BOOK REVIEW: Hearts of Darkness – Ancient Images

Hearts of Darkness is a year-long reading list project investigating the literary horror genre – where does it come from, where is it going, and what is its dark hold on our collective imaginations?

Starting in the 19th century, and heading straight through to the 21st, we will be reading the classics, reviewing them, and trying to make sense of this journey of fear and terror. This week, it’s all a little metatextual as a fictional horror movie leads into real-life horror!
Ancient Images is an odd sort of horror novel. For a start, whilst it’s certainly creepy in places, it’s not actually that horrific, and furthermore, it’s as much about horror as it is within its confines. In fact, I think I’d have to describe its tone as slightly melancholy, especially its resolution. But it’s definitely a knowledgeable, well crafted book with a lot of affection for its subject matter.

I’m struggling a little with how best to sum up the plot here, because written out it feels a little clichéd. The main plot device is a lost 1930s horror movie that seems to have been suppressed by an aristocratic family, who felt that it was blackening their family name, and the number of deaths and secrets that seem to surround its making and the few surviving copies. Our lead character, a TV archivist, is drawn into it when a friend who has hunted for this lost classic for years dies shortly after recovering it, and the print is stolen. The rest of the book, comprising her hunt for it, and investigating its background, takes in wander New Age Pagans, a town that feels like a more industrialised cross between The Wicker Man and The Stepford Wives, and a broad series of commentaries on the state of horror film-making in the 1980s.

Along the way, there are some terrifically creepy set-pieces. The town itself is presented as so “normal” it’s crushingly tense, and the trip up the Tower is one of the sharpest bits of writing I think I’ve read all year – a constant sense of threat even though nothing is actually happening. I’ve found myself criticising a number of authors on this list so far for over-writing, but Campbell is a light and engaging touch throughout. What comes across more than anything is that he is a fan of the genre, understands it at a deep level, and has put together something accordingly. It does mean is that there is little of the visceral “spark” that you get in someone like Stephen King, but it’s not what the book is going for in the first place and I hardly missed it.

And the ending is worth mentioning, because in a year of reading books going for a bit “punch” it was refreshing and unexpected to get an ending that felt genuinely tragic. There have been a few books I’ve struggled to engage with, but Ancient Images feels more like the Ghost Stories I enjoyed earlier in the list than the more modern horror I’ve had recently, and I really rather liked it.

Next time: We hit the 21st Century with David Wong’s John Dies at the End.

Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Matt Farr

More from the world of Geek Syndicate

%d bloggers like this: