haul trucks (157)".  He then goes on to give a bit of advice that I think has a particular application to Campbell's own comments given above.  "Your job," King says, "is to make sure the muse knows where you're going to be every day from nine 'til noon or seven 'til three.  If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he'll start showing up, chomping his cigar and making his magic (ibid)".  Now let's compare this kind of dedicated work ethic that King proclaims with some further commentary that Campbell is able to provide into his own working methods.

In Danse Macabre, once more, speaking about the composition of another of his works, Campbell states: "Kirby [McCauley] said, when I asked him how long the novel she be, that 70,000 words or so would be about right, and I took him almost literally  When I got up around the 63,000 word mark, I thought: 'Only 7000 words left - time to wrap this up.'  That's why many of the later chapters seem terse (380)".  It's interesting to take Campbell's observations, and then see how they stack up with King's prescriptions.  What they show me is a guy who definitely has the enthusiasm for the art, yet his work ethic, the actual job of telling stories, is a bit more lax than it should be.  Now don't get me wrong, the work is there.  It's just that reading something like Ancient Images gives me the impression of someone who is still making a lot of novice mistakes when he is well into the third decade of his career.  All of that points to a writer who is is still on a learning curve.  So where does that leave us in terms of the novel's execution?  What are the results of Campbell's own literary peculiarities?  The final outcome is more or less the same one that King describes when he talks about Campbell in Macabre:

"Campbell is good, if rather unsympathetic, with character (his lack of emotion has the effect of chilling his prose even further, and some readers will be put off by the tone of this novel; they may feel that Campbell has not so much written a novel as grown one in a Petrie dish (382)".  I guess that makes me one of those readers, then.  I'm afraid everything King just talked about holds up as the truest criticism of this novel.  It appears to be the single most important element that keeps this book from being the "Quiet Horror" masterclass it perhaps always should have been, and yet never was.  The main reason for this is because the author couldn't seem to get out of the story's way, and the narrative has no real choice except to suffer for it.  Like I said way back at the beginning.  I have to apologize.  I'm a fan of Horror who believes in giving as much of a fair hearing as possible.  I also couldn't help having the gradually bored reactions that this book inspired in me.  It's the last thing any artist should do when telling a story, and the fact that it happened on Campbell's watch just makes it kind of hard to write this review.  In the end, Ancient Images is a book that wanted to be great, and was never given the chance.

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