Basil Copper’s “From Evil’s Pillow”

It is always a great joy to discover the works of an author that I’ve previously been completely unaware of.  Recently, I started reading the works of Basil Copper (1924-2013), thanks to the Valancourt Books re-release of his 1974 novel The Great White Space.  Since then, I have read Valancourt’s edition of Copper’s Necropolis, and the as yet not reprinted 1983 novel Into the Silence.  Since then, as I often do when “discovering” a new author, I’ve gone on a buying spree of as many books as I can.  I recently finished reading Copper’s 1973 book From Evil’s Pillow:

From_evils_pillow

This collection of short stories was released by the classic publisher Arkham House, and it was the first book of Copper’s work to be released in the United States.  Arkham would publish quite a few of his books over the decade that follows, and like all Arkham House books they are lovely books to have on the shelf.

But what of the words inside?

Copper was a writer who indulged in Lovecraftian themes of cosmic horror, among others — and he also inherited Lovecraft’s verbosity.  The 177-page From Evil’s Pillow thus contains only five stories within it, as follows:

  • Amber Print.  A film enthusiast finds an utterly unique and ancient extended edition of the classic horror film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, which contains many more secrets, and deadly ones, than it first appears to.
  • The Grey House.  When author Philip finds a house in the country, The Grey House, that would serve as a perfect retreat for his writing, his wife Angele has no rational argument against it.  The house has a diabolical history, however, and its long-dead tenants are not quite done using the place.
  • The Gossips.  A museum director arranges to have “The Gossips” — a massive stone sculpture of a trio of ladies — imported from Sicily to London for an exhibition.  The sculpture has a dark history and a sinister influence on those who come near it, though, and it has a bloody resilience that will horrify those in its path.
  • A Very Pleasant Fellow.  Mr. Philps regrets retiring and selling his shop to the odious Mr. Hedgepeth.  When an occultist friend offers Philps a weapon to inflict the “evil eye” on Hedgepeth from a distance, the retiree cannot resist.  Such a weapon must be used carefully, though, and Philps is not a very careful fellow…
  • Charon.  The overworked and financially struggling Mr. Soames comes across an unusual business on his walk home from work, Charon, Ltd.  Though it is not open on his first visit, the place is unusually compelling and Soames makes it his goal to work his way inside.  The proprietor is not all that he appears at first, however, and the business is more unusual than Soames can possibly imagine.

Some of the stories in From Evil’s Pillow are quite good, and others not so.  One gets the impression of an author who is still feeling his way to his own distinct voice and themes in horror.  A Very Pleasant Fellow, for instance, is an interesting story, but doesn’t carry quite the punch that the author clearly intended; even worse, one can practically deduce the entire plot of the story Charon simply from its title!

The other three tales are very good, however.  Amber Print manages to capture the eerie atmosphere of old silent films in a tale of the “rediscovered cursed object” style.  The story also draws on Copper’s own personal interest and collection of silent film classics.  The Grey House starts slowly, and is a rather long tale, but builds to a horrific climax that is well worth the wait.  My favorite of the collection, The Gossips, has a number of moments of genuine shock, and those moments are not the obvious points of grisly horror.  In this story, Copper manages to invent an incredible history for the trio of stone ladies that creates a wonderful atmosphere of dread about them.  (They are also featured on the cover of the book, as seen above.)

The title From Evil’s Pillow is a rather curious one, as it is not the title of any of the stories included.  It in fact comes from a book of poetry, Les Fleurs du mal (“The Flowers of Evil”), by French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867).  In the foreword to this book about the decadence of society, Baudelaire says:

Sur l’oreiller du mal c’est Satan Trismégiste
Qui berce longuement notre esprit enchanté,
Et le riche métal de notre volonté
Est tout vaporisé par ce savant chimiste.

Or, in English translation:

Pillowed on evil, Satan Trismegist
Ceaselessly cradles our enchanted mind,
The flawless metal of our will we find
Volatilized by this rare alchemist.

Here Baudelaire associates Satan with the legendary alchemist Hermes Trismegistus, who supposedly wrote the 2nd-3rd century Hermetica, “wisdom texts” about alchemy, astrology, and other mystical concepts.  This idea of diabolical authors writing texts on ancient and forbidden knowledge is very Lovecraftian, and was no doubt quite appealing to Basil Copper.

Baudelaire also had connections to some of the greatest figures in early horror literature.  He wrote literary critiques and translations of the works of Edgar Allan Poe, considered some of the best of their time.  He was also friends with Théophile Gautier, who wrote a number of classic tales of the macabre.  One of this I always remember is the regularly-anthologized The Mummy’s Foot, which capitalized on the surge of interest in ancient Egypt and mummification that was spreading through Europe at the time.  (Edgar Allan Poe also wrote such a story, Some Words With a Mummy.)

So, overall, From Evil’s Pillow is a nice short collection of stories by Basil Copper.  I still have quite a few other Copper books on my shelf awaiting reading, so I will return to his writings in future posts!

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