Sunday, March 25, 2018

Shadows Over Innsmouth by Basil Copper, Adrian Cole and Ramsey Campbell

I recently became acquainted with prolific British genre writer Basil Copper via his story in DAW 109, the second of DAW's Year's Best Horror Stories volumes.  The current HQ of MPorcius Fiction Log is in the suburban miasma between America's two crime capitals, and the first place I turned to for additional Basil Copper stories was the Baltimore County Public Library website.  There did not seem to be any physical books available that feature Copper's fiction, but a pair of Copper stories were available electronically, one each in the e-books of Stephen Jones's 1994 Shadows Over Innsmouth and 2005 Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth.  I decided to read three stories from each of these anthologies by people whose work I have already discussed on this here blog; in this episode we'll look at the contributions to Shadows Over Innsmouth by the aforementioned Basil Copper, Adrian Cole, whose Dream Lords trilogy we read in June of 2016, and the famous Ramsey Campbell.

"The Shadow Over Innsmouth" by H. P. Lovecraft (written 1931, published in 1936)

First edition, famously
full of typos
First I reread Lovecraft's classic "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" from my "Corrected Eleventh Printing" of Arkham House's The Dunwich Horror and Others, so it would be fresh in my mind.  The text appears in Jones's anthology, but I found it more comfortable to read it in book form than from the computer screen.

If you haven't read "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" I highly recommend it (5 out of 5 unblinking fish eyes); it is a great horror story, and resonates with political and cultural issues we can read about every day in the newspaper: skepticism about immigration and foreign trade; communities resistant to new residents and the demographic and cultural changes they bring; fear of aliens and their strange religions and values; desperate measures which betray our traditions and threaten to corrupt our institutions.  The story also exploits more personal fears about individual and ethnic identity.

When the isolated New England fishing town of Innsmouth ran into economic trouble in the early 19th century, one of the town's leaders, Obed Marsh, resolved the economic crisis by convincing the townspeople to abandon Christianity and take up the worship of the ancient alien god Dagon and to conduct trade with the civilization of alien amphibian people who lived underwater nearby (what goods can Innsmouth offer the aliens known as the Deep Ones?  Human sacrifices, of course!)  Marsh learned all about this stuff from Polynesian savages when he was a ship captain trading in the Pacific.  Innsmouth residents who opposed this revolution were murdered.  Before long, the Deep Ones were basically running the town and having sex with the town's human women,  so that by the late 1920s, the time the story takes place, the population of Innsmouth, is almost entirely composed of hybrid human-fish people.  The story itself is the testimonial of the young antiquarian who in 1927 visited Innsmouth to examine its architecture and discovered the town's horrifying secret.  He managed to escape and alert the authorities of the alien menace, and the federal government then attacked and wiped out the town, even using a submarine to torpedo the underwater colony of aliens.  Sometime later his researches turn up evidence that he himself has Deep One blood in his veins and could be soon turning into an amphibian himself!

"Beyond the Reef" by Basil Copper (1994)

"Beyond the Reef" would later appear in
this 2002 Copper collection...
Copper was one of my big finds from DAW No. 109, so I had high hopes for this one, but I was disappointed--this is a very pedestrian story rendered boring and confusing by its poor construction and weak style.

The year is 1932, and for the past few years Miskatonic University in Arkham, the town next over from Innsmouth, has been plagued with odd poltergeisty events like lights going on and off and doors opening and closing on their own.  There was also the robbery of some sinister ancient books from the locked special collections room at the library, and just recently a bizarre homicide.  Oh yeah, also some strange weather.  (I know there are lots of Weather Channel obsessives out there, but I find weather boring.)  Early in the story a monument to Miskatonic alumni killed in the Civil War and the Great War, a huge stone cross, falls over and almost kills the Dean.  The surveyor leading the crew trying to repair the cross discovers a vast network of artificial tunnels under the monument, passages full of carvings reminiscent of the images in those stolen books.

This story has a superfluity of bland uninteresting characters.  There's the Dean, the surveyor, a cryptologist who is translating copies of the arcane texts, the police detective investigating the murder, and his buddy the "local police surgeon," and each of these guys has his own individual little adventures.  Copper wrote many detective stories, and I believe he is following a convention of detective novels here in which a book begins with numerous disparate incidents and plot threads that have little apparent connection to each other until late in the story, when the detective ties them all together.  I am no fan of this way of constructing a story, nor of the similar practice in adventure stories of shifting the narrative back and forth between multiple protagonists who are in different parts of the battlefield or otherwise geographically separated.  I believe a horror story or adventure story benefits from a relentless forward drive, and that switching between subplots and characters dissipates tension without catharsis, frustrates and distracts the reader.  (A famous example would be to compare the climactic sequences of Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace, in which the action switches among three different fights, and that of the very first Star Wars movie--the climax of the 1977 film, which follows a single battle and features a single main character, is far more compelling.)

Copper's story moves along in fits and starts, popping from one character to another, and even going back and forth in time for no apparent reason.  Like many horror stories, "Beyond the Reef" begins with a brief chapter in which a character in the custody of the authorities is about to give a statement or testimonial, but instead of "Beyond the Reef" consisting primarily of this guy's first person narration, the story is a third-person omniscient narrative mixed with police reports written by the detective.  In my opinion Copper never even really ties all these threads together very well; the detective just seems to realize that the torpedoes didn't destroy the Deep One city near Innsmouth after all, which we readers knew already, and surmises that the Deep Ones are about to launch an assault via the tunnels on Arkham.  The story also lacks a proper climax and resolution, abruptly ending after a tedious description of the complicated means by which the heroes hope to blow up the Deep One's city, leaving us to guess whether or not the scheme succeeds (assuming we care about any of these boring characters and monsters.)

"Beyond the Reef" feels long (its like 50 pages) and tedious, with lots of extraneous details that fail to set a mood or even give you a clear picture of what is going on.  The action scenes are not very good, being overwritten and conveying no excitement.  There are plenty of boring detective story conventions: the detective writes down a list of clues on a piece of paper, for example, and two different characters have their automobiles sabotaged.  Besides these lame detective cliches, Copper tosses in some elements lifted from "Shadow Over Innsmouth" as, I guess, an homage to Lovecraft.  In a memorable scene in Lovecraft's original 1930s story, the narrator hears footsteps on the other side of a door and nervously awaits a knock or the sound of a key in the lock, and Copper includes just such a scene in his 1990s sequel.

...and this 2010 volume
For the most part, "Beyond the Reef" is just an abstract collage of old bits and pieces we've seen before in mystery and horror stories, tossed on the canvas at random, but Copper throws in a few new things as well.  One newish element is a serpentine monster that has the ability to erase things.  For example, the notes kept by the cryptologist over the many months he has worked to translate the evil books are magically turned into blank pages, while the detective, reading old newspapers looking for clues, finds that stories advertised on the front page of periodicals are missing from the back pages.  All distinguishing features of the homicide victim's face were removed, and eventually we learn that the monster can even erase memories from people's minds.  Additionally, this monster can generate a kind of heat ray.  I suppose the erasing ability sort of connects to Lovecraftian themes of the unreliability of knowledge and the instability of identity, but a heat ray?  Copper includes lots of stuff in this story that don't contribute much to the mood or plot, and this heat power is one of them.

Another element meant to be novel: the cryptologist built a mechanical device to help him translate the ancient texts, which I guess is supposed to remind readers of a Babbage engine or an Enigma machine (this device adds nothing to the story, the monster just destroying it.)  Is this a nod to steampunk?

A mere jumble of almost random stuff just thrown together that absolutely fails to generate interest or fear--thumbs down for the very disappointing "Beyond the Reef."

"The Crossing" by Adrian Cole (1994)

Our narrator for "The Crossing" is a middle-aged Englishman who lives far from the coast.  He hasn't seen his father, a sailor, since he was a few months old.  His marriage has failed, and he hasn't seen his son, a college student with a new girlfriend, in a year.  Then a cryptic postcard and a strange premonition--the smell of the seashore--draws him to a small fishing village.  Here he encounters his father; for decades the sailor has been capturing human sacrifices for the Deep Ones, and now that he is very old, he wants to join the amphibian monsters in their submarine city.  To win this boon, he has to find somebody to fill his position, and he figures his own son would be an ideal candidate!  The murderous mariner tells our narrator that when he gets old, he can hand over his own son to the service of Dagon and in turn join the fish people in their undersea utopia.  Will the narrator go along with this insane plan?  Looking for sympathy, Dad says if he can't convince his son to follow in his piratical footsteps, the Deep Ones will inflict upon him "eternal revenge!"

In Lovecraft's original "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" there is some business in which the narrator evades the locals by running along roofs, and Cole's narrator in "The Crossing" does some of the same kind of stuff.

The broad strokes and the basic ideas of "The Crossing" are not bad, but one element makes it difficult for me to suspend my disbelief.  Instead of the confrontations between father and son and between normies and Dagon-worshipers being set in the little English fishing village, the narrator fools his son into following him through some kind of magical gate to Innsmouth, all the way on the other side of the Atlantic.  This isn't some kind of Deep Ones high technology left over from ancient times--the fish people can't use the gate, only the narrator and his father.  Somehow, in a way that is deliberately not explained, the narrator's deadbeat Dad is some kind of wizard.

Why would Cole choose to include this additional, seemingly superfluous, magical device?  Why not just set the story entirely in the USA or the UK?  While in Innsmouth, the narrator sees some human sacrifice victims being marched off to their doom, and they remind him of films of Nazi Holocaust victims.  If Cole is mining that historical atrocity to add some oomph to his story, maybe he is likewise including a crossing-the-Atlantic element in order to remind us of other past crimes and tragedies, like the trans-Atlantic African slave trade and/or the migration to the New World of impoverished Scotsmen and Irishmen in the 18th and 19th centuries due to economic and political developments and crises in the British Isles.

Merely acceptable.

"The Church in High Street" by Ramsey Campbell (1962)

Except for Lovecraft's original, this is the oldest story in Jones's anthology.  According to isfdb, "The Church in High Street" is the first component of the "Severn Valley Series."  It appeared first in August Derleth's anthology Dark Mind, Dark Heart and would go on to appear in several books, including the oft-reprinted Campbell collection Cold Print.

Temphill is a small town in the Cotswalds, avoided by outsiders because of its bad reputation.  The narrator's friend, Albert Young, is there conducting research on witchcraft, and when the narrator, in need of money, learns that Young may be looking to hire a secretary, he drives out there from London in a borrowed car to see if the position is still open.  Once in the queer decaying town he is told by one of Young's neighbors that the scholar has been taken "Outside" by a mysterious "They," and warned to leave Temphill at once.  Our narrator sticks around to investigate, going through Young's papers and diary, which include translations from the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred's tome The Necronomicon, and which point to the local church.  At the (decrepit and apparently abandoned) church, the narrator finds a staircase to an underground chamber of statues and corpse-bearing slabs.  He witnesses a magical gate opening on to another planet or dimension, and out of it emerge protoplasmic monsters!  The hero falls unconscious, and when he awakes he has fungi on his person.  He flees, only barely escaping the town when a car hits him and again he falls unconscious--the car's driver takes him out of town to a hospital.  Despite his successful escape, something about Temphill has got into his psyche or blood, and as the story ends we readers know he will be inexorably drawn back to the weird place.

The most interesting part of the story is perhaps the aliens' power--they can "disarrange space in small regions," to quote Abdul Alhazred, so that when Young and our narrator try to leave Temphill they find, surreally, that any road out of town they take has somehow looped around, bringing them back to Temphill.

It is a little odd seeing this story here in Shadows Over Innsmouth, because it has nothing to do with Innsmouth or the sea or the Deep Ones, though there is the theme of a Christian church repurposed to the worship of an alien entity (this time Yog-Sothoth, who is associated with "gates" and "keys" and "ways.")  Lovecraftian references include fungi, Leng, and Nyarlathotep--I don't think Dagon is mentioned.  Still, it is better written and more convincing than the Copper and Cole stories, and deserves a mild recommendation.

**********

In our next episode, Lovecraftian capers first published in the current century!           

No comments:

Post a Comment