The protagonist of Ramsey Campbell’s Ancient Images (1989) is Sandy Allan, a film editor at Metropolitan TV (which also appears in Campbell’s Incarnate, though here, at the other end of the 1980s, it’s no longer referred to as MTV). Her friend, Graham Nolan, hunts out rare old films to screen on the channel, and after a two-year search has managed to locate a print of a never-released British horror from 1938, Tower of Fear, which starred both Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. He invites Sandy to his flat for an initial showing, but she gets there only to witness his death and to find the film gone. When a critic at the Daily Friend newspaper expresses doubt the film had ever been found, Sandy decides to track it down herself, to defend Graham’s reputation.
The film’s director, Giles Spence, died the week shooting finished, and many of the few surviving cast and crew won’t talk about it — some can’t, through infirmity, some won’t, though fear, some are prevented, though whether by accident or design it’s difficult for Sandy to tell, though she increasingly feels that something is dogging her efforts to track the film down. Her quest eventually takes her to the cosy village of Redfield, seat of Lord Redfield, who runs the Staff O’Life bread-making company, and who, it turns out, also owns the Daily Friend. Lord Redfield freely admits his family’s animosity towards the film, which he (and his grandfather, who spoke out against it at the time in the House of Lords) believed to be mocking their family and, through them, the values and traditions of England. But when Sandy learns there’s a legend about Redfield, of a mass-slaughter centuries ago which infused the soil with human blood, giving the village its name and the fields their power to grow an oddly vitalising strain of wheat, she also finds there seems to have been a regular history of human sacrifice, intentional or not, in the village, a fifty-year repeated ritual which last occurred (of course) fifty years ago.
As well as being a horror novel, Ancient Images is a novel about horror, about censorship, repression, and the role horror has in bringing out what ought not to stay hidden. It’s set (and was written) in the late 80s, when horror had come under a new bout of disapproval thanks to the Video Nasties brouhaha — and we get a glimpse of the subculture of people watching illicit films purely for their nasty moments when Sandy visits the editors of Gorehound fanzine — while the film Sandy’s searching for came out shortly after a similar scare in the 1930s, which saw the introduction of the H for Horrific film certificate. Throughout the book, Sandy hears disparaging comments about horror. Her father wonders why she’d bothering to seek out “some trash with two old hams in it”, and asks, “What can be right about a horror film?” Someone else says, “I wish you people would let this wretched film stay buried. Isn’t there already enough horror in the world?” Visiting a Manchester library, she sees “a bookshop from which police were bearing armfuls of confiscated horror magazines” — presumably Savoy Books, which was constantly harassed by James Anderton, the prurient Manchester Chief of Police whose “direct line to God” (as he put it) gave him, he believed, the role of moral arbiter, along with the power to enforce it. As Campbell puts it in his afterword to the book:
“This was the decade when Britain found a new scapegoat for its ills — uncensored films, particularly horror.”
Confronted about his grandfather’s role in suppressing Tower of Fear, the urbane Lord Redfield says, “It’s a curious notion of history that wants to preserve a film which tells so many lies about England and the English.” But the point is that Tower of Fear (in its very oblique way — it was hardly an exposé) wasn’t telling lies, it was unearthing truths. And this is the role horror fiction has, in Ancient Images. Scapegoats are loaded with a society’s sins to rid society of those sins — but before it’s sacrificed, a scapegoat is a bearer of the truth, because the sins are real. Lord Redfield seeks to promote an ultra-traditional vision of England, through the Hovis-like adverts for his Staff O’Life bread with their Vaughan-Williams soundtrack, as well as through the village of Redfield itself, a place where, he assures Sandy, everyone is happy with their place in life — a situation that is obviously too good to be true:
“Tudor cottages gleamed at one another across streets, brown houses sunned their smooth thatched scalps. As Sandy strolled, glancing in shop windows at glass-topped jars of striped sweets sticky as bees, hats like mauve and pink and emerald trophies on poles, elaborately braided loaves, knitting patterns and empty rompers, she heard children chanting answers in a classroom.”
Nowadays we’d recognise the second half of this novel as pure folk horror, with its lord so beloved by his forelock-tugging people, the innkeeper who’s suspicious of strangers, the children’s games and “snatches of folksong” Sandy hears as she wanders the streets, as well as the difficulty she has in leaving the village, when she decides to. But in Ancient Images, the folk horror isn’t of an isolated community. As in John Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos, a village, here, is used to stand in for England as a whole. Redfield, perhaps, is England, presenting its nostalgia-laden image of cosy traditions to the world, while behind the scenes — or under the soil — there’s blood and violence waiting to erupt.
Lord Redfield bears it in his very name, as well as his position. As a member of the aristocracy, he sees himself as a paternalistic figure, preserving things as they are because that’s best for everyone, but this is to ignore the history of violence that put him there in the first place, and the now-hidden, but once very explicit, violence that keeps him there. Just because he doesn’t have thugs keeping the peace doesn’t mean there’s no threat, it’s just that the threat his power represents has become so much a part of the English class system it no longer needs to be referred to.
To see it in action, you don’t look at cosy Redfield, where nobody is unhappy with their lot and there are no “For Sale” signs; you look at what happens when a stranger comes along — Sandy Allan, perhaps, or, on a larger scale, Enoch’s Army, a troupe of what would later be called New Age Travellers, wandering the roads of Britain, seeking a place where they can live by their own more peaceful (if equally reactionary, in its own way) philosophy. But they find themselves ousted everywhere they go, and having to be surrounded by police for their own protection. Enoch’s Army feels like the 1980’s remnants of the late-60s counterculture, now thoroughly out of place in a land whose temporary prosperity has caused it to cease to question its values.
It’s rich metaphoric territory — particularly as Campbell, who often refers to horror as “the field”, is here writing about a literal field, and a red one at that — with many resonances with later Campbell works, such as the film-research theme of The Grin of the Dark, and the sense of something hungry lurking under the soil in The Searching Dead. Plus an air of The Wicker Man, and of Theodore Roszack’s Flicker (though, as Campbell points out, this novel was written before Flicker).
For a bit of fun based on the novel, the A Very British Horror podcast did an episode on Giles Spence’s Tower of Fear, on (of course) April 1st 2016.