BASIL COPPER'S USE OF OBSESSIVE SECRECY

by Jeffery Scott Sims

Introduction

A thread runs through many of the strange tales of Basil Copper, one of rampant secrecy, of information withheld or denied, of evidence concealed or outright destroyed, which imparts or enhances a paranoiac tone to those stories. Copper fabricates these circumstances again and again, so there can be no question as to his intentions; these creative acts are deliberate, and the way he goes about them often unique. The effects on his stories vary wildly: at times this device serves to accentuate the weirdness of the plot, charging the atmosphere with even more creepiness; on the other hand, less satisfactory occasions arise in which the employment of this literary mechanism fosters questions, perhaps needless ones. The issue crops up in my earlier essay on The Great White Space. Here I wish to explore the theme as it rears within a number of his works.

Conventional Secrecy: Solar Pons and His Kin

The use of secrecy, as it pertains to the standard tale of detection-- of which Copper has written dozens-- even in exceptional form requires no special explanation. Fans of the genre "get it" right away. Without secrecy, there is no mystery. The detective hero spends the story unraveling the secret, normally leading to the unmasking of crime or evil doings. That's what the story is all about. Secrecy must be long maintained, or chipped at by degrees, in order to maintain the thrills. All of Copper's Gothic mysteries, by the way, are essentially detective stories, the antagonists-- however monstrous their schemes-- simply larger than life criminals, who naturally operate within the shadows. They keep secrets because they must in order to further their dastardly deeds.

Often the hero keeps secrets of his own, a characteristic variously justified. Solar Pons, for instance, routinely informs us that he dreads the consequences of error on his part, therefore withholds his conclusions from Dr. Parker or the authorities until he is absolutely sure. Here the plot device continues to serve the same function; as a practical point Copper holds back critical information not from the characters, but the reading audience, who must be kept in the dark until the big finale. Taken with a grain of salt, the method works well. We know that all will be properly revealed in the end.

This serves in other than detective stories. Professor Deems, of Into the Silence, has professional reasons for hiding his ideas: they sound so crazy that no one, including his own staff, will take him seriously until he can support claims with proof. It's a variant of the same theme, one that Pons would appreciate.

Conventional secrecy gets pushed to its limit in Necropolis, where the marvelous detective hero Clyde Beatty (why didn't we ever see him again, outside that minuscule reference in The House of the Wolf?) ropes in Scotland Yard and the local constabulary to support him in his climactic moves against the villains, somehow managing to avoid in the process providing them with significant information until the exciting finish with its definitive revelations. The hard-nosed reader might ask how he gets away with that as long as he does, considering the magnitude of the cooperation he seeks. The plot element, quite heavy-handed here, just gets by this time, again because Beatty is expected to explain all immediately the bad guys drop into his sack. Perhaps his excellent reputation, a la Pons, eases the minds of his compatriots.

Not Meant to Know

Copper utilizes another popular form of secrecy, that dealing with mysteries considered too dangerous or disquieting for widespread dissemination. In this typically Lovecraftian gambit, arcane knowledge is treated as so threatening or offensive that it must be kept in charge solely by specialists or similarly prepared minds, who supposedly know best how to handle the shocking insights for the good of humanity. Without surprise, Copper's homage to Lovecraft, The Great White Space, casually accepts this premise. Professor Scarsdale, embarking upon his expedition into the heart of Mythos darkness, suspects much, thinks it vital to learn more-- the safety of the world possibly hangs in the balance-- all the while taking elaborate precautions against the great unwashed becoming privy to his daring speculations. Presumably Scarsdale, had his team not met such a grisly fate, had plans for rationing his discoveries to the correct quarters.

"Beyond the Reef", another major Lovecraftian piece, exhibits the same tendencies. Nobody in this one is eager to talk, because everything they uncover is so freakishly weird that the characters may fear commitment to the madhouse if they speak out before amassing solid proof. Like the best literary detectives, they refuse to come forth until all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place.

In tales of the fantastic, this form of secrecy is ubiquitous, probably because it explains why all these astounding mysteries aren't common knowledge. Lovecraft argues that the weird tale should be constructed as a hoax, a portion of its believability stemming from the reasons given for the maintenance of unplumbed secrets.

Worlds of Paranoia

Then Copper offers us those stories set in a milieu of murkiness and doubt, of mystery run amok like a disease. We see this in certain of his more horrific tales, mostly those possessing science fictional trappings. The author excels himself in creating truly awful worlds from scratch. Two especially ghastly environments appear in a couple of his finest works, the thematically linked "Shaft No. 247" and "Out There".

"Shaft Number 247" presents a horrid, soul-annihilating underground world, an enormous complex of metal chambers and corridors within which the actors live, or rather exist, and move. Apparently this complex is all there is; mankind dwells here, by choice or necessity, the grand goal of this stiflingly circumscribed civilization being to shut out the rest of the world, for reasons unexplained. Within the first paragraphs the reader hurtles headlong into secrecy, initially that fashioned by the author: he provides no direct clues for the existence of this subterranean realm, nor for what threat, if any, is understood to lurk beyond it. The reader shares this mystery with the characters, none of whom ever exhibit awareness-- or in most cases, curiosity-- of the great unknown surrounding them. We do know this complex is a grotesquely regimented, physically and mentally controlled state, to the point that normal life, even given the circumstances, is impossible. Spy cameras are everywhere, any deviations from approved behavior, however slight, are cause for concern at the highest levels. This latter looms important because the tending of machinery and the watching of machine meters constitutes, apparently, just about the only behavior approved by the oppressive state. Those in charge allow the occasional chess game, an abstract exercise; the character Wainwright, on the other hand, comes near to apologizing for brewing tea, "a lost art".

Everything is secret here. Either no one knows, or can know, or can be allowed to know. Those who begin to question, to wonder about the possibilities beyond those sealed shafts that lead to the old world, become subjects of suspicion, of official action. For our suffering heroes-- treated as mental cases-- the issue is simple: are the barely suspected entities of the outer world friend or foe? The main characters, desperate to learn, lacking any concrete information, risk death or worse in order to find out. In keeping with the choking miasma of secrecy sustained throughout, we never do learn their fates. "Shaft Number 247" is a tale about secrecy, a mystery from beginning to end.

"Out There", although it provides a thin modicum of explanation at the very last, confronts us with a similar nightmarish world of constant secrecy. Again, Copper leaves so much unstated or inferred: in this hatefully ugly future some kind of squalid civilization exists or lingers, probably underground, about which we know nothing other than, in the telling, that it has pathetically deteriorated from our own. Shown to the reader is only XK-24, that meaningless jumble representing supreme horror: an armed, heavily fortified outpost at the edge of civilization, where the defenders of humanity live, work, flirt with insanity, and hide emotions and knowledge from one another, all the while watching for something unnamed and hideous closing in on them. Yes, XK-24 is akin to the world of the shafts, a claustrophobic environment where all must be eternally vigilant and chronically uninformed.

The hero Watson, transferred to the station, wants to know everything. Wise enough to realize the mere wanting can blight his record, he asks cagey questions in the main, meets blank walls. Most dangerous is the most obvious question: what lies "out there"? How dare he ask? As in "Shaft Number 247", secrecy reigns as the major factor in life. Answers are granted on a need to know basis, and it seems that scarcely anybody needs to know. In "Out There" some justification (itself kept secret from most personnel!) is offered for the extreme mental regimentation, in that covert penetration by outside forces is surmised, forces that may be operating as spies. There are legitimate real world parallels to this brand of secrecy. "Loose lips sink ships." Of course Copper's crazy characters carry this to such an outre degree that they stymie their own protective efforts, at the same time stunting intellect and emotion. These guardians are meant to function as robots, extensions of the machinery they serve. Once more, deviations from this bleak, empty norm inspire worry, contempt, or pity.

In these stories Basil Copper excels, perhaps beyond any of his peers, in employing the concept of secrecy as a tool in tales of terror. The smothering, toxic, enforced mystery becomes one of the most frightful aspects in the author's literary armory.

Secretive Oddities

Now we come to another, wildly different strain in Copper's utilization of the secrecy concept, one which, for at least one critic, defies logical analysis. I confess that the rationale for this form wholly escapes me, and I can only offer limp conjecture for why the author turns to it so often. I refer to what I will style "needless secrecy", or to put it in more neutral terms, "secrecy unmotivated by plot".

Consider this first, very early example, appearing in his brooding short story "The Cave". Our hero detects that something sinister and menacing lurks in those dark woods high in the mountains. The thing, whatever it is, comes calling at night, prowls about the inn where the narrator stays, attempts to enter, retreats at last. Investigating, the narrator discovers certain definite signs of its presence, and in response, "I went down the path and deliberately erased the last trace of those devilish tracks".

Why does he do that? We aren't vouchsafed the slightest logical clue as to the hero's thought processes or the reasons for his action. This peculiar act sits like a stone in the gullet of the story, never to be digested. May we write it off as a fluke, a slip of the pen?

No, that explanation fails utterly, for this behavior crops up among Copper's protagonists multiple times throughout his long career. He does it on purpose, "with malice aforethought". He means it, obviously considers this behavior important, to different extents, to several rather different stories. I present the following further noteworthy cases.

The characters of Into the Silence, especially hero and heroine, Warren and the lovely Miss Gordon, play this frustrating game for a considerable period, dropping hints and hedging bets when they ought to, for their own sakes, speak plainly to one another. The mysteries uncovered, certainly, sound so impossible that the reader might see in this a case similar to "Beyond the Reef", except that the self-defeating caginess continues even when aid is desperately being sought. Why do they do that? One may excuse them on the grounds they aren't professional investigators of any kind, merely regular folks struggling with abominably irregular matters, but their behavior reeks of strangeness for all that.

Frederick Plowright, the shattered hero of The Great White Space, speaks to us decades after the agonizing events he describes, eager to warn the world of approaching peril. He must convince us at all costs... and yet he refuses to provide the very information that would convince the stodgy, skeptical world. The horrors of which he writes occurred at a distant but definite geographical location-- simply providing a map would help make his case, yet he writes: "I am at liberty to say that we bordered Tibet but from there onwards nothing would induce me to reveal our destination." Also, "The fact remains that I did not-- I dare not-- be more specific and the reasons for this will emerge during the course of this narrative." Well, they don't, unless his goal is to suppress the truth, which conclusion runs afoul of other statements, such as, "And so I must live on, my story unbelieved, and scorned, until such time as the truth emerges." A strange complaint, since Plowright acts as the main obstacle to the acceptance of the truth.

Why does he do that? The justification obvious to him isn't obvious to me. He undercuts himself, woefully, to the point of negating his cause. Perhaps we are meant to understand that his loathsome experiences have so unhinged his mind that he can't act in a wholly rational manner. This accords with the lesser circumstances in "The Cave", where the narrator merely explains that he acted in a "panic". Also, these tales document events of the near or distant past, and the brain-fevered cover-ups serve to support the aspects of Lovecraftian hoax. However thin the reasoning, at least we know why this frightful knowledge hasn't been disseminated to the world.

But the grisly story "Reader, I Buried Him!" uses the same device, although this tale must be ranked more with "Shaft Number 247" and "Out There", given its vaguely futuristic setting. The hoax "requirement" is therefore irrelevant to the piece, yet we see the same pattern: Dr. Renwick, the narrator now confined to an asylum, has uncovered a hideous secret, the world must be informed ("I reiterate again and again the same facts; it is gospel truth what I say..."), but he withholds the clinching evidence, the weirdly altered corpse of his colleague. Having committed the act alluded to in the title, he brags, "They will never find the remains of Irving if they search for a thousand years... Did I do right? Who is to say?" The reader, of course, who must be supremely puzzled by Renwick's contradictory attitudes, although his action does make for a monumentally creepy finale. Why did he do it? From "horror and disgust" he says.

In two of Copper's novels of Gothic mystery, The Black Death and The House of the Wolf, the penchant for secrecy on the part of several characters runs riot, to different degrees of believability. In the former story the mechanism just works, because the pay-off in the end is so grand and satisfying; the latter tale, weakened by this plot element, never fully recovers.

In The Black Death, architect John Carter, coming to live and work in an isolated village, begins to learn of hideous doings on the moors. During the progress of his (and the reader's) education he receives infuriatingly veiled hints from two sources, his colleague Jeremy Hands and the Rector, David Sennen, both of whom are conducting private investigations. Hands goes to his horrible doom without ever quite coming to the point ("It is true, when I asked you here, that I wished to discuss last night's matters further. I have no wish to do so now."); even after the demise of that young man, the Rector plays it cagey for the longest time, doling out the vital information he has painstakingly amassed. They're playing at Pons and Beatty, despite the plain fact of their personal peril, to the point that one may feel restless wading through the mid-portion of the book, until the wild revelations of the climax, which are so good that they make up for a lot.

The House of the Wolf doesn't atone for its over-reliance on this trait of self-destructive secrecy, and genuinely suffers for it. As in any solid mystery story there are plenty of secrets to go around, the problem being that they are kept for absurd reasons or, at times it seems, for no reason at all. Hero John Coleridge undergoes a series of experiences indicating that a vengeful werewolf stalks the ancient Hungarian castle where he is staying; he is ridiculously unwilling to pass his knowledge on to his hosts, much less his admittedly bizarre conclusions, despite the fact that his and their lives are constantly in danger. Coleridge's reluctance to speak, sustained throughout the bulk of the book, indirectly leads to senseless deaths, but he isn't taken to task for this when he finally proves tardily forthcoming. On the contrary, if anything he receives praise for his behavior, which seems silly given the results. Count Homolky, lord of the castle, comes across as a man of the same stamp, in the end refusing to alert the authorities to the true situation, or even divulge his discoveries to the still imperiled Coleridge, who might benefit from the warning. The conclusion blandly assures us that Coleridge will be protected, at least for a period, but the secrecy maintained between characters who ought to be cooperating leads to unsatisfactory loose ends, maybe even to questions pertaining to the ultimate fates of certain players.

Pure Speculation

Why do they do it? Why does Basil Copper do it? First I offer the short answer: I don't know.

That out of the way, I freely speculate. Note the pattern of obsessive secrecy, extending across many different types of stories. The pattern exists, in Copper's mysteries, horror stories, science fiction tales. Can it be explained? I present three possibilities: 1) specific plot requirements; 2) favored literary device; 3) weird world view.

1) As mentioned repeatedly in the earlier parts of this essay, there are occasions when massive secrecy works logically to further the story, and can function within a framework of real world believability. Solar Pons and his ilk, on the basis of hazy initial suspicion, don't blurt out the whole truth on the first page. Besides wrecking the story, that might be bad form, hurling accusations before all the evidence is in. Any case of this kind, however heavy-handed, more or less justifies itself. This explanation, of course, takes us only so far; possibly necessary, clearly insufficient to cover all Copper's works.

2) Perhaps the author merely especially enjoys employing this device, finding that it enhances the spookiness of the requisite tales. It does that: stifling webs of secrecy snaring heroes confronting impossible and evil occurrences makes those events so much harder to handle, or even to face. One can't learn enough to surmount the perils or, conversely, having learned enough, one can't, due to emotional weakness, impart the knowledge that could bring allies to one's support. That's a terrible situation, and Copper excels at envisioning terrible situations. It makes the story scarier, and logic-- now and then-- be damned. I can imagine this being the explanation for certain of those really overbearing cases he creates. He throws in senseless mystery the way other (mostly lesser) authors pour on the gore.

3) Suppose Basil Copper just sees the world that way? Here I provide abject conjecture, nothing more, since I rationalize solely from the texts. As a derivation of the second point, I can theorize that Copper finds especially offensive the miasma of secrecy he observes operating in the world, resents its self-serving nature or, worse, its systemic pointlessness, and naturally, without deliberate calculation, weaves the theme into his more grotesque stories. That is, after all, where it most appears. This vein of literary secrecy strikes us as illogical because it inherently is, emanating from the gross illogic of the environment outside the printed page. Foolish secrecy, then, is an expected consequence, a fact gleaned from observation of foolish humanity.

Is this last part of the answer? Don't ask me; I'm not a mind reader. I'm merely guessing, without particularly convincing myself. I only know that no other author's use of this theme has struck me in quite the way that Copper's does. It crawls throughout his corpus, on occasion dominating the story. I'm convinced that it's meant as spicy seasoning of the main course, rather than as an inconsequential side dish. Too many of Basil Copper's characters, facing mind-boggling horror, instinctively get the point, even if I don't always do so.


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