Ancient Images is a wonderful horror novel, more than making up for a few plot flaws with an incredible atmosphere which slowly pulls you further and further into the story. The novel offers a terrific "hook" that many horror aficionados such as myself are almost powerless to resist: the search for a lost, almost mythical horror movie starring both Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. The film, Tower of Fear, has never been seen, and the rumors surrounding its filming speak of strange happenings and almost ghostly events which supposedly frightened many of the crew and cast so badly that no one even cared that the final product essentially disappeared from the face of the earth before anyone could see it. Now, however, one professional movie buff (Graham) has found a copy after years of searching for it. He invites his friend, film editor Sandy Allan, to see its unveiling at his apartment, but when Sandy arrives, the film is gone. She is then horrified to see her friend jump from the roof of the adjacent building and plunge to his death. When a pompous film critic derides her late friend's quest for a movie that he says never existed, Sandy sets herself the task of finding the movie and vindicating her friend's claims. All she has to go on is a list of contacts Graham made in his search, consisting mainly of men who worked on the film in some capacity. She travels all over the countryside trying to speak to these contacts, finding herself rebuffed by some but increasingly finding more and more evidence of the fear that still haunts the minds of the cast and crew 50 years after the film was made. Her search eventually leads her to the town of Redfield, and it is in this much too idyllic town that Campbell paints his most masterful strokes, invoking an intense atmosphere of slowly growing, insidious terror that is almost Lovecraftian in its pervasive effect on both protagonist and reader.
The conclusion was not wholly satisfying, but it would have been almost impossible for it to achieve the explosiveness the increasingly compelling storyline seemed to beg for. One thing I didn't like about the novel is Campbell's relentless description of all the creepy things Sandy kept telling herself she wasn't seeing. She didn't see this in the field, the thing in the bushes couldn't have been real, the shadow of an impossibly thin man was not in the corner after all, something was making noise outside her room but the corridor was empty, etc. These comments are crammed throughout the narrative from the very start; the fact that Campbell can still captivate the reader and wrap a shroud of unseen horror around him/her when it really comes time to get creepy says a lot about the power this author holds over words. When Campbell is clicking, he can absorb you completely into the tale. The scarecrow images Campbell populates the fields of northern England with become frightening visions, but the scene inside the huge old tower in Redfield stands above the pack in terms of the fear factor associated with this tale.
I would describe Ancient Images as deliciously creepy but not frightening or horrifying. Campbell is one of the true masters of psychological horror, and he puts his skills to good use in these pages. A couple of minor issues I had with the plot compel me to give the book only four stars, but the atmosphere of the novel is really quite impressive. It was a pleasure to allow Ramsey Campbell inside my mind for the course of this gripping novel.