H.P. Lovecraft has much to answer for. Almost single-handedly he created a sub-section of the weird genre, commonly called the Mythos tale, which he came close to single-handedly mastering. The occasional weaknesses in his story telling seldom mar the awesome power of his conceptions, nor lessen their profound influence. Every important writer of the strange since Lovecraft has been affected by him; every such author has at least dabbled in the Lovecraftian form. Unfortunately the results are routinely lacking. It is virtually impossible to mistake a tale by Lovecraft for one of his imitators, no matter how earnest they may be in copying his themes or style. Attempts at imitating his short stories are legion; the number of Mythos works has crested, at a wild guess, ten billion or so by now... or something. I don't know, but it's a lot, and most of them are pretty puerile. That's odd, for in a way Lovecraft's format is so simple: he sets out to frighten us with fear of the cosmic unknown. Why do his literary fans, including the biggest names in the business, so often get him wrong? I don't have an answer.
If the short story tributes of his fellows tend to come across as warmed over hash, the sporadic attempts at the Lovecraftian novel really screw up the recipe, leading time and again to laughable or pitiful results. Here one may more profoundly sympathize. Lovecraft's single work approaching novel length in the Mythos line, At the Mountains of Madness, is hardly an unalloyed triumph itself. It reads like a puffed up short story, being incredibly verbose ("To be brief", he writes, after paragraphs of tedious foreshadowing), with the same stick figures for characters, and an ending which makes for a terrible let-down of a long piece, one that admittedly just might have served for a short one. Despite these apparently harsh judgments it's a good story, with plenty of the author's typical thrills, but I would never advocate it as a model for the modern Mythos novel.
Mythos novels show a regrettable tendency to flow in the Derlethian vein, with heroic occult researchers lobbing magical amulets and dynamite at conventionally evil monsters. Or they are written more in reaction to Lovecraft, weighed down with repellent characters, political correctness, or other tricks of the post-modernist trendy trade. Sometimes I think there is hardly anybody who even tries to get it right.
Basil Copper tries to get it right. He presents us with this novel, The Great White Space, published in 1974, which incorporates practically every Lovecraft "wannabe's" mistake, and a few derived from the master himself... but he tries, and the result more nearly approaches the apparently impossible goal than that of anyone before or since. Indeed, his stab at a long work of this kind better satisfies than that of his august mentor.
Set in 1933, the story is presented as an account by Frederick Plowright decades later. He harks back to his days as a commercial photographer, an adventursome fellow prone to working in strange places under strange conditions (the title of his motion picture documentary: To the Ends of the Earth) who, as a result of his professional and personal reputation is called upon by an American scholar to take part in his most daring yet expedition. Secretive Professor Clark Ashton Scarsdale offers him "the adventure of a lifetime".
What Scarsdale proposes is a journey to a remote region-- its whereabouts cloaked under the misleading designation, the Great Northern Expedition, intended to confuse outsiders-- where lies the vaguely described Great White Space, which he suspects is the focus of weird cosmic events impinging upon our world and possibly threatening it. The previous year Scarsdale attempted the trip with inadequate means, failed to gain his ends, now means to do it right. Scarsdale's scientific team, gathered for training and preparation at a rented English estate, include his respected rival Van Damm, along with colleagues Prescott and Holden. These five men, when ready, will venture around the world, delving into ancient lands and wilderness, eventually reaching and exploring a series of mysterious caverns.
This they do. Incredibly well equipped by the standards of 1933, they travel in remarkable tank-like tractor vehicles to the lovely archaic city of Zak, where they pick up as guide the dwarf Zalor, an unpleasant fellow obviously up to no good. Following a long motorized trek across country to the lesser village of Nylstrom-- at the edge of what passes for civilization in those parts-- Zalor attempts to sabotage the expedition, is forestalled but escapes. The team of five continues on into the bleak Plain of Darkness, concerned by disquieting portents associated with Zalor and his unfathomable hostility.
Arriving at the towering Black Mountains, the expedition spends days driving into fearsomely difficult country, until at last they attain their immediate goal, the astonishing gateway to the caverns, an opening 500 feet high carved by unknown builders in eras lost to history. A menacing inscription in stone, translated by Scarsdale, bodes ill for their safety. Nevertheless they proceed, in two of their inexhaustible, battery-powered vehicles, into the underground world of perpetual darkness.
They travel for dozens of miles along an obviously artificial corridor, with numerous creepy openings in the walls. During this run they make a frightful discovery, coming upon the dead body of Zalor, in such condition that Holden suffers distress akin to temporary insanity, and is never quite himself again. This grim puzzle perplexes: how did Zalor get ahead of them, and what reduced him to that hideously violated corpse? After this Plowright seldom questions the large amount of armaments the professor insisted on carrying.
In time they come to the limits of Scarsdale's earlier exploration, exiting from the tunnel into a vast cavern chamber, really a subterranean world, illuminated by dim phosphorescence. A sullen lake bars the way, but Scarsdale has come equipped with rubber rafts. Abandoning the vehicles, the team paddle across with all the gear they can haul. As they cross they first hear the sound of a distant pulsation, a curious and disturbing sound ever afterward with them. Having crossed, the spookiness of the novel intensifies, the weirdness mounting spectacularly.
On the far shore they quickly confront another vast portal like that at the entrance to the caverns, and beyond it, up a long flight of huge steps designed for feet other than human, they enter a cyclopean hall lined with big jars. Opening one, they're sickened and fascinated by the loathsome, insectoid corpse that pours out. Investigation reveals that other jars are similarly occupied.
Leaving what they term the "embalming gallery", they trek on to an ancient city of cubic stone, perfectly preserved but utterly abandoned. This awesome place is known to Scarsdale and Van Damm from their arcane studies, being the legendary city of Croth. Everything about it is weird, including the obvious implication that it was never a human habitation.
From this point the aspect of menace looms large. While most of the group investigates beyond the city, Holden, left behind to guard the camp, experiences a ghastly adventure on his own. Something creeps through the city toward him; he catches a glimpse of it; the brain-stunning sight causes him to let loose with his machine gun. His comrades rush to his aid, but by then the apparition has vanished, albeit leaving behind a slimy, stinking trail. The expedition carries on, making for the spooky pulsating sound, smothered in fear.
They enter a new tunnel, advancing again in pitch darkness past a maze of side passages, until the pulsation mounts to a mighty throbbing, and a strange light once more pervades the gloom. There Holden unexplainably collapses. With Van Damm left to care for him, the remaining trio approach with consternation and awe the region which is no less than the fabled Great White Space.
I will not go into the details here of the extended climax. They do reach the Great White Space, and what they find there, and the horrors lying in wait for them, make for grand terror and excitement.
Copper sets out to produce a plainly Mythos novel, while avoiding the elementary mistake of choking his story with Lovecraftian terms and beasties. We do not meet Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth in these pages, nor any of the master's popular characters. Instead we get a tale steeped in the Lovecraftian milieu, sufficiently so, I should think, to please the hard-core fan.
What are the traditional or standard elements of the Mythos story? My less than exhaustive list might include: 1) a monstrous mystery reaching out to us from space and time; 2) scholarly souls bent on penetrating the mystery; 3) odd works of forgotten lore that hint at astonishing revelations; 4) hideous discoveries than bring more horror than knowledge; 5) realization of man's essentially feeble position in the grand scheme of things. Copper attempts to provide all of these in his work, seasoning the whole with the generalities of Lovecraft's form, rather than the over-used particulars.
1) The underlying mystery does honor to Lovecraft, who could have conceived something similar on his own. Strange signs in the skies, curious inscriptions found in remote parts of the earth, and the murky wisdom buried in ancient tomes convince Professor Scarsdale that something from the measureless beyond has impinged upon the human world, with more to come, and that it is man's duty to learn as much as possible about developing events before it is too late. This forms the framework of the tale, justifies all that follows. The reader never forgets that gigantic possibilities, and possible danger, lurk ahead of our heroes.
2) Copper sends a seemingly strong team to do battle with ignorance and whatever else may try to block their path. Clark Ashton Scarsdale ( his name a charming nod to Lovecraft's equally great friend), his scientific specialty unstated, is an intellectual powerhouse and fine leader of so important an endeavor, so much so that his men willingly follow him blindly into exotic and incredible peril. His right-hand man, Dr. Cornelius Van Damm, is an electrical engineer well versed in geology and metallurgy. Norman Holden is an historian and radio expert, Geoffrey Prescott a linguist, Egyptologist, and map-maker. The narrator Frederick Seddon Plowright ( a complicated, old-fashioned name recalling some of Lovecraft's characters; for instance, Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee), in addition to his calling as freelance photographer of note, is described as a daring man of strength and action, the perfect choice to round out the group.
3) Scarsdale brings with him two works, to which the novel infrequently alludes: The Ethics of Ygor (Copper is a big fan of horror movies from the Golden Age) and The Trone Tables. Neither text is quoted, but it's obvious they contain awesome indications pertaining to matters at hand. At several points in the narrative weird discoveries confirm the claims hidden in these ancient volumes.
4) As often the case in Lovecraft's classic tales, very little is definitively learned about the ultimate goal of the expedition, and that little delivers only terror and death. We are left with lingering suspicions, vile possibilities, outrageous surprises; dread, sadness over the ghastly outcome.
5) Plowright, speaking to us in the present, is a broken old man, his life destroyed by the enormity of what he has experienced, his mind crushed by the thought of the horrors that fester beyond the ken of man. The signs are multiplying again, and he quavers in fear when he weakly speculates on what the future may deal mankind. He cannot bear to ponder the powers and entities that hold sway in the universe, whose actions, callous or cruel, may in the end encompass our destruction.
Atmosphere-- atmosphere-- ATMOSPHERE! I ought to write that word again, lest I fall into error and minimize the point. Atmosphere reigns as king in the Mythos tale; without it, no matter what other factors employed, we have a pale, watery, gruel-ish imitation. Those less well read may be forgiven for imagining that Basil Copper invented the notion, for he heaps it into his story by the bucket. He possesses a marvelous affinity for the concept of "place", penning scenery around his characters which establishes a peculiar sense of the real, and in the very descriptions propelling the novel forward into deepening darkness. Each place, efficiently developed, adds to the mounting strangeness, the spreading pall of gloom, that pervade the tale and renders it close to unique, certainly among well-intentioned disciples of Lovecraft.
The Pines, a Georgian manor in Surrey, is Scarsdale's rented headquarters during the preparation of the expedition, the most prosaic of the novel's set-pieces, yet which takes us quickly into the realm of the unusual. It's a place of strange futuristic machines and amusing tea trolleys, of old oil paintings and a curious sand-table map of an unknown region that tantalizes with what it portrays, what it hints, and what it conceals.
With the expedition in progress, having departed from those areas readily known to travelers, Copper leads the reader to the quaint, antique cities of Zak and Nylstrom, milestones at the mere fringe of the weird. These are the kinds of places found in delightfully old copies of National Geographic: impressive Zak, a walled town with monumental palace, lovely buildings and homes, picturesque if stolid inhabitants and relatively jolly ruler, the Mir; squalid Nylstrom, with its brick hovels clustered about an isolated oasis, its poor but friendly people dwelling at the edge of a bleak, shunned wilderness of lifeless desert sand and stone. Beside offering locales for modest plot developments, these locations offer a taste of the exotic, clarifying that our travelers are passing from the conventional world into a stranger one, yet only a portent of the strangeness to come.
The journey across the Plain of Darkness and into the Black Mountains sets the tone for the rest of the book. We have left any kind of civilization, any hope of outside aid, plunging into the grim, desolate unknown. Through black volcanic ash and rocky crags the adventurers drive forward, the terrain closing in on them as they advance, the barren images ever more unsettling and unwelcoming. This roadless drive in the expedition's custom-made tractors culminates high in the mountains, where they confront the stupendous, the impossible doorway to the caverns, that gigantic portal opening onto blackest mystery.
Everything to this juncture constitutes preparatory exercises for what follows. Passing through that terrible gate, the explorers cruise through dozens of miles of arid, lightless tunnel. Copper emphasizes the oppressiveness of the environment, its eternal darkness cut briefly by headlights and searchlights, weapons trained to the fore at stops; eerie side passages leading to who knows where and what; the endless surfaces of-- as they come to realize-- worked stone going on and on, the unnerving monotony of this leg of the journey broken only by the repellent finding of Zalor's desiccated corpse, first spied as a meaningless but disturbing glimpse of white far ahead on the tunnel floor, at the limit of the vehicle lighting. Then comes the great phosphorescent cavern with its lifeless sea, this chamber of subterranean twilight and its sterile waters being contrasted unpleasantly with the natural world of sunlight so hopelessly far away.
By this time the artificial nature of this gloomy kingdom has been grasped by all, characters and readers, so when the expedition cross the misty sea into regions that Scarsdale avers as unknown even to him, we are prepared for weird and ominous discoveries. The two most important segments of this last major leg of the journey are the embalming gallery with its freakishly preserved dead monsters, and the enormous and completely strange city of Croth. Described in considerable detail, these locations appear in the story mainly to enhance the feeling of distancing from the norm, of entering a region where the unexplained and the awful must be accepted as commonplace. Croth, especially, hints of amazing prehistoric wonders: a vast metropolis of blunt stone shapes, its boundaries unguessable, now entirely abandoned, yet once thriving far beneath the earth's surface, a place so wholly strange that something about its structure induces odd optical illusions (vaguely akin to R'lyeh in "The Call of Cthulhu"). The monolithic images, in near darkness, are accompanied by that distant pulsating noise, practically the only sound to be heard in all that under-world. Croth is as dead as a place can be; however, it is there that the first direct evidence of lurking living things assails the party.
Atmosphere drives this story relentlessly to its conclusion. I will treat later with the climax at The Great White Space. Suffice to say that these scenes haunt; they disturb; they frighten, causing us to quail at what lies past the turn of the page. This is why the novel works as well as it does. At every step we know that fresh and greater horrors approach-- we are never allowed to forget it-- and from the beginning we know it is already too late to escape.
It pleases me that Copper's atmospheric prowess serves him so well here, for the standard framework of fiction-- plot-- is in this case rather discordant and disjointed at times. Is it just me, or is this a recurrent problem with Lovecraftian works, including the originals? At the beginning of this essay I presented my variable opinion of At the Mountains of Madness; but don't other classics, such as "The Call of Cthulhu", "The Dunwich Horror", or "The Whisperer in Darkness", also stumble over logical conundrums or difficulties of suspending belief in small matters? I shudder to suggest this heresy, yet I would think that all the best ones emphasize atmosphere over believability, occasionally the former at the expense of the latter.
Of course the basic story contained in The Great White Space suits a tale of terror, especially one inspired by Lovecraft. The premise, however, does not always justify the details. Consider this randomly chosen list of items, none of which are logically woven into the narrative: 1) the dwarf Zalor's hostility, and his subsequent demise; 2) the embalming gallery; 3) the city of Croth; 4) Holden's illness; 5) the nature of Professor Scarsdale. For the moment, I leave aside the last case.
1) Who is Zalor, what does he want, what motivates him? I love him being there, but how does he factor into the scheme? Conjecture comes easy to the Lovecraftian fan, but some explication would help.
2) The dead grasshopper men of the embalming gallery leave a wonderfully nasty taste, but how do they signify?
3) Likewise, where the importance of the creepy city of Croth? These two frightful episodes take up a big chunk of the book, yet nothing logically generates from the lengthy descriptions of these places.
4) What happened to Holden to cause his breakdown? Speculation within the story is feeble, without is hopelessly undirected. Relevant facts are missing. He really appears to have contracted a disease, rather than merely being ground down by his ordeal, but we can only guess what disease, or how he caught it. Also, his physical collapse strikes remarkably fast.
There's more to puzzle. The journey into the caverns, incorporating many long pauses for investigation, is so minutely described that the reader may account for every hour of that journey. Plowright's mad dash from the Great White Space, on the other hand, while only vaguely documented, appears to require far longer to cover the same ground. Try as I might, I can't match up the twin treks. An error on the part of the author, which should have been caught in proofreading, or a hazy attempt to suggest a near psychotic state, indicative of wanderings and flounderings never mentioned; these, or something other? I don't know.
I also don't know why this novel is written as a period piece. Yes, of course it's a bow to Lovecraft, setting the tale within his own chronology, and the period aspects work fine. Copper, in his continuation of August Derleth's Solar Pons stories and his Gothic mysteries, has proven he's very good at that. Still, this factor leads to questions. We're assured that the expedition is immediately mandatory, for terrible events are in the offing... yet they aren't. We're reading the account decades later-- nothing has transpired-- Plowright futilely speculates that something may occur soon. May or may not; what aid could the expedition have delivered mankind?
I do know this odd jumbling of elements confounds my analysis. At this point I should state: the individual scenes and occurrences are masterful, but the whole totals to less than the sum of its parts. The problem is that's not what happens. The whole surmounts its parts, deliciously so, but logic tells me it shouldn't. What gives?
The answer is-- I'm merely taking a stab at this-- that the finest Lovecraftian works succeed best at the emotional level. They transcend logic; that's the point, or part of the point. Sure, Wilmarth in "Whisperer" is an impossible dolt, but doesn't his stupidity lead us to delirious horror? The finish of "Cthulhu" appears to trample on the world-shaking possibilities repeatedly alluded to in that tale, but without the continued existence of mankind, we'd never learn the story of what happened one day on that mysterious island, and that scene justifies everything. Likewise Copper wishes to entertain us with terror, and throws in whatever it takes to get the job done. Each moment of raised hackles counts as a success, however he gets us to that morbidly energized state.
I won't use this argument to justify weaknesses, though. I do have two serious cavils with this novel.
I don't like Plowright. He's my least favorite character in the book. In fact, at times he makes me draw up. Even his name irks. He grates on me, though, in the main, because he's so utterly not what he's originally cracked up to be.
At his initial meeting with Scarsdale, it's made clear that he's chosen to join the expedition because of his daring track record, his bravery, his strength, his competence. No sooner has his character been created than the other shoe drops, and we're tossed a pathetically different man. Plowright is introspective, self critical to the point of induced paralysis, a bit stupid, and laughably incompetent. He can't do anything right, can't even drive without more than his share of special training. I suppose he takes good pictures, but that's all. Otherwise he's nearly a fifth wheel, tragically unsuited to confront or comprehend peril. He hardly opens his mouth without betraying stunning ignorance, often in the face of the obvious. He comes off pitifully in his fight with little Zalor.
As much as I recoil from the result, I think I see what's going on here. Copper means to reproduce the weak-livered heroes of so many Lovecraft stories, most of them armchair scholars unable to stand abuse, more prone to fainting than fighting. Very well, if Copper gave us that character, but he ostensibly did not. I don't believe in Plowright. By comparison, the strengths and weaknesses among the rest of the party completely satisfy me. I believe in them.
Maybe at times Copper attempts in this novel to mimic the minutiae of the Lovecraftian form too closely; I notice there aren't any girls. If so, he certainly isn't the first. Only this one issue, though, and the following, seriously get under my skin.
(To those who have not yet read this book, I give fair warning: peruse not beyond this point!)
The climax and conclusion of this novel are chaotic in every sense, throwing up wild action and horrendous shocks in profusion; also, they contain the best and worst portions of the entire story. Our heroes, naturally, eventually make their way to The Great White Space (Naturally, I write; oh why, why didn't Lovecraft, in his novel of this kind, lead us to the dead wonders of the Old Ones' last city? I hungered for that.), see with stunned human eyes that gateway to the universe and behold in crazed horror the nightmares issuing from it or lurking nearby. They end up engaged in battle with the vile entities, blasting away with their guns and lobbing grenades in a fashion much too Derlethian for my taste. Still, if one demands of a Lovecraftian story grotesque monsters and soul-sickening danger, this is, in the end, the right story, one that packs a walloping punch.
We receive a lunatic's kaleidoscope of impressions, sights, sounds, smells; perhaps especially smells. At the rim of The Great White Space death awaits, and worse than death. Also ready to pounce is a devastating and incomprehensible surprise.
Here's the point, the biggest pay-off and the biggest puzzle: who or what is Clark Ashton Scarsdale? Apparently he's "ONE OF THEM!", certainly by his final appearance to Plowright either a wholly non-human being or taken over by one of them. The distinction doesn't matter; what does is when the transformation occurred.
One aspect of the last scene, maniacally described to us, indicates that the transformation is of long standing, most likely dating from Scarsdale's previous solo journey into the caverns. The very fact of that former journey-- otherwise rather unnecessary to the plot-- provides a minimal foreshadowing of the loathsome finale. So far, so good.
Unfortunately, nothing-- nothing-- else in the novel connects to this revelation, and a great deal appears to contradict it. Scarsdale's account of his earlier trek, and his failure then to achieve his objective, rings true, makes proper sense in the context of the plot. Also his behavior, throughout, is perfectly human, absolutely believable, without even trivial indications that he conceals a gigantic personal secret from his comrades. Van Damm, bear in mind, never notices anything out of the ordinary or altered about his old colleague. To top off all of this, Scarsdale's injuries just prior to his exposure are consistent (indeed, otherwise unexplainable) with something having just happened to him shortly before... not long ago.
What do we do with this? Understand it as a nod to Lovecraft (the parallel to "Whisperer" is obvious), more so August Derleth, with his penchant for thrumming italics-- in this case screaming capitals-- in the last line? Accept it as a dose of weird illogic to emphasize the insanity of the moment? Write it off as an authorial slip, a whim of the writer? I've often wondered why Copper has never been asked about this, or if he has, why I never heard of it.
Lacking information, I could pretend to myself that Plowright's curious revelation marks an eruption of true mania; weird as is the truth, his fevered mind conjures more. I don't buy that for a minute. We're meant to believe him. I fear it's a case of clumsiness in the climax.
There is something more, occasionally mentioned in the story, referred to again toward the end: Plowright, though desperate to warn humanity of its appalling danger, deliberately withholds vital information, rendering his pleas indistinguishable from foaming at the mouth ranting. I could have addressed this topic under my Plowright heading, except that the issue transcends the character. The presumed need for secrecy is blandly accepted by all concerned, even when lack of knowledge threatens life and limb. Van Damm exhibits some querulous tendencies, but even he goes along with the deliberate shroud of ignorance; besides, he knows more than most anyway.
Plowright is definitely the worst. He learns a sinister fact about Zalor, senselessly withholds it. After all the years have passed, he refuses to reveal the whereabouts of the caverns, although confirmation of their existence would quickly prove his claims. This point especially strikes me, because the locale is fairly well defined in relation to the unique habitations of Zak and Nylstrom. Those may be fake names, but Plowright never says so, and his detailed descriptions of them could not, I would imagine, correspond to any other places on earth. Why doesn't Plowright give us the geographical coordinates, or why can't others figure them out?
This sounds really picky, I guess, and probing too far into the logic of a story like this is tantamount to smashing it, but I raise the point because this literary oddity recurs often in the works of Basil Copper. He, or his characters, tend to delight in obsessive secrecy. This harks back to Lovecraft, to a degree, yet goes much farther. It's ubiquitous enough (for similar examples consult, among others: Into the Silence, The House of the Wolf, The Black Death, "Reader, I Buried Him!") that I can't dismiss it as a passing flaw. It's intentional, it means something in the author's world view... and I simply don't get it.
This possible digression aside, my only real qualms with the conclusion of The Great White Space are the over-Derlethed rock'em-sock'em action scenes and the blurry logic surrounding Scarsdale's fate. Lest I mislead, let me state that otherwise it's a gripping and fitting culmination to an epic Lovecraftian tale of this magnitude and grandeur.
Perhaps I have analyzed this book-- intended as a thrilling adventure, and nothing more-- way beyond its depth. If so, I can live with that, since I do it because the tale fastened onto me when I first read it and, through numerous re-readings, has never let go. Its tentacles of pure horror caught me, and I can't win free. Isn't that a good sign? So few perpetrations in the manner of Lovecraft do that to me. I confess that most draw from me an "eh", followed by a permanent casting aside of the dismal volume. This one didn't do that. For all of its flaws, I treat The Great White Space as a blueprint for how a longer Lovecraftian work can be designed.
As long as I live I will imagine myself crouching alone in the twilight city of Croth, anxiously watching a shadowy thing creeping up on me. The reading freezes my blood; the actuality would kill me on the spot! I'll see a long, oily trunk feeling around a rocky corner, hear that evil pulsation thudding across miles of age-old chambers, whiff the nauseous stench of putrefying trails of slime. This stuff scares me. That's what it's supposed to do.
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