Thursday, March 16, 2017

Darkness, Mist and Shadow: The Collected Macabre Tales of Basil Copper: Volume 1 (2013)

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  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.

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