THE WEIRD SHORT STORIES OF BASIL COPPER

by Jeffery Scott Sims

[This essay deals with numerous stories, many of them haphazardly collected in various American and British editions. Some of the best first found book publication in a paperback volume, Not After Nightfall (1968), while all have since appeared in a fine two volume set, Darkness, Mist & Shadow: The Collected Macabre Tales Of Basil Copper (2010). I have in my library, however, the complete assortment of hardcover collections published in between, information on which may be useful to some. These volumes, plus a few anthology appearances, form the basis of this essay.]

Introduction

A prolific author, this Basil Copper, noted for mysteries of many sorts-- Mike Faraday novels, Solar Pons works following on from August Derleth, novels of Gothic mystery-- yet when not producing these, Copper has been mainly turning out stories of the bizarre and the fabulous. I know him best for these, suspect that is generally the case for his enduring audience. I first made literary acquaintance with the author via two sources, the Alfred Hitchcock anthology Stories That Scared Even Me (1965) containing "Camera Obscura," and a novel, The Great White Space (1974), both of which left deep and lasting impressions. Indeed, I have written extensively about the latter work. Much later I picked up Copper's initial Arkham House collection, liked what I read, and that pleasure really got the ball rolling. To my knowledge I currently possess every tale of his which can be defined as horror, science fiction, or just plain weird.

I desire to introduce and critique the weird short stories of Basil Copper. Below I note where the stories can be found, present a capsule summary of each tale, offer my take on it. My biases, my likes and dislikes should come apparent, but I state here that virtually all of these works provide elements of interest; certain of them must be considered classics; all are products of a stylish writer, a practiced craftsman, one of my cherished favorites.

From Evil's Pillow (1973)

This first Arkham House, first American collection contains five stories forming an excellent starting point for enjoyable reading. The cover art, illustrating "The Gossips", is rendered by Frank Utpatel, long a standby at Arkham House.

The odyssey begins with "Amber Print", an all time creepy treasure. Copper is a movie buff; so am I. I relate to this story. Mr. Blenkinsop has acquired a unique print of the classic German film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, wishes his friend Mr. Carter to view it. Unique it is, for not only is it an especially well preserved copy with its original coloring (the amber, among others, a common treatment in the days of silent cinema), but it changes: startling scenes appear unknown to movie history, and Mr. Blenkinsop assures his fellow devotee that the grotesque additions alter every time the print is run. Copper masterfully describes the frightfulness of this obviously haunted film, such that I think warmly of this story every time I watch the show (on good old DVD these days). The reader also receives an account of the horrid consequences of viewing this warped masterpiece.

"The Grey House" is a big, bold haunted house story, possibly a tad over the top toward the end, but filled with delirious images and harrowing discoveries, proceeding inexorably to monstrous tragedy. The successful English writer Philip and his wife Angele purchase that ominous, long vacant French estate, undertake to restore it to its former luster. Unfortunately they also awaken and draw the attention of the furtive spirit that lurks about the place, an undead presence that lusts after young, lovely Angele. Be warned: this is an incredibly nasty tale.

Then we meet "The Gossips", another expansive story of spooky, spiteful terror. The heart of this novelette recounts the efforts of Arthur Jordan to procure three strange Sicilian statue-- oddly known as "The Gossips-- for his London museum. This he does, but his lethal adventures along the way, including the dreadful results of public exhibition, leave no doubt that hostile supernatural forces are at large. The core events are beautifully contained within a framing story that is itself delightfully eerie. This one delivers a big bang.

"A Very Pleasant Fellow" is a satisfyingly oddball story about mild mannered Mr. Philps seeking revenge against that infuriating Mr. Hedgepeth who bought out his business. Mr. Philps has a friend, George Coleman, a devotee of ancient occult lore. Working from old documents, Mr. Coleman has fabricated a weird weapon. Mr. Philps borrows it to settle scores, accidentally carries matters a little too far.

"Charon" concludes the volume, a quiet charmer rich in atmosphere. Tired, aging Mr. Soames discovers an unobtrusive shop tucked away in an old town square. Charon Ltd., Exporters, unaccountably fascinates him. What's in there? Who's in there? Why is it so important that Mr. Soames gain entry, an endeavor curiously difficult? Time tells, delightfully.

When Footsteps Echo (1975)

This first British hardcover collection, published by Robert Hale (and printed by St. Martin's Press in America) contains the excellent stories "Camera Obscura" and "Amber Print", along with a bunch of other goodies.

Here's another classic, "The Janissaries of Emilion", a lurid tale of nightmares overtaking reality. Night after night Farlow, overworked scientist, awakes into an ancient dreamscape in the body of his alter ego, keen to reach his lady love in the fairy city across the waters. Each night the story of this secondary life progresses, but so does the menacing approach of the titular warriors, cruel avengers on horseback charging at him with, Farlow suspects, evil intentions. What happens when they reach him? It's only a dream, right? Don't bet your life or sanity on it. There's no "and then I woke up" in this one.

Basil Copper's occasional forays into science fiction have a quite different feel from standard fare, with much greater emphasis on weirdness than technology. "A Message from the Stars" is a fine, and typical, example. Well to do bachelor astronomer Anstruther informs his good friend and fellow bachelor Mr. Starkey ("a man of independent means") that, after six years of investigation, he believes that aliens from outer space are communicating with someone on Earth. Employing the latest computers, Anstruther detects a meaningless message-- ZHRO AHNT CHEDZOY-- and following careful study and decipherment surmises that secret invaders in our midst shortly plan the conquest of this world. Mr. Starkey is rightly shocked by these revelations, yet in the end realizes that he must take action before it is too late. The climax, while not entirely a surprise, is nevertheless a thrill.

"Doctor Porthos" is a crazy wonder of a vampire story. The narrator and his lovely wife Angelina move into an isolated old house bequeathed to him by his uncle the Baron. The Baron died from "lacking of richness in the blood", so the enigmatic Dr. Porthos informs us. Soon Angelina falls prey to incessant vampire attacks. Dr. Porthos is ever close at hand, too close thinks the narrator. He sets a trap for the mysterious doctor. All will be well once he catches the villain in the act! Well, maybe.

Although a good read, "Cry Wolf" fails to impress me as do most of these. It's a fairly conventional werewolf tale, nothing out of the usual.

"The Academy of Pain" may be Copper's ultimate exercise in grotesquerie. Dr. Sanders, indulging in an affair with Pauline Carstairs, unwillingly accepts a weekend invitation from her husband. Carstairs is a disagreeable fellow, a sadist who maintains a private underground museum dedicated to the historic art of torture. Sanders admits to a certain fear of the man, is thankful that he suspects nothing of the hanky-panky going on behind his back. Carstairs leads them on a tour of his museum which vilely beggars the imagination, and like any proper guide he saves the best for last. As with "The Grey House", not for the squeamish.

A standard revenge yarn, "The Recompensing of Albano Pizar" delights, as do all well told tales of this kind, with the sense of rough justice suitably performed. Most enjoyably, the obnoxious literary agent Pizar, having offended the worthy widow of the dead author Leon Freitas, receives a delectable choice of horrible fates. One may presume that he chooses wisely.

"Out of the Fog" is one of those stories written only to lead up to "the big surprise". Would you guess it? Lady doctor Marion Lazenby, stunned by the suicide of her fiancee Dr. Gerald Forster, must know all. She discovers that he destroyed himself upon learning that he suffered from advanced syphilis. Outraged, the thoroughly competent Dr. Lazenby tracks down the source of the affliction, plots a gigantic revenge.

Insidious horror gradually unfolds in the lengthy "Archives of the Dead", in which struggling poet Robert Trumble finds work as secretary for the charming and erudite Dr. Ramon Fabri. When not holding peculiar gatherings with the rich and famous, Dr. Fabri maintains his archives, obituary notices culled from around the world concerning the departed of prominence. Trumble spends much time on these, when he's not entertaining suspicions that his ostensibly benevolent employer engages in horrendous, cunningly orchestrated murders. Covertly investigating, he begins to discern the incredible truth of monstrous occult practices, realizes his extreme danger. A marvelous novelette, this one, made more interesting by reference to Fabri's creepy library, which contains copies of hoary Lovecraftian tomes, including one composed by Ludvig Prinn (Robert Bloch fans will get the point).

And Afterward, the Dark (1977)

This second Arkham House, second American collection offers the already seen "Camera Obscura", "The Janissaries of Emilion", and "The Archives of the Dead", along with four fresh stories between hard covers. Edward Wagenknecht introduces the volume, which sports superb cover art-- illustrating "Janissaries"-- by the great Stephen E. Fabian, and an impressive back cover photograph of the author by Gerald McKee.

New here is "The Spider", a wholly creepy tale of the oldest obsession. M. Pinet stops for the night at a French inn, finds much about his milieu to disturb him, mainly the subtly ominous proprietor and the hateful prevalence of spiders, which Pinet loathes to the point of physical sickness. Too bad for him, because he's going to suffer an experience with a spider that forever rearranges his life. I found this story a tad too murky for my tastes, but it fosters maniacal chills.

In "The Cave", another less than readily explainable tale, the narrator Wilson describes an incident from his younger days when, while hiking the Austrian Tyrol, he faced mysterious terror. Stopping in the small mountain village of Gasthof, he stays at the isolated inn owned by the Steiners who, it transpires, have something on their minds. Something lurks in that dark wilderness, an evil force centered on a shunned cave, a force that reaches out to inspire fear. Eventually the extent of its threat comes clear, after intensely atmospheric scenes in the forest, at the dreadful cave, and about the inn by night. Don't seek easy answers to this one, but revel in the emotions generated.

Scholarly Mr. Appleton confronts a furtive haunting in "Dust to Dust", when he moves into the old house after the sudden death of its previous owner. In this modest tale, mysterious messages written in dust portend doom, especially distressing to Mr Appleton when the final message apparently refers to him. This one, the weakest story in the book, is just okay, since it lacks critical motivation for the otherwise quite interesting events.

I award the grand prize in this volume to "The Flabby Men", a shocking Sci-Fi extravaganza. This monumental novelette sets a standard for post-apocalyptic tales; I've never read one better, for it rivals in its stark despair the concluding portions of Philip Wylie's late novel, The End of the Dream. In the aftermath of nuclear war, a handful of pitiful survivors lead ghastly lives in and about the island outpost styled the K4 Research Station. With air, water, ground hopelessly polluted, these few men and fewer women lead squalid lives, their society in shambles, their political system apparently authoritarian, in the hands of a Central Committee. We read of loneliness, monotony, decay, sterility and degeneration, and then something more. The narrator records in harsh detail the agonizing mystery that broods over the island, finally revealing itself to be a threat of supreme awfulness, derived from one's worst nightmares. The Flabby Men, the ultimate nasties of the piece, call to mind certain pernicious aspects of the climax in Copper's frightful novel The Great White Space. I would not recommend this story if one requires a sound night's sleep. If the reader wishes to drown in horror, however, then by all means dive in.

Here Be Daemons (1978)

This British collection, published by Robert Hale, then by St. Martin's in America, offers a grab-bag of generally shorter stories which vary greatly. The subtitle, Tales of Horror and the Uneasy, sum it up fairly well.

"Old Mrs. Cartwright" dislikes her nephew Lionel. The thirteen-year-old behaves improperly, and possesses a strange affinity for animals, as she learns to her cost when she reluctantly accompanies him to the zoo. Terrible things happen on this outing, culminating in a denouement especially painful to old Mrs. Cartwright. A simple story, nothing special, yet handled well.

I love "The Knocker at the Portico". So atmospheric, this tale ripped from the diary of Edward Rayner, "third son of a third son", scholarly, reclusive, married to a much younger woman, increasingly plagued by intangible worries. What means that intrusive, sourceless knocking that increasingly assails his ears; who is this Dr. Spyro who constantly haunts the household and keeps too much company with Jane? Rayner senses the evil closing in on him, will uncover the cause of the creeping madness at any cost. So he does. Enjoy also the clever epilogue.

Call "The Way the World Died" a science fictional fable. In the far future the Earth lies divided among vast warlike powers, save for the peaceful, smiling folk of Zubar. The Chinese ambassador arrives to deliver an ultimatum scant hours prior to an irresistible attack. The defenseless people of Zubar haven't a chance... unless they, all too aware of the nature of the world around them, have concocted a plan that will save their utopia and alter that world forever.

"The Second Passenger": hey, a simple ghost story, properly told according to classic form. We don't see many of these any more. Reginald Braintree and Samuel Briggs, business associates on the outs for years, finally come to blows. Briggs inconveniently dies; Braintree dumps him in the marsh; end of story? Not by a long-shot. Such bitter enmity must survive death.

How about a romping jungle adventure story? These are scarce nowadays, too, but "The Treasure of Our Lady" delivers a novelette's worth of high excitement and daring-do. The raconteur Snatchell, regaling his club, boasts of his exotic expedition into the wildest wilds of south America to seek glorious treasure. He's got the secret map, stout companions, a host of expendable native bearers, all eager for loot and ready to face any peril. They don't expect the menace that awaits them at that temple in the lost city deep in the jungle, one that has guarded the treasure for centuries. This tale is great fun.

"Justice at the Crossroads" is actually a fictional excerpt from Copper's avowedly non-fictional volume, The Vampire: In Legend, Fact, and Art (1975). It works well in the context of that study; standing alone, a rather pedestrian account of ignorance and its ugly consequences.

Poor "Mrs. Van Donk", pathetic heroine of a juicy revenge piece. She's rich, fat, aging, surrounded by those who haven't her happiness at heart. Is she clever enough to pay them back? I'll bet she is. Will that, at last, bring her happiness? Read it and find out. I give her credit for contriving a maliciously neat scheme.

"The Trodes" are coming, in a quirky Sci-Fi tale that is so absolutely Copper, which so often means pure gold. Augusta Bassett takes in her orphaned nephew Guy, soon disapproves of his troublesome hobbies and distastefully lurid reading matter. The boy craves cheap science fiction paperbacks, but the worst of the lot, a pretense at non-fiction, is The Return of the Trodes, which seems to warn of hideous aliens seeking to take back the Earth, once their world. Some pretty strange things start happening in the vicinity. The dutiful and righteous Augusta goes forth to get to the bottom of it all. She finds the truth all right; not one of her better moments.

"The Great Vore" is that rarity with me, a big, in-depth mystery novella, with weird overtones, from Basil Copper that I don't particularly appreciate. That puzzles even me. The author excels at such stories, has mastered the historical mystery-- which this isn't, but it reads like one-- and yet this, despite a strong plot, falls flat. Why do I claim this? I discern two debilitating weaknesses: a massive red herring that occupies the central part of the work, one which I find more atmospheric and intriguing than the final, accurate revelations; and a surprising overuse of coincidence to propel the later developments of the tale. Too bad, since Professor Kane and his pal Edwards (the Holmes and Watson of the piece) are worthy creations, deserving of a worthy vehicle for their exploits. I call "The Great Vore" a major lost opportunity.

Voices of Doom (1980)

A British volume from Robert Hale, then by St. Martin's in America, this is the last of Copper's early collections, and like many published originally one side or other of the pond contains stories already appearing elsewhere: "Charon", "A Very Pleasant Fellow", "The Gossips", and "The Grey House". Along with that welcome assortment we get three more.

In "The House By the Tarn" Kemp, researcher into the bizarre, hears from his colleague Tregorran the appalling tale of the Four Winds, a reputed haunted house built in a lonely spot ages ago by a retired silk merchant. Horror and death overtook that family; Kemp must investigate, face and triumph over the lingering danger. The climax of this one carries slightly less weight than the rest of the story, but it is even more atmospheric in general than "The Grey House", its logical companion piece. Moody, morbid, mysterious: the Four Winds is a scary place.

Speaking of moody, indulge in "The Stranger", a first person account of a man's persecution at the hands of a sinister visitor. Somehow the evil stranger, Blake, insinuates himself into the household, while following a course of macabre, disquieting events the narrator finds himself sealed within an empty wing of his own grand home! His tormentor closes in, as the tragic truth bursts upon the reader. An excellent story, reminiscent of "The Knocking at the Portico".

"The Madonna of the Four-Ale Bar" offers modest fare, of Medwin, depressed salesman, going about his drab life while a murderous thief haunts London. Lusting after a beautiful young woman who frequents the bar, he engineers a meeting with her. Sandra is what all men desire, especially Medwin. Is it really going to happen? Yes, "it" is. Easy to figure out, fun to read.

New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1980)

This Arkham House anthology, edited by Ramsey Campbell, with delightful cover art by Jason Van Hollander, contains an amazing Basil Copper story (one AH anthologized again in Cthulhu 2000 [1995], edited by Jim Turner, with art by Bob Eggleton).

The story is "Shaft Number 247", a peerless study in paranoia. I've written extensively about this piece elsewhere (my Copper essay on "Obsessive Secrecy"), but the plot bears description that the reader may grasp something of its unnerving power. In the far future humanity dwells deep underground in metal chambers, anonymous corridors, and machinery, with life harsh, oppressive, rigidly controlled, empty. This recalls "The Flabby Men", yet is, if anything, worse. Sealed shafts rise up to the forgotten surface, shafts which it is forbidden even to discuss. Too bad, perhaps, for the hero Driscoll, who begins to suspect that something outside is trying to attract attention. Who knows what is out there? Is it worth knowing? Is it, maybe, worth more than Driscoll's life? "Shaft Number 247" is an unwholesomely depressing read, but demanding of perusal by the connoisseur.

Whispers in the Night (1999)

Incredibly, almost two decades passed after Voices of Doom before Basil Copper garnered a new weird collection of his own. During that period he composed striking Gothic mystery novels, had published between hard covers a bunch of Solar Pons tales, numerous short pieces regularly anthologized. The now sorely missed publishing house of Fedogan and Bremer [which I've just heard has resumed publishing; glorious day!] finally brought out this remarkable volume, subtitled Stories of the Mysterious and the Macabre, with an introduction by Stephen Jones, and fantastic artwork throughout by Stephen E. Fabian. The contents are a qualitatively variable grab-bag, but Whispers in the Night offers some of Copper's best.

The collection opens with the morbid charmer "Better Dead", another tale-- harking back to "Amber Print"-- from Basil Copper the movie buff. Joyce, married to Robert the obsessed collector of horror films, is approaching the breaking point. Robert neglects her, to the point that she's taken a man on the side, and the husband thoughtlessly threatens to run them into the ground financially with his maniacal hobby. The crisis comes during a most unusual screening of Bride of Frankenstein. Boris Karloff, one might say, makes a guest appearance.

"Reader, I Buried Him!" marks another chapter in Copper's studies in paranoia, a story let down only by the concluding titular act which, while appropriately horrid certainly, makes no sense in the context of the piece. Otherwise, it's a stunning tale of futuristic horror, the account by Dr. Donald Renwick of his desperate struggles, at a research complex on a remote northern island, to discover the cause of a loathsome vampiric menace overtaking mankind. It's insane, creepy stuff. The drear setting, reminiscent of "The Flabby Men", is very good.

"One For the Pot" doesn't impress me, definitely a lesser tale this, about Miss Sturgess, her tea gatherings with her lady friends, and a poisoner stalking the neighborhood. There are fine possibilities hidden in this one, but I found the execution clumsy. Copper has performed this kind of thing much better.

"Wish You Were Here" is more like it, a leisurely developed haunted house novella with a conclusion I find scary, humorous, and-- sorry to say-- somewhat incomprehensible. The point of it all ultimately escapes me, but I relish the unfolding mystery confronting John Wilson, heir to an ancient estate left him by an elderly aunt who went missing years before. Supported by his fiancee Dierdre and best friend Barry Clissold, he endeavors to keep a stiff upper lip when strange, old-fashioned postcards begin arriving which indicate that an unknown person is slowly approaching for a visit. Who is it? Do these increasingly weird incidents connect to the lost aunt, or another nephew, the original heir, who after death bore an expression "of great shock and horror"? This tale offers plenty of compelling moments and, as is usually the case with Copper, the characters are interesting in and of themselves, well drawn and sympathetically portrayed.

"In a Darkling Wood", another grand novella rich in atmosphere, belongs in the ranks of the author's renowned Gothic mystery novels. Architect Jeffery Claverhouse (his profession recalling John Carter of The Black Death; I approve of his name, there not being enough decent characters sharing mine in fiction) has been jilted by his fiancee Angela, wishes to discuss the matter with best buddy Lawrence Griswold, but bad weather forces his coach to stop in Borminster, where he witnesses the possible kidnapping of a lovely young woman. Unsure of himself at first, his suspicions of foul play crystallize when he stumbles across her bloody corpse. Calling in the local magistrate Jonathan Tyce proves fruitless, for the body disappears; as if this weren't embarrassing enough, the young lady later turns up again, very much alive! What gives? Plenty, in this typically Copperish period tale of Satanism, deceit, and keep looking over your shoulder dread.

As filler we get a dab of juvenile fluff, composed decades before, "The Grass", about two hard cases seeking hidden treasure. They find it, of course, but they really should keep off the grass. It's okay-- no big deal-- mainly interesting as an historical literary curiosity. Most writers, I suppose, keep these in their bottom drawer. It's not bad for a boy's effort.

If you want thrills and chills, read "Riding the Chariot", the story of love-obsessed artist Walter Ainley. He acquires that historic chariot as a prop for paintings of his pretty model Yvonne and his lady love Laurie, only the chariot is haunted, naturally, or Ainley is crazy. No, wait, it's both, a weird mixture of the supernatural and insanity, and the combination delivers a double helping of grue. There's much nasty stuff here.

"Final Destination" is a mood piece with core elements torn from one of history's darkest moments. Sholem confuses reality and dream, images of normal life mixed with impressions of a journey he seems to be taking. He's mislaid his wife Anna, and the arrangements are peculiar, but they've been needing a holiday excursion. Could this be it? Sholem may not grasp the import of his destination, but the reader does.

Somebody will have to straighten me out: is "The Obelisk" one of Basil Copper's worst stories, or one of his best? I incline to the latter, considering how often I've gone back to it, reading and re-reading as I attempt to puzzle through its layers of utter strangeness. I haven't gotten to the bottom of this one yet, but I've enormously enjoyed the effort. After all this time, I still hardly know how to begin fitting together the pieces. Copper explicitly sets the tale in 1927, which by itself, in the context, generates all sorts of head-shaking questions. Richard Anstruther, eighteen year old student, in the midst of a walking tour, arrives in Rye, flees from the rain into a cozy bookshop run by a fetching young woman. On the premises he reads a rare old foreign book, but not before the girl startles him by abruptly kissing him! Then, for a while, the book absorbs him. Concerning the Coming translates Anstruther, written in Latin by the priest Dom Alessandro Peyron. It tells of alien invaders from Kantor who came to our world in Elizabethan times, utilizing a sacred object that renders possible the journey across astronomical distances. The haughty, all powerful beings of Kantor will conquer Earth, or have done so; the book reads more like a zany novel than history, though it presents itself as the latter. Anstruther, while strolling the beach not long afterward, by lunatic coincidence discovers an ominous object buried in the sand. He unintentionally activates it... And so it goes. The aliens invade, our hero wakes from his dream-- oh, it's one of those?-- no, apparently not, for this wildness isn't quite over yet. Well, I haven't figured it out, have even wondered if it were an unfinished tale, a batch of scenes for a planned longer work. That's just an unlikely guess. Read "The Obelisk": it's a hoot!

Copper once more dives into paranoia in the brooding novella "Out There", a monstrous tale in league with "Shaft Number 247". I've discussed this one before (in "Obsessive Secrecy"), but it's worth another synopsis. Conrad Watson, denizen of a bleak, regimented future, gets posted to XK-24, a heavily armed frontier station, a gloomy place of sealed chambers and corridors on the edge of a wrecked civilization. His duty: help guard against what is "out there", only he doesn't really know what the threat is; no one entirely knows, and those who know something aren't talking. The danger mounts-- the enemy has infiltrated the base-- someone must go outside to investigate the signs of increased activity. Unlike "Shaft", this one finally offers some understanding of the situation, but Copper wreathes most of the story in secrecy, suspicion, and horrifying mystery.

The collection ends on a dull note, with "The Summerhouse", a tepid tale of revenge. Belinda suspects her father murdered her mother, does something about it. There's a twist at the end, not, unfortunately, an edifying one.

Cold Hand on My Shoulder (2002)

This extremely limited edition put out by Sarob Press, of Wales, comes with beautifully eerie cover art and interior illustrations by the extraordinarily talented Randy Broecker, and a superb introduction by Richard Dalby. Subtitled Tales of Terror and Suspense, this is a generally excellent collection, rating incredibly high on the imagination scale.

"Death of a Demi-God": big story, strange story, possibly best known for its shocker of a surprise ending. A pretty odd one, I grant, delivered with little explanation. The tale is about vampires, or something like, maybe; it's really weird, creepy beyond belief. The hero Ryan investigates brutal, senseless murders, serves to protect public officials from danger as well. It's hard to grasp the motivation of the threat in this one, but it's horrible enough, perhaps too much for mortal man to face. Poor Ryan has his hands full, with menace and terror assailing him from all quarters.

If "As the Crow Flies" is Basil Copper's idea of a joke, then it's a grisly one, disturbingly told. Doomed Roger Kemp accidentally kills a crow, now finds himself stalked by another which drives him to wit's end. So astonishing are the bird's capabilities that he fears a supernatural influence at work. Fiancee Samantha tries to buck him up, while friend Ralph Spencer supplies helpful knowledge of academic lore that doesn't help. Retribution closes in, soaring on black wings. This story must be read, if only for the humorously horrifying telephone scene at the beach resort.

"Poetic Justice" is a pleasing toss-off, a quickie about the researcher Jenkins, his cruel experiments on animals, and the nasty pay-back he receives at the fangs of one intended victim. It's fine for what it is.

"Bright Blades Gleaming", very similar to "Out of the Fog", tells a moody tale of obsession leading up to the revelation in the end. It's "hero" spends the story dwelling in cheap lodgings, sneering at the world around him, watching young girls, contemplating the "instruments" "necessary for my current tasks". The settings are marvelously detailed, and this portrait of a madman rings true straight to the denouement.

Basil Copper refrains from writing conventional vampire stories, which suits me fine; his unusual takes on the theme always satisfy, and "When Greek Meets Greek" is his best yet, possibly my favorite vampire tale of all time. So much goes on in this one that, as with his paranoia stories, I'm not always sure what's really happening, but every bit of it thrills me. The Englishman Mr. Thompson, vacationing on the Cote d'Azur while he recovers from a serious auto accident, is the typical, well-intentioned Copper hero, taking life easy until he meets up with the Greek magnate Karolides and his ethereally lovely daughter Ravenna. These two characters constitute the finest in the long pageant of the author's creations. They are attractive, charming, educated... deadly. As this lengthy story unfolds the reader begins to realize what Thompson never does until too late, that he has fallen into the clutches of unbelievable peril. Yes, they are vampires, but don't seek here the standard trappings; they operate according to their own rules, slick and savvy, conniving, flattering, playing on their chosen victim's good nature, killing with a smile. I note a truly peculiar aspect of this tale, in the way these beautiful villains toy with their prey, dropping obscurely horrible hints with great subtlety, plaguing the unfortunate Mr. Thompson with nagging doubts as they murder him with kindness. Some of their antics beat my understanding, but I love every minute of it.

"Ill Met By Daylight" is a rock solid ghost story about the travails of Mr. Grant, architect called in to help restore ancient St. Ulric's Church. Horror begins to shadow him with the mere sighting of a shabby old man, then escalates to virulent proportions. Before it is over Mr. Grant faces death or worse at the hands of a lingering evil emanating from a shunned tomb. The ending, in its nastiness, recalls that of "The Grey House".

"Charing Cross-- Dover-- Charing Cross" is one of those surprise stories that aren't really, yet can be enjoyed for its well written spookiness, with more than a dash of humor. Greedy Mr. Galbraith commutes daily to work, begins to find that experience a terrifying ordeal. Why is quickly obvious, but it's a fun read.

"Line Engaged", a title which ultimately assumes ugly meaning, is a nifty thriller about the great deceased author Edward Marsh, his widow Dierdre, and the man (who narrates the piece) she calls in to write his biography. It turns out there was a lot more to the late Mr. Marsh than most people realized. Behind all the public fame and esteem the hero discovers a mountain of vile secrets, with perhaps the worst relating to the manner of Marsh's death.

The collection ends on a thunderous note, with one of Basil Copper's rare Lovecraftian works, in this case the nausea-filled novella "Beyond the Reef", his sequel to the Master's "The Shadow Over Innsmouth". It's definitely his own take on the Innsmouth theme. Copper packs everything into this one, including a somewhat Derlethian finale which doesn't quite manage to detract from the whole. Certainly the individual scenes are magnificent. It's a big, sprawling story, set mostly in Arkham in the year 1932, where hideous events, instigated from shunned Innsmouth, accrue with fiendish rapidity. Jefferson Holroyd, "scholar and scientist", has hideous tales to tell, until the slimy horrors close in on him. Stuffy Dr. Darrow, Dean of Miskatonic University, investigates the squamous signs of approaching evil, as do the surveyor Andrew Bellows and Dr. Lancaster, and the efficient Captain of Detectives Oates. Despite police involvement, what they uncover can't be dealt with according to protocol, for they face, of course, monstrous foes other than human. As Lovecraftian pastiches go (all too often a sorry lot, an issue I've discussed in the essay "My Favorite Lovecraft") this one excels in atmosphere and the generation of deliciously sordid frights. Some of the horrors alluded to in this one recall those of Copper's weird novel, Into the Silence.

Knife In the Back (2005)

This last of Copper's original collections, subtitled Tales of Twilight and Torment, is unfortunately the least as well, not only a very slim volume, but one containing few stories, in proportion, of his usual caliber. Of some interest is the fact of its publication by Cauchemar in a still more limited edition, this of only 150 signed copies. It would already be difficult to find one.

"There Lies the Danger" is a workmanlike tale of medical experiments gone wrong. Aging novelist Joshua Arkwright learns of a fabulous treatment that restores youth, will pay anything to receive it. This he does, at the hands of the learned Professor Conrad Voss, and it really works... so long as one behaves sensibly.

"Death of a Nobody" is a non-weird tip of the hat to the pathetic end of a giant of the weird arts. It's okay for what it is.

"Reflections" is more to my taste, another enjoyable plunge into strange hauntings, this time centered around an antique mirror. Wealthy Mr. Parkinson purchases it for a high price from the high end shop, has it carefully restored as an ornament for his upscale apartment. While his antiquarian friend Alistair Collins investigates its provenience, Parkinson finds that his beautiful fashion model girlfriend Monika doesn't care for it. Woman's intuition, big deal, only he ought to listen to her, for he's acquired more than he bargained for: nightmarish horror. Before it's all over friend Collins has provided a tantalizing clue to the meaning of the grim festivities. This is a fine story, missing greatness only because Monika-- another of those wonderful Copper ladies-- drops out after a while, when she ought to have played a major role in the conclusion.

"The White Train", very good, harks back to "Final Destination", but is the better story. Reclusive and unpleasant Emil Hoppner (obviously a man with something to hide) suffers from a recurrent dream involving a mysterious train and its strange passengers. As the dreams continue they increasingly torment him, suggesting that terror awaits at the destination. That it does.

"Hunted By Wolves", a very minor story, tells of a soldier stalked by those creatures. There's a hint of a futuristic setting to this one. Anyway, the reader learns that the deadliest wolves may walk on two legs.

"The Candle In the Skull" is a fun story of cruel justice. Kathy, an odd little girl, prepares for Halloween, while her father Martin prepares to murder his wife Charlotte in favor of his mistress Janet. Martin carries through his cunning scheme, but he's overlooked one thing: while she may be strange, Kathy is remarkably clever.

"Storm Over Stromjolly" is a surprisingly poor story, in fact a complete dud. The wretched narrator, tormented throughout his adult life by the vile Hubbard, finally decides on revenge. Unfortunately the finale falls to pieces, so completely (despite the trivial twist) as to ruin the entire tale.

Nor do I wholly appreciate "The Silver Salamander", and for a similar reason, in this case what seems an obscure ending. It has a great plot for a thriller: Compton, carrying on an affair with the beautiful Joyce, needs a major operation, and by crazy coincidence the doctor who will perform surgery is Appleyard... Joyce's husband. Interesting possibilities, I'd say, and it's well done, but the murky aspects of the conclusion pull it down.

Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth (2005)

Fedogan and Bremer produced this anthology, with an introduction by Stephen Jones and art by the quartet of Randy Broecker, Les Edwards, Bob Eggleton, and Allan Servoss. Of immediate interest is the inclusion of Basil Copper's "Voices In the Water". This tale follows the now typical pattern of successful professional acquiring an old house that's haunted, the sort of story Copper handles so well. This one is no exception. Artist Roberts buys the ancient mill, with a stream running under it, plans to make a home of it for himself and wife Gilda. Best friend Kent lives nearby, so all should be well. Unfortunately, there are other players in this drama, for as Roberts says, "There's something in the water". Right enough; what isn't entirely clear, and I would expect more background substance to the haunting, but it's really horrible. Also, I require clarification concerning the incident of the young couple intruding at the party, which doesn't seem wholly connected. Nevertheless, this story delivers loads of spooky atmosphere.

Don't Turn Out the Light (2005)

This anthology, introduced by Stephen Jones, with artwork by Les Edwards and Randy Broecker, contains "Queen Bee" by Basil Copper. It's practically a remake of "As the Crow Flies", but a good one. The hapless hero Carter, annoyed to fury by a pesky, and more than natural, queen bee, makes the (in this kind of story) hideous mistake of killing it. He failed to consider that a queen bee possesses a swarm of subjects, in this case extremely angry ones. There's something weirdly beyond the norm about them as well. Neither his learned friend Grimshaw nor the pest control man can save Carter, as he learns at the excruciating climax.

Observations

My task is done, as I set it for myself, yet brief remarks are in order concerning certain patterns found throughout the short story corpus of Basil Copper. I itemize them as follows:

1) One may detect in Copper's tales an old fashioned quality, harking back to the works of James and other important British writers of the weird. His settings are rural estates, country houses, old manors, refuges from modernity. Many of his most horrific productions develop in very pleasant places, or what appear to be so.

2) Copper's heroes are typically fine folks; decent, successful, educated, often professionals, they radiate confidence in a basically good world, of which they form sound pillars, or at least significant survivals. They get together at tea-time to discuss weighty issues, including the evil supernatural. They're usually quite likeable, of generous natures, unprepared to face or accept nastiness.

3) The first two points lead directly to this: Copper's weirdness constitutes an assault on personal and social goodness, an evil intrusion that spoils or destroys the value of that goodness. Evil is an outside force breaking in, rather than (as in many contemporary tales) an inherent product of festering squalor or moral decay. The victims in these stories (other than in the revenge pieces) rarely receive their just desserts: they are victims, outraged against, to be pitied.

4) The futuristic tales of Basil Copper unfailingly present worlds loathsome and degenerate, permeated by misery, despair, and fear. May this suggest the culmination of the broadest pattern of all, one of a downward human trajectory into pure horror and madness? This I glean from his writings, despite notable exceptions. The modern age, I think he says, is less than what came before it, at least what came immediately before; the future shall be revoltingly less than now.

Horrors stemming from the more distant past don't obviate these observations. I sense a pinnacle of mankind underlying so many of these works, a rising away from brutish creepiness, then-- in these times-- a falling off, into the filthy abyss of the future.

5) Copper composes stories rich in atmosphere and characterization. His best can be read as blueprints for the literary manifestation of dread, unease, and down to earth scariness. He often takes his time constructing his spooky environments and characters, causing the stories to run long, but this approach usually pays satisfying dividends.

Offhand, I can't think of anybody who currently writes the way Basil Copper does. I note that with great sadness. I'm eager for more tales of his tormented architects, circumspect rectors, independently wealthy investigators, also his hapless functionaries of tomorrow. The horrid perils he creates inspire my imagination. There is a uniqueness to Basil Copper which I miss in so many of his contemporaries. I submit that much gold may be mined from a perusal of these stories.


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