Invisible Ink No 133: Basil Copper


British weird fiction is a unique and marvellous genre, often maligned, usually misunderstood. Its exponents had unassuming grace, their grammatically correct prose following the traditional Gothic supernatural form. They were seasoned in wars and polished in pressrooms, published in the once-vibrant anthology industry by editors such as August Derleth, Herbert Van Thal and Stephen Jones: collectors and enthusiasts with a keen eye for well-turned tales.

Basil Copper might be described as one of the last great gentlemen of the supernatural. Born in 1924, he took part in the D-Day landings and returned to edit a Kent newspaper. His first story, "The Spider", was published in the Fifth Pan Book of Horror Stories for £10, and took half an hour to write. After that, he fluctuated between tales of the macabre in the vein of M R James and HP Lovecraft, and 52 volumes featuring the hard-boiled Los Angeles P I Mike Faraday. Copper never went to California, but recreated its topography from old films.

The New English Library published his first supernatural collection, Not After Nightfall, and several more collections produced stories that became firm anthology favourites. The 1970s were a wonderful time for British writers of the macabre. Peter Haining was gathering tales for volumes such as The Ghouls and The Midnight People, TV shows were scouring shelves for stories to film, movie novelizations were being commissioned, Fontana and Pan had annual collections of the best ghost and horror tales, and Copper's output was prodigious.

His finest stories dispense with moral retribution and simply feature unsettling events, such as his tale of a man who becomes unmoored inside a camera obscura. While Copper could write of vampires and werewolves, haunted houses and misted moors, he could easily produce a frisson of fear from a simple shifting shadow. Kim Newman reminds us that in Copper's world the roses are still trimmed and there's sherry at the rectory, and a fiancée has "decided views" on sex before marriage – which somehow makes his unearthly events more powerful for disturbing the natural order. As Copper was penning these tales in the 1970s, the sense of anomaly is greater for first luring you back to a safer time.

Like Newman, who also produces superior Holmes tales, Copper had his own sleuth, Solar Pons, but often his very English prose suffered at the hands of US editors. Happily his style is now back in fashion, and he is still with us to enjoy its resurgence.

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