Saturday, March 18, 2017

Darkness, Mist and Shadow: The Collected Macabre Tales of Basil Copper (2013) by Basil Copper, edited by Stephen Jones.

Darkness, Mist and Shadow: The Collected Macabre Tales of Basil Copper: Volume 1 (2013) by Basil Copper, edited by Stephen Jones.

Once he turned to fiction writing in his late 30's, Basil Copper was pretty much a professional's professional. He wrote a lot of stories of horror and the weird, collected here in their entirety in three thick paperbacks by PS Publishing. He also wrote over 50 hard-boiled detective novels set in a Los Angeles he never visited in real life, non-fiction books, and several continuations of August Derleth's Holmes pastiche, Solar Pons. Like I said, a professional writer.

And as a professional writer who wasn't a great writer, he's a good study for aspiring writers -- especially those who start publishing relatively late. Copper may not be great, but he wrote several great stories and many that were very good. Keep plugging!

This first paperback volume covers roughly the first 15 years of his fiction-writing career.

Introduction  (Darkness, Mist and Shadow: Volume 1) by Stephen Jones.

  • The Spider (1964): Creepy little gem involving arachnophobia.
  • Camera Obscura (1965): Excellent period piece with more than a touch of Ray Bradbury. Faithfully adapted for Night Gallery.
  • The Janissaries of Emilion (1967): One of Copper's most-anthologized works is a study in dreams and paranoia. You'll see the ending coming, but the details and vaguely dream-like quality of the story make it stand out.
  • The Cave (1967): A fine ghost story 'recounted' in the tranquility of a men's club. The story owes a debt to M.R. James, as it riffs at the end on a bit from James' "Canon Alberic's Scrapbook."
  • The Grey House (1967): The forgettable title is the only problem with this slow-building tale of misguided home ownership. Builds to a near-Grand Guignol finale with a touch of Jules de Grandin -- which is to say, flame-throwers versus the living dead!
  • Old Mrs. Cartwright (1967): Almost reads as if Copper were riffing on Roald Dahl in this cruel tale of an old aunt and her disturbing young nephew at the zoo.
  • Charon (1967): Less Bradburyesque than Serlingesque -- as in, a gentle fantasy that could have been an episode of The Twilight Zone.
  • The Great Vore (1967): A delightful romp that's a self-aware homage to Sherlock Holmes that also works as a satire of detective stories.
  • The Academy of Pain (1968): Cruel little story goes exactly where you expect, unpleasantly.
  • Doctor Porthos (1968): A deft revisionist vampire tale.
  • Archives of the Dead (1968): Solid tale of witchcraft in the modern world.
  • Amber Print (1968): A nice horror piece about movie obsessives and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
  • Out of the Fog (1970): The first of what I think of as Copper's 'Paul Harvey' pieces, in which the story builds to reveal that it's about a real, historical personage. This one at least has a nice twist.
  • The House by the Tarn (1971): Straightforward, mysterious horror in the British countryside features another bad house.
  • The Knocker at the Portico (1971): Psychological horror and obsession collide.
  • The Second Passenger (1973): Over-long supernatural revenge piece seems like Copper's rewriting of A Christmas Carol at points.
  • The Recompensing of Albano Pizar (1973): Refined tale of revenge with a bloody climax.
  • The Gossips (1973): Chilling, very much M.R. Jamesian ghost story about a trio of very unpleasant Italian statues.
  • A Very Pleasant Fellow (1973): A bit of a science-fictiony dud that could have been published in 1913.
  • A Message from the Stars (1977): Twist is telegraphed in an unconvincing story about alien invasion.
  • Cry Wolf (1974): Weak twist story involving werewolves.
  • The Trodes (1975): See "A Message from the Stars."
  • Dust to Dust (1976): Solid but unspectacular ghost story involving messages from the dead written in the dust on a windowsill. 

Overall: The strongest of the three Copper Collected volumes has a few duds -- though all of them solidly written -- and many greats. The volume also offers Copper at his most chameleonic as the stories riff on a number of prominent antecedents, most notably the great English ghost-story writer M.R. James. Highly recommended.

Darkness, Mist and Shadow: The Collected Macabre Tales of Basil Copper: Volume 2 (2013) by Basil Copper, edited by Stephen Jones.

The second volume of PS Publishing's Collected Basil Copper is a solid effort with several stand-outs. Not as consistently excellent as the first volume, but well-worth buying for fine stories that include "The Flabby Men," "Shaft Number 247," and "Beyond the Reef."

Introduction  (Darkness, Mist and Shadow: Volume 2) by Kim Newman.

  • The Flabby Men (1977): Sinister post-apocalyptic tale shares characteristics with Shaft Number 247 (1980) and Out There (1999). A combination of the Lovecraftian and the post-atomic mutant story.
  • The Way the World Died (1978): Very minor sf story.
  • The Treasure of Our Lady (1978): A throwback to tales of explorers searching for treasure in the jungle, unironically told. Wouldn't be out of place in a 1927 issue of Weird Tales.
  • Justice at the Crossroads (1978): Ironic, non-supernatural tale of a 'real' vampire.
  • Mrs. Van Donk (1978): Minor bit of Hitchcockian social satire/thriller.
  • The Stranger (1980): A psychological horror story with a 'twist' you will probably see coming.
  • The Madonna of the Four-Ale Bar (1980): See "The Stranger."
  • Shaft Number 247 (1980): Copper's brilliant, vague novella written for Ramsey Campbell's New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. One of ten or at most 20 of the greatest post-Lovecraft Lovecraftian stories ever written. 
  • The Candle in the Skull (1984): Fun, slight tale of a creepy child and Hallowe'en revenge.
  • Wish You Were Here (1992): Excellent, slow-building ghost story doesn't quite have a workable ending. Still, the ride is a lot of fun.
  • Better Dead (1994): A bit of marriage-based horror that satirizes the too-committed film buff (the title comes from Bride of Frankenstein).
  • Beyond the Reef (1994): Neo-pulp follow-up to Lovecraft's "The Shadow over Innsmouth." Fun stuff, though far better as an homage than as actual horror.
  • Death of a Demi-God (1995): Weak, creaky story falls into the 'Paul Harvey' category enumerated in my review of Volume 1 -- Copper's 'Paul Harvey' stories eventually reveal that they're about a real, historical personage.
  • Reader, I Buried Him! (1995): Fun little vampire story seems to exist for the sole purpose of its title's play on the last line of Jane Eyre.
  • Bright Blades Gleaming (1995): Another 'Paul Harvey' story, intermittently interesting but with an extremely telegraphed ending.

Overall: Recommended, though the stories start to sag after 1980. 

Darkness, Mist and Shadow: The Collected Macabre Tales of Basil Copper: Volume 3 (2013) by Basil Copper, edited by Stephen Jones.

The third and weakest paperback volume of the Collected Basil Copper does allow the reader of the previous two volumes to survey the writer in full, and here that writer is in decline but still intermittently strong and vital.

An Interview with Basil Copper by Johnny Mains 

Introduction  (Darkness, Mist and Shadow: Volume 3) by Christopher Fowler 

  • When Greek Meets Greek (1997): Vague, disturbing slow-burn revisionist vampire novella.
  • Line Engaged (1999): We've seen the twist more than once.
  • One for the Pot (1999): One of those 'The killer is really...' stories, short and mostly sweet.
  • In a Darkling Wood (1999): Absolutely loopy period piece involving black magic in the 18th-century English countryside. The last 20 pages are weird but utterly unconvincing.
  • The Grass (1999): A piece of juvenalia written when Copper was 14.
  • Riding the Chariot (1999): Psychological horror flips over and crashes over the last few hasty, unconvincing pages.
  • Final Destination (1999): Technically, the final line makes this horror story a 'Paul Harvey.'
  • The Obelisk (1999): Unconvincing tale of invasion from an alternate Earth.
  • Out There (1999): Until the last three pages or so, "Out There" is up there with Copper's superior, earlier stories along similar lines, "Shaft Number 247" and "The Flabby Men." The last three pages are startlingly rushed and ridiculous, but the rest of the story is very satisfying.
  • The Summerhouse (1999): A creaky tale of a child's revenge on a father completely loses its way as the events are explained to us over the last couple of paragraphs.
  • As the Crow Flies (2002): Mildly interesting tale of a crow that hates a guy, but so long.
  • Poetic Justice (2002): Almost a story fragment about the evils of vivisection.
  • Ill Met By Daylight (2002): Fun, M.R. Jamesian tale of a graveyard haunted by... what, exactly?
  • Charing Cross-Dover-Charing Cross (2010): Very much a Twilight Zone fantasy of revenge.
  • There Lies the Danger ... (2002): A real time-waster about rejuvenation treatments leads to a real dud of a final line. 
  • Queen Bee (2005): Mildly interesting tale of a bee that loves a guy, or maybe hates him..
  • Death of a Nobody (2005): Yes, another one of Copper's 'Paul Harvey' stories that eventually reveals it's about a real, historical personage. Zzz.
  • Reflections (2005): There's an evil mirror in this overlong story about... an evil mirror that belonged to a real historical personage!
  • The White Train (2005): Holocaust revenge story is very, very familiar.
  • Hunted by Wolves (2005): Science-fiction background adds nothing to a story about a guy hiding in a tree from some super-wolves.
  • Storm Over Stromjolly (2005): Dud of a revenge story... with a twist!
  • The Silver Salamander (2005): Very slow thriller about a man, his mistress, her husband, and a piece of jewelry.
  • Voices in the Water (2005): Fine, building piece is technically Lovecraftian in its monsters. Not a bad story to finish a career on.

Overall: Lightly recommended, and best read after the first two collections.

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