a review of “darkness, mist and shadow: the collected macabre tales of basil copper.”

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I’ve just gone through the first paperback volume of Drugstore Indian Press’ new edition of Basil Copper’s short fiction, Darkness, Mist and Shadow: The Collected Macabre Tales of Basil Copper. The impression I get from reading the first volume of this collection of Copper’s work is competence. Nothing more elevating, nothing more damning than that. His fiction seems to be the artisan-like work of a tinkerer – someone sitting in their musty garage, the radio scratchily blaring out the news of the day, while they manipulate old rust-bitten spare parts salvaged from pungent lots and pick n’ pulls.

Many of the stories can be summarized, simply and accurately, as: werewolf tale, vampire tale, haunted house tale, etc. There is something to be said for dusting off an old frame and hanging something new in it, and Copper does this with a quiet, British panache. The tales are sprinkled with restrained sensual description that says: I could give more here, but I live in service of the tale, so I won’t. The sentences wink demurely, drop a suggestive hint about an open bedroom upstairs, and then depart without anything actually happening, leaving you on a staircase with two drinks in your hand, going “Eh?” The problem with this sometimes being that the tales themselves are not that interesting, with or without the fresh coat of polish on them. The reader wants to burrow into the world of the poetic sentences, (held back like a lover trying not to climax too soon) which seem so different from the world those sentences are contained by.

The narrators are all men named Carfax or Carstairs and they are all bachelors who, if you ripped their viscera open with an axe in a moment straight from one of their stories, you would find nothing inside but egg-shells, the smell of smug old leather, sticks and twigs of high-fiber cereal, and a copy of a book entitled The Enthusiast’s Guide to Marginally Interesting Hillocks. They crack and crinkle like dried bits of paper from a wastebasket, they whisper with the husk-like sound of wind through cardboard. They are, in fact, pretty fucking boring for the most part, and can be generally relied upon for sustaining a high level of not interesting you in the slightest throughout. These sorts of bachelor narrators are inherited from M.R. James, but with James they are charming, and with Copper they are something less.

Without any surprise at all, it is the fictions which push against this formula of difficult-to revive-tropes and slightly shit protagonists that are most engaging. “The Janissaries of Emilion” portrays a scientist who finds himself beset by troubling dreams of waking on a foreign shore, caught in the teeth of strong waves, awash in foam, looking out over an expanse of white sand, the hint of a great city in the distance. He is filled with the dread of a sinister event to come and has no idea what it could be, yet every new dreaming brings him farther up the shore, closer to that event. Copper’s handling of the dream’s gradual escalation is sure and steady, and the hallucinatory qualities of the beach just beyond the imaginary city of Emilion are actually given the narcotic glimmer of a dream (not an easy task). He makes a misstep with one effect – the whispering of an ocean breeze telling him “THE JANISSARIES OF EMILION” in all-caps like the script-card from a silent film – but overall the tale is gripping, and Copper demonstrates with the grisly ending that he never does anything by half. This is one of his most admirable qualities as a writer. There are no happy endings with Copper.

Even in a tale that falls in the category of the justified-retribution (a common theme with horror writers who feel like meting out moral justice) the retribution cruelly outstrips the crime. This is his famous “Camera Obscura,” likely the strongest tale in this first volume, and one I originally encountered in Albert Hitchcock’s Stories that Scared Even Me anthology*. In essence it is about the comeuppance of an avaricious moneylender, in the line of William J. Wintle’s Spectre Spiders. But it is the manner of this comeuppance which makes the tale verge on the conte cruel genre, despite the victim being a real, unpasteurized bastard rather than an innocent. The blithe sangfroid of the magical camera obscura’s owner is unsettling, the aura of genteel kindness over his absolute authority skin-crawling.

Gary Gianni's illustration for "Camera Obscura."

Gary Gianni’s illustration for “Camera Obscura.”

The strongest tale after “Camera Obscura” might be “The Cave,” which combines Jamesian elements with the unabashed grue Copper so enjoys. It begins with that tediously venerable frame-tale tradition of a group of wealthy men in a club at evening, sitting in a congealed layer of their own satisfaction, bloviating about a variety of supernatural subjects until one of them hits on a good story. This tedious erection quickly collapses and is forgotten as the actual narrative begins. Even here, the conceit is not far from the boilerplate – a traveler on walking tour through Austrian Tyrol stays at a bed & breakfast, comes upon a mutilated farm animal in the country, hears rumors about some beast slaughtering sheep and goats in the area. The locals, as they tend to be, are reticent to discuss it. The Jamesian device comes in the form of a 14th century church carving:

“Its long neck was disfigured by large nodules of immense size, the teeth were curved and sharp, like a boar, the eyes like a serpent. In its two, claw-like hands, it held the body of a human being. It had just bitten off the head, much as one would eat a stick of celery, and the carver had cleverly managed to suggest that the creature was in the process of spitting out the head before making a start on the meal proper….I cannot tell you what nausea this loathsome creature inspired in me; it seemed almost to move in its frame of dark wood, so brilliantly had the carver, an artist of some genius, depicted his subject.”

This creature, of course, (or creatures?) ends up invading the sanctity of the bed & breakfast and unpleasant things happen. It is the getting there that matters though, and Copper’s rendering of the inn-keeepers’ fatalism, the encounter with what might be the creature behind a massive oaken door with timber latch, the investigation of the cave – these are all done very, very well. The ending, again, is bloody and results in several demises, but is tempered by the apparent vanquishing of the mysterious creatures, as the cave they slink from is sealed by a mob of police and villagers.

There are several other middling pieces. “The Academy of Pain” is a decent conte cruel, but more or less an inferior re-working of H.G. Wells’ hideous “The Cone,” with half the suspense. “The Amber Print,” about a haunted print of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari that changes every time one views it, might be the fourth strongest tale. “Doctor Porthos” is without doubt the worst, an execrably written, rushed smear of cliche and nonsense. I haven’t read a worse vampire tale since E.F. Benson’s “Mrs. Amworth,” and this one takes the smelly prize. “The Knocker at the Portico” is a Poe-esque psychological tale and “The House by the Tarn” is a haunted house piece that is much briefer and slightly better than the predictable novella length “The Grey House.”

Brilliant on occasion, the majority of Basil Copper’s output is competent and well put together. If this sounds like damning with faint praise, it might be. Copper did what he pleased, but reading this collection I wish he had been more adventurous, less predictable and safe, more inclined to produce stories like “The Janissaries of Emilion” than the respectable and moralizing revenge tale “The Recompensing of Albano Pizar.” One of the reasons I love horror fiction (as well as other restricting forms, like say, the blues or the sonnet) is the challenge of working within a classical, strict, and established confine and nonetheless producing a work of surprising weight and beauty that coheres to every contour necessary in the tradition**. It is a supreme difficulty and when done well, there is nothing more exciting or artistically satisfying than taking the reader down the paneled staircase into their unconscious, and allowing them to find what is there in that warm, frightening, and lovely dark. When it is not done well, when ambition is modest, the plots rehashed, and the delivery not particularly unique….it begs the ungenerous question: “Why was this even done?” A question that Copper deserves somewhat better than.

 

* The Hitchcock anthology was actually ghost edited by Robert Arthur.

** The other reason is pushing against the boundaries when the time calls for it.

 

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eileen gunn’s “stable strategies for middle management.”

Salvador Dali, The Ghost of Vermeer van Delft.

Salvador Dali, The Ghost of Vermeer van Delft.

Just read Eileen Gunn’s short story “Stable Strategies for Middle Management” (1988) in The Norton Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ursula K. Le Guin and Brian Attebery. The various, dull inhumanities and cranial-scrubbing atmosphere of office work provide a strong template for science fiction’s capacity for what Darko Suvin calls “cognitive estrangement.” This estrangement could be characterized as a distancing from the particular political or economic moment’s construction of itself as natural or inevitable; it makes one see that things can be different, should be different, and that what is considered natural or inevitable is in fact highly unnatural and contingent. There is a gap between the reality of the text and actual, empirical reality, but a gap that nonetheless has a clear and logical connection (sleep is eradicated through technology, a cure for AIDS is synthesized, the US never dropped the atom bomb, etc.)

In Gunn’s short piece, one is allowed to see again the terror behind such banalities as “I see you [co-workers] more than I see my family.” In the astringent little world she has constructed, the dynamics of capitalism have set forth a process of literally altering the minds and bodies of its labor force for its own purposes. No longer content with emotional policing and affective demands, the corporate program under the capitalist operating system surgically and genetically transforms its workers to have animal qualities that make them “successful competitor(s) for a middle-management niche, with triggerable responses that can be useful in gaining entry to upper hierarchical levels.” Thus we get the literalization of the old cliche about apes in business suits, along with more unusual fauna such as butterflies and mosquitoes. Gregor Samsa works in marketing.

Reading the story, one is once more confronted with the fact of how much wage (and salaried) labor draw every other aspect of life into their orbit, and drain them of their greater potential and substance. As the narrator Margaret says, “Something that’s fun? I’ve invested all my time and most of my genetic material in this job. This is all the goddamn fun there is.” Even our fantasies about an existence outside our labor are rendered feeble by that labor. The nostalgia we spend our time waxing drips in a pathetic and degraded manner, and is invaded, like our dreams, by the labor we want to think away from. We live in a psychic landscape of sleepless, 24/7 availability, streaming archives of films we will never watch, phones that update curious authorities about where we are at any given moment, and escape that only comes in the form of more consumption – and all of us like to think we are the last real island of beauty.

Margaret again: “I used to be more patient, didn’t I? More appreciative of the diverse spectrum of human possibility. More interested in sex and television.”

At the end of the tale, Margaret has turned into an insect that appears to be a praying mantis. After being confronted by her “warm” and “caring” boss, she unhinges her jaws and bites his head off. He runs around his sad office, spurting blood idiotically, making inadvertent copulative motions like a male mantis post-coitus. Margaret sits and thinks for a minute, then telephones her boss’ secretary and advises that they call in Personnel and have the late Mr. Samson re-engineered. Glowing in the luke-warm heat-lamp of corporate power like a two dollar sausage at a gas station, Margaret realizes this might have been one of those “triggerable responses” she had heard about. Maybe she could just….be the boss. Just like that, so exciting. Exciting enough to go home and fuck the husband one more time. Maybe the last?

“Stable Strategies,” in its structure, reminds me of a piece of short fiction from the horror field, Thomas Ligotti’s “The Town Manager.” In both these tales individuals find themselves locked into and dominated by unjust and hilariously arbitrary systems, and at the close of the ratty page-curtain, adopt a “can’t beat ’em, join ’em” attitude and become what they once hated. Eileen Gunn’s story is less brutal, less bitter, but also more incisive and specific. And yet this lack of brutality, this meager thimble of bitterness leads the story to become more or less harmless jestering. The kind of work that would elicit knowing chuckles from gym-toned middle-management tie-lickers if they were to read it, laughing “It’s funny because it’s true,” and then walking back to the meeting, thinking about successful competition, triggerable responses, and actionable items.