Ancient Images by Ramsey Campbell

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.”

Samhain edition. Art by Kanaxa.

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.”

Art by Don Brautigan

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.

Tor 1993 edition, art by Gary Smith

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.


Hammer House of Horror

One of the great British film industry successes of the 1950s and 60s, Hammer Films pretty much died after the Dennis Wheatley adaptation To the Devil a Daughter in 1976. (The final nail in the coffin was a remake of Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, which put them fatally in the red.) Hammer Films Ltd was shut down, but its hastily-conjured doppelgänger Hammer Film Productions remained (backed, at first, by chemical company ICI), though largely to collect royalties. In an effort to regain some liquidity, they resurrected an idea first mooted in the early 70s, of having a Hammer television series, and this time it sparked to life, funded by Lew Grade’s ITC. (Who also financed Jim Henson’s Muppet movies and The Dark Crystal, before Grade was bought out and a more hard-headed businessman took over.) The thirteen (of course) episodes of Hammer House of Horror were broadcast between 13th September and 6th December 1980.

I came to the series knowing nothing about it other than that it was from Hammer, so I was expecting something in the same vein as their more well-known output, with takes on Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Mummy, most probably set in 18th Century rural Europe or 19th Century London (similar, perhaps, to the Mystery and Imagination series of classic horror adaptations on ITV in the late 60s). And the opening titles, with a big old spooky house at night, accompanied by some 60s-style theme music, didn’t do anything to disabuse me of the idea.

From “Guardian of the Abyss”

But the episodes that followed were quite different. At an hour minus ad-breaks each, they were mostly written by the TV writers of the day rather than Hammer’s own writers (the notable exception being John Elder, who’d written a slew of classic Hammers, from The Brides of Dracula to The Ghoul, and had been responsible for suggesting the studio buy the rights to the first Quatermass TV series). The script editor was Anthony Read (who’d written The Invasion of Time and Horns of the Nimon for Doctor Who, as well as episodes of The Omega Factor and Sapphire & Steel). He also wrote the opener, “Witching Hour”, about a modern-day couple menaced by a 17th century witch (who is at first convinced electric lights are the work of the Devil). Also writing for the series was Jeremy Burnham (co-writer of Children of the Stones and Raven, who had one Hammer film to his credit, The Horror of Frankenstein), Gerald Savory (writer of my favourite Dracula adaptation, the BBC’s 1977 Count Dracula), Murray Smith (who hadn’t written a Hammer film, but scripted the 1971 British horror Die Screaming, Marianne), David Fisher (who’d written two Doctor Who’s with Hammer-like titles, The Stones of Blood and The Creature from the Pit, as well as the less-lurid Leisure Hive). The author of perhaps the most memorable episode, “The House that Bled to Death” — memorable because its scene in which a kids’ birthday party is showered in gallons of blood turned up on Channel 4’s 100 Greatest Scary Moments — is David Lloyd, and the strange thing is, it seems to be his only TV or film writing credit. (Prior to that, he was a tennis pro, and afterwards went on to found a chain of gyms and health clubs.)

The infamous children’s birthday party from “The House that Bled to Death”

It seems to me Hammer House of Horror offered something of a unique opportunity to its writers. On the one hand, with the name of Hammer behind it, audiences were primed for lurid Gothic horror with plenty of blood and pulpy shocks. (The publicity claimed they got through five gallons of fake blood a week.) And it’s true, there were werewolves (“Children of the Full Moon”), devil-worshippers (“Guardian of the Abyss”), witches (“Witching Hour”), cannibals (“The Thirteenth Reunion”), and so on. But the writers set everything in modern times, thus bringing in a more realistic feel, and often a more convincing depth of character than you’d find in a Gothic Hammer outing. (Hammer had, of course, done psychological horror, such as the excellent The Nanny, but that’s not what the studio’s name usually brings to mind.) The writers, then, seemed free to experiment with stories set in a world that mixed something very (1980s) modern and realistic with moments of lurid horror, and the results were often stranger than you’d expect from a TV horror anthology show.

In “Rude Awakening”, for instance, Denholm Elliot is an estate agent fed up with a wife who won’t divorce him, and he finds himself waking up in an apparently endless series of nightmare versions of his life in which he has murdered his wife and some supernatural retribution arrives because of it. Once he realises it’s all a series of dreams, though, he decides he might as well go ahead and get some satisfaction by murdering her — only, it turns out, this time he has actually woken up.

Ahhh, it’s Peter Cushing with a puppy.

Something more traditional was “The Silent Scream”, notable for featuring an actual Hammer star, Peter Cushing. Recently-released-from-prison Brian Cox tries to begin a new life on the outside. He goes to see the pet-shop owner (Cushing) who visited him during his time in prison, who said his own experiences in the Nazi Death Camps taught him what it was like to be in prison. But it turns out Cushing’s character wasn’t on the Jewish side of that equation, and is now working, behind the scenes, on a new system of incarceration without bars. He has been testing it on his collection of dangerous animals, but now he’s ready to move on to a human subject…

The show is full of recognisable actors from the British film and TV world of the time, including two stars of Blake’s 7 (Gareth Thomas and Paul Darrow), as well as Warren Clarke, Barbara Kellerman (who’d play the White Witch in the BBC’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe), Suzanne Danielle (a Movellan in Destiny of the Daleks, and the lead role in Carry on Emmanuelle), and Anthony Valentine (Baron de Belleme in Robin of Sherwood).

The series’ two most disturbing episodes, in my opinion, were the last two. In “The Two Faces of Evil” a family pick up a hitchhiker in the pouring rain, a man whose face they never see, because he starts fighting the husband at the wheel, causing a crash. When the wife (played by Anna Calder-Marshall, who has an excellent face for sustained terror) wakes in hospital, she’s relived to find her son and husband also survived, though her husband received an injury to his throat which means he can’t speak. She and her son go to the cottage they’d booked for their holiday, and it isn’t too long before they’re joined by her husband. She soon starts to suspect, though, that he isn’t her husband at all, but the hitchhiker whose face she never saw.

Anna Calder-Marshall — an excellent face for sustained terror

With a title like “The Mark of Satan”, I was expecting the final episode to go out in a blaze of Gothic glory, but it turns out to be more like a male version of Rosemary’s Baby. Its main character is a worker in a hospital morgue who has become convinced the recurrence of the number 9 in his life is a message that he’s been infected by “the Evil virus”, which killed his father. He’s obviously paranoid and on the verge of a breakdown, but that doesn’t mean he’s not also being pushed into selling his soul to Satan by a conspiracy of devil-worshippers.

Both of these episodes spend a lot time in the blurry territory halfway between mental illness and supernatural horror, which makes me think of the work of Ramsey Campbell — either story might have been an adaptation of his work.

“Witching Time”

Hammer House of Horror didn’t make it to a second series because of Lew Grade’s ITC being bought out, (though it was eventually followed by Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense in 1984), but it’s an unusual slice of British tele-horror, certainly more lurid than you’d normally find on the small screen in those days. It was also more experimental, and though not all the episodes were entirely successful, it was at least an interesting watch.


The Changeover by Margaret Mahy

1984 HB, art by Bruce Hogarth

The Changeover (1984) is Margaret Mahy’s second YA novel, and her second Carnegie Medal Winner (following The Haunting in 1982). According to her postscript to the 2003 Modern Classics edition, it started out as the story of an 11-year-old girl who sought the help of a somewhat witchy girl of her own age to save her younger brother from a supernatural menace, but that story faltered until Mahy changed the witchy girl to an older (though still witchy) boy, and upped the protagonist’s age to 14, introducing an element of incipient sexuality to the mix. (The novel was initially published with the subtitle, “A Supernatural Romance”, though that seems to have been dropped in modern editions.)

Laura is a part-Maori girl of 14 who takes care of her 3-year-old brother Jacko after school while her mother Kate runs the local branch of a chain bookstore. (Laura and Jacko’s father went off with another woman, leaving the family in something just above poverty. As Kate says: “It’s not that we’re poor… But we’re usually short.” I particularly like how Mahy puts it when an unexpected expense comes up, and Kate “gritted her teeth in financial agony”.)

1985 HB

Bringing Jacko home one day from his daytime babysitter, the pair pop into a new shop, Brique à Braque, run by the eccentric/creepy Carmody Braque, who Laura thinks smells of “rotting time”. (He’s later described as “an improbable cross between Dracula and Mr Pickwick”.) Braque playfully stamps the back of Jacko’s hand with a rubber stamp, but afterwards the boy is bothered by it, and the image won’t come off. Jacko falls ill, a doctor is called, and pretty soon he’s comatose in hospital. Laura is convinced it’s Braque, through his stamp, magically draining her brother of his life, but her mother dismisses this with a “Don’t frighten me any more with your Space Invaders rubbish!” (A rare 80s-specific moment for the book.)

2018 cover

The only thing to do, then, is for Laura to get help for Jacko in her own way. She has long felt that an older boy at school, Sorensen Carlisle (known as “Sorry”), is something of a witch, and she’s often found him looking at her, as though he knows she knows. She decides to call on him at his home and ask for help. There, she meets his witchy mother and witchy grandmother, and learns his mother became pregnant assuming she’d have a girl, a young witch to complete the traditional trio of crone, mother, and virgin. But he was a boy, so she gave him up to be fostered, only to learn, much later, that he nevertheless had a witch’s powers. By that time, Sorry had had to learn to live with and understand his powers on his own, as well as having become the focus for his alcoholic foster-father’s rages. He turned up in a terrible state at the Carlisle home, and now, though somewhat better, is still highly reserved and at times almost alienated, emotionally. (When he speaks of what’s happened to Jacko, Laura thinks “He behaved as if something had gone wrong with a car, not a brother.”)

But the family agree to help. Braque, they think, isn’t a human being at all — at least, not now, anyway — but “an old and careful demon”, “a wicked spirit that has managed to win a body for itself once more and has probably gone on by absorbing the lives of others…” The only way to break his hold on Jacko, though, is to put Braque under a similar hold. He’d be too wary of any of the Carlisle family to let them get close enough, but Laura might. However, she’d only be able to put him under a hold if she was a witch herself. And so the family suggest she become one. She’s already proved she’s a “sensitive” through being able to see the witchiness in Sorry, and Braque won’t be expecting her, previously not a witch, to have suddenly become one. The Carlisles can initiate her through “the changeover” of the book’s title:

“We will marry you, if we can, to some sleeping aspect of yourself, and you must wake it.”

1994 Puffin PB cover, art by Tom Stimpson

The world of The Changeover feels very much like that of Mahy’s earlier novel, The Haunting. In both, certain families have a strain of magic, and though this means they can do wonderful things, they’re also far more emotionally reserved — not because of their powers, but because they are so much more sensitive. (Sorry’s mother says “We are a fond family rather than a loving one”, but this may be an emotionally cool family’s inability to judge just how cool it is.) Both the Carlisles in The Changeover, and the Scholars in The Haunting have the power to change reality, but this doesn’t make life easier for them — rather, the opposite, considering the distance this puts between them and their fellow human beings, and all the pitfalls the misuse of power throws in front of them.

In a way, in The Changeover, we get a glimpse of three stages in the life of a “magical” person, and how they might or might not go wrong. Braque, if not an actual demon, has certainly become one through multiple lifetimes of preying on others, till he has come to enjoy it, calling himself “something of a gourmet”. Sorry, on the other hand, has been abused by life and now stands at a crossroads, unsure how much he wants to invest himself in being an ordinary human, or how much he wants to take ownership of his capacity to feel. And Laura, taking her first steps into the world of power, is hovering over its first pitfall: once she has Braque at her mercy, she can do anything she likes to him. She tells herself “He’s not a real person, Mr Braque isn’t”, and he has, after all, been torturing not just her brother, but herself and her mother with all he’s been doing. But it leads to the question:

“Given the chance to be cruel did you get cruelty out of your system by acting on the chance, or did you invite it in?”

Laura’s story is also about her learning to understand — or at least come to terms with — men. She likes Jacko, of course, but he’s only a boy. She’s grown to resent her “dark, powerful father” who abandoned the family, and feels her mother’s new boyfriend, Chris, is taking her mother away from her rather than adding to the family. She’s attracted to Sorry, but finds his oddly distanced personality, and his frank sexual curiosity in women, somewhat difficult. And of course Braque is the ultimate example, to Laura, of how a powerful and selfish man can behave. But through coming to understand Sorry, and his own rather sorry story, she starts to understand her father and her mother’s boyfriend a little more, while knowing to draw the line at ever forgiving something like Braque.

The Changeover was made into a feature film, released in 2017, with Timothy Spall perfect as the creepy Braque, and a brief appearance from Xena’s Lucy Lawless as Sorry’s mother. It’s a dark, quite effective take on the story, set some years after the earthquake of 2011 that hit Christchurch, New Zealand (which is where Mahy’s novel is set). The plot makes a few abrupt departures from the book (I thought one element of the ending took things a bit far, but perhaps because I was mentally comparing it to the book). It’s the feel that’s the most different thing. Mahy’s book is infused with the coming-into-magic air of an adolescent’s burgeoning awareness of themselves, the world, and their place in it; the film is much more of a supernatural thriller, creepy and compelling, but without so much of the positive magic of Mahy’s novel. A good film, nonetheless, keeping some of the book’s restraint as far as magical powers go, and upping the presence and menace of Braque.