BASIL COPPER'S OTHER SCI-FI NOVEL

by Jeffery Scott Sims

Introduction

Though he composed many a short story of the strange and the fantastic, the British author Basil Copper wrote few novels in that line, preferring to devote his talents for longer works to his Mike Faraday private eye tales. As a connoisseur of the weird I regret that, during his long career, Copper gave us only his handful of Gothic mysteries (five, counting his big Solar Pons adventure), his Lovecraftian classic The Great White Space, and one other. That other, the-- I suspect-- relatively little known Into the Silence, published in 1983, is the subject of this discourse.

To anticipate, Into the Silence is a close cousin of his earlier opus The Great White Space, following somewhat in Lovecraft's vein of amalgamated horror and science fiction. It utilizes many of the same themes, even several plot points. To some extent a lesser cousin to its cult fave forebear, it nonetheless incorporates much of the strikingly freakish weirdness at which Copper excels, is therefore worthy of examination.

This I commence to do. In the sections below I describe the plot of Into the Silence, ponder its many facets strong and weak, compare and contrast it with the better known previous novel. Necessarily the reader must beware of spoilers.

The Story

Mr. Warren, young professional photographer, arrives in the coastal town of Pentarth this cold November night of 1929, right away experiences a shock when, by chance, he crosses paths with a man he thought long dead. He endeavors to surmount his puzzlement, for he's got weighty business already in mind. No less a personage than the great scientist Professor Deems has called him in-- replacing a colleague who unexpectedly departed-- to join the staff of a gigantic and mysterious research project. Deems, employing amazingly advanced technology, has undertaken to drill vast tunnels deep into the earth that he may launch an expedition toward an unknown subterranean destination.

Dedicated though he is, Warren soon finds his attention torn by competing interests. There are the futuristic marvels of secretive Professor Deems' isolated base, from which a huge pit descends thousands of feet down through the bedrock, excavated by powerful machinery manned by highly educated experts, and the incredible Challenger Three, a unique vehicle akin to a submarine, yet designed to travel underground through much more than water. These Warren encounters with fascination and awe, but events in Pentarth continue to vex him. Spooky strangeness pervades the town. What of old Reverend Streeter, whom he thought dead; the beautiful but mysterious Pamela Gordon, who hints at inexplicable deaths, disappearances, and disturbing new-comers; and what of Mr. Parker, Warren's predecessor, current location obscure? Over all in the sky hangs K4, the "dark red star" that is about to burn itself out. Do all of these things, in some peculiar fashion, connect?

Throughout Warren suffers from a difficult personal problem: he sees things, creepy squirming forms glimpsed at the corners of vision. Deems, we learn from diary extracts, is harassed too by troublesome sights and vague fears, which he will not allow to stand in the way of his great goal.

Warren's investigations with lovely Pamela turn up evidence of a monstrous and murderous conspiracy operating in Pentarth, one with ties to the Deems camp. Before Warren can clinch the matter he's off on the long awaited expedition of the professor, in which eight men headed by Deems venture from the lowest level of the pit into a vast cavity of "primeval ooze," a kind of underground sea of mud and slime which takes hair-raising days to cross. On the other side they finally arrive at a large cavern, where Deems' theories receive apparently decisive vindication. He has discovered the long lost sunken site of no less than fabled Camelot!

Yet this brief moment of glory marks the end of joy for all. The archeologist Sanders-Hewitt dies mysteriously, Professor Deems cracks up, goes mad, has to be restrained raving, and the expedition quickly departs, laden with artefactual loot. After another epic journey they return to base... and that's when all hell breaks loose, for nothing is as it seems; with so much of what has gone before a total lie, only now does Warren begin to suspect the impossible truth.

Heroes, Knaves, and Villains

ITS presents the reader with an entertaining cast of characters, a hallmark of Basil Copper's novels. Warren the accomplished photographer makes for a typical hero: he can be tricked, he can be tripped up, but he's smart, and he will figure out the nefarious doings in the end. Pamela Gordon, the gorgeous librarian, is a classic Copper heroine, clever, well spoken, desirable. Professor Deems is fully developed and well rounded, intriguingly discordant in that he comes across as both sympathetic and highly suspicious. His second in command Maxwell seems stout and wise, the main scientists at Deems' base-- Sanders-Hewitt, Niven, Forbes, etc.-- convincing. Then there are the folk of Pentarth, men like Streeter, Hargreaves, Venner, Burra, all of whom provide plenty to ponder, for every single one of them is up to something, and for the longest time the reader can't guess what, nor readily deduce whom to root for. Through the observed behavior of the characters and their interactions Copper maintains doubt and uncertainty right to the startling climax.

Setting

As a writer of weird fiction Basil Copper mastered the art of atmospheric description, and his strong suit certainly cloaks this story in a delightfully gloomy shroud. His Cornwall is a picturesque land of little villages, lonely roads and coastal cliffs, with key scenes occurring in old churches and graveyards. Deems' base is a remarkable world unto itself, an enclosed encampment surrounding the staggeringly deep pit that plumbs frightful depths and leads to nighted regions unimaginable. The "pleasing terror" of Copper's brooding milieu goes a long way towards making ITS a success as a novel of the weird.

The Awful Truth

(Caution: this section contains soul-wrenching spoilers. If that matters, please skip until the book be read.)

For at least one reader, Professor Deems' "Camelot revelation" moment came as an enormous and unwelcome surprise, for not only did it sound wholly pedestrian, but it also failed to collate with much that had gone before. Said reader should not have worried however, for it transpires that the Camelot angle, despite the apparently conclusive evidence for it, is the most misleading of all blinds, the ultimate red herring. As the survivors of the expedition and the citizens of Pentarth finally learn, Camelot is a hoax, an appealing facade fabricated by loathsome aliens with astounding abilities and, of course, evil intentions.

Before it's too late Warren manages to discern the hideous truth. Nasty extra-terrestrials came to Earth centuries ago, were trapped alive deep underground by a massive landslide of the Cornish cliffs. In recent years a fragment falling from K4 has liberated a pocket of the creatures, who use their extraordinary powers of mimicry, raising the dead, and mind control to infest Pentarth and lure Professor Deems into his eccentric quest. He dreams of voyaging to Camelot, yet he's actually drilling and opening an escape valve for the rest of the monsters, who have atrocious designs on the entire planet.

Yikes! Basil Copper sure jumps through hoops to tie up all the loose ends. Those wonderfully horrible aliens with their uniquely repellent traits unite the disparate strands. So the dead do walk, the revived bodies filled with the snaky creatures. Some living humans act under their control, or are at least mentally tormented by them. The latter group includes Warren himself. In addition, the things can assume the forms of inanimate objects. Copper manifests a superb moment when our hero discovers that the "Arthurian artifacts" recovered from the strange cavern are, in fact, the aliens in disguise!

It's pretty warped stuff, some of it scaling such peaks of weirdness that, I grant, suspension of disbelief grows sorely taxed. That doesn't surprise, for Copper has never been one to shy away from the maxed bizarre, nor have I complained. He may push it to the limit here, though. Furthermore, story-telling oddities and stray outbursts of illogic crop up throughout the novel.

Oddities and Illogic

Here I wish to simply enumerate a few specific plot points that leave me scratching my head or mumbling to myself.

1) The living dead: their exact nature isn't properly explained. They seem to be nothing more than bags of flesh and bones crammed with clumps of nauseating little monsters, except that they retain memories from life and perfectly pretend to be who they once were. Some sort of brain tissue scanning, maybe? Reasonable, but not stated. Also, why reanimate corpses, when the aliens presumably could create illusory people from scratch? Well, I always appreciate the living dead, so I can't carp too much, will give Copper a pass.

2) Fellow travelers: at least one character, for all we know, may be completely human, yet works willingly on behalf of the alien menace. Mind control, conceivably, the sensible solution, only the matter is neither clarified nor even legitimately indicated. It's a major point, too.

3) Wimpy Warren: near the end, at the critical instant when he's put all the pieces together, when he knows the stakes and the fate of mankind rests in his hands and he must convince his friends of the genuine peril, Warren suddenly goes squishy, seems to be trying his dead level best to cast doubt on all his deductions. "At least, it is mostly supposition on my part." "It is only a few ideas I have been mulling over." There's not a moment to lose, so shut up with that kind of talk! Warren needs to pitch himself hard. Fortunately, everybody believes him despite his wobbly manner.

Another case involving Warren, though not restricted to him, is that old Copper penchant for needless secrecy that often works against the characters. The hero's conversations with Pamela Gordon illustrate this phenomenon, with their senseless sparring serving to temporarily defeat their immediate goals. It's a good thing they snap out of it, well before they end up in each others arms, or the world is overrun by horrors from beyond space and time.

4) K4: the dark star angle is astronomical gobbledy-gook. Not even consistently maintained, the "star" is at one point referred to as a "planet." This business crops up with a frequency far outpacing its significance to the story. ITS could dispense with it and suffer no loss.

5) The last revelation: in the penultimate paragraph of the book Copper announces the presence of the "Central Brain," obviously the overlord organism that controls all of the creepy-crawlies. Its existence, much less its importance, isn't even hinted at until that ludicrously late point. In retrospect I deduce that the "Excalibur" handed over to Maxwell is, in fact, the brain, but that's just my inspired guess. A plain flub this, I say, one that admittedly doesn't damage the work, but then why include it, or if it ought to be inserted, why not much earlier? It's an interesting concept, with which more could easily have been done. A fantasized movie version surely would.

Into the Silence vs. The Great White Space

There's no getting around the fact that these Basil Copper novels share a great deal of their genetic code. The relationship between them is considerably more than superficial. Think of these mutual plot elements:

The hero is a professional photographer of the early 20th Century, asked to join an operation already well developed by a close-knit team of scientific experts. The mysterious program involves delving far beneath the earth's surface via astonishing technology in search of a goal largely unknown except to the leader of the expedition. That leader is a respected American scientist, one perhaps noted for arcane or esoteric ideas, a man of inordinate determination, possibly obsession. There may be more to him than is at first apparent. The mysteries uncovered during the course of the adventures focus on archeological concerns dating to the remote past, yet the threat deriving from them is horribly modern and immediate. The foes confronted are non-human, unearthly, monstrously powerful, and utterly disgusting.

The above paragraph, so far as it goes, describes both ITS and TGWS. These prominent similarities suggest a plot blueprint used in common for both. Comparison recalls the thematic unity found between Lovecraft's classics At the Mountains of Madness and "The Shadow Out of Time;" reading them back to back certainly induces an aura of deja vu.

What of the Lovecraft connection? TGWS is a consummate, at times heavy-handed Lovecraftian pastiche, with all of the beloved and quirky trappings. ITS doesn't quite fit that bill. I detect the delicate pressure of the Master's hand-- in the otherwise meaningless 1929 setting, stuffy scholars, the pall of morbidity, the other-worldly menace-- but by and large the feeling isn't wholly the same. For all of its fantastic qualities, ITS is better grounded, maybe more mundane under its veneer of down to the mat weirdness. It leans closer towards standard Sci-Fi, that staid result chiefly mitigated by the Gothic eeriness for which Copper is rightly hailed. This he shares with Lovecraft, and more than anything else pulls the story back into the outskirts of Mythos territory.

I note important differences that separate the two books:

1) ITS offers one of Copper's wonderful heroines in the person of Pamela Gordon, a sort of character absent-- perhaps sorely lacking-- from the earlier novel. She definitely isn't a page torn from the Testament of Lovecraft.

As a result of this addition, I believe, Copper allows us a stouter hero too, someone more worthy of a Miss Gordon than the shrinking at shadows protagonist of TGWS. While the author hasn't ever fixated on Hollywood-type heroics, he knows how to fashion quietly strong men as exemplified here and in his Gothic mysteries.

2) ITS is a better written book, composed in Copper's typically clean, engaging, effortless style. It doesn't bear those aspects of pastiche that may occasionally draw a smirk from perusal of TGWS. More attention is given to characterization, a clear benefit to the story. A superior read in general, in its art ITS belongs in many respects with Copper's short pieces and his Gothic mysteries rather than with his Lovecraftian extravaganza.

3) Really a subset of the second point, ITS is more solidly structural, with a better defined plot despite its many startling twists. In the end everything does relate, with all the pieces uniting to form a concordant whole. No one could ever accuse TGWS, with all of its thrilling yet disharmonious digressions, of accomplishing this. I get the impression that Basil Copper gave a lot more thought (relatively speaking) to the logic of this work, rather than relying solely on atmosphere.

4) In both novels the daring expeditions are made possible by the employment of what I call "era inappropriate" technology, machinery impossible for the period, but only ITS attempts to justify it. We receive firm hints that Deems has unconsciously acquired his technical knowledge from the aliens, a satisfactory plot constituent. I wonder if one may read between the lines of TGWS and grant its Professor Scarsdale the same source? If so, Copper has been too subtle for me.

Final Thoughts

Sifting through all of the foregoing, what's my answer? Into the Silence is a good book, not a great one, in the weird genre, providing meaty entertainment in its fusion of science fiction and the macabre. I wish there were more like it, of at least its caliber. With ITS Basil Copper rewards me with the essentials that I crave, craftily pushing the envelope at times, perhaps holding back at whiles when he shouldn't. So, not a masterpiece, but a redoubtable contender. It can't replace The Great White Space in my affections; that one remains too deliriously grand and imaginative to be trumped by superior artistry or the slipping in of a pretty face. The union of the two might constitute the best of all possible worlds. There lies a tantalizing thought for the future.


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