Ever since reading author Basil Copper’s The Great White Space (1974) and Necropolis (1980), both of which were recently reprinted by Valancourt Books, I’ve been binge-reading the works of Basil Copper. I’ve read two of his short story collections so far, From Evil’s Pillow (1973) and And Afterward, the Dark (1977), and have been ordering other books as I find relatively inexpensive editions.
Last week, I finished reading The Black Death (1991), which was Copper’s final horror/mystery novel (though not his last book, as he continued to write mysteries for over a decade):
At the time of The Black Death’s writing, Copper was in his late 60s. Though it is not a deterministic rule, it is not uncommon to see the quality of an author’s writing decline in his or her later years. With this in mind, I didn’t know what to expect from The Black Death!
I shouldn’t have worried. Copper’s novel is a fascinating mixture of mystery, horror, and period Victorian drama. It is probably my favorite among all the Basil Copper stories I’ve read so far.
The novel begins as young London architect John Carter (no relation to the Warlord of Mars) arrives in the rustic town of Thornton Bassett, set in the remote moors of Dartmoor in southern England. He has been given a junior partnership in the firm of Pollard, Bassett, and has come to start his new career.
Things start out perfectly: his landlady Mrs. Tregorran is friendly, his new coworker Mr. Hands is competent and agreeable, and Mr. Pollard is a kind and just employer. Even Carter’s first clients are promising. The rector of the local church, David Sennen, is tolerant and wise. Another important client, Simon Hemmings, is enthusiastic about Carter’s proposed modifications to his remote country estate. And Hemmings has a ward, the smart and lovely Fiona, who Carter takes an immediate fancy to.
But there are dark shadows cast over the moors and Thornton Bassett. On Carter’s day of arrival, he witnesses two funerals, a curious coincidence for such a small town. And every local, without fail, warns Carter on first greeting that he must avoid traveling across the moors at night at all cost. They argue that it is easy to get lost on the moors, especially in the impending winter, but Carter suspects something more is going on.
And he is right! He soon learns that the moors are haunted at night by mysterious hounds and riders, and it is whispered in town that they are the servants of Satan himself. People who venture into the wilds after dark are found dead, the victims of a bizarre horrible fate that is known to the locals as “The Black Death.” Carter receives cryptic warnings that delving too deeply into these mysteries will put his own life in terrible danger.
There are many questions. Who are the mysterious riders? What are they doing on the moors? What is “The Black Death?” What does Carter’s coworker, Mr. Hands, know about the goings on? Why does Carter’s company driver, Slade, always seem to be keeping an eye on Carter’s activities? And what, if anything, does Hemmings’ odd collection of automatons have to do with it all?
The Black Death is a delightful horror/mystery that I can best describe as a “slow burn.” Events play out over an extended period of time, and through most of the novel only little clues and minor occurrences give a hint as to what is really going on. In fact, much of the book plays out more as a classic Victorian drama: we learn much about Carter’s life and work, his interactions with the locals of the exquisitely detailed small town, and his burgeoning romance. This may sound rather tedious, but I was surprised to find myself really wrapped up in Carter’s mundane affairs. These affairs, in turn, contrast wonderfully with the evil spiritual rot that has corrupted the region, and help build up a sense of impending doom. Being immersed in the lives of Thornton Bassett also made the climactic and horrific events at the novel’s conclusion to be especially suspenseful, because I was by that point thoroughly involved in what happens to its people.
Copper’s book perfectly walks a fine line between mystery and horror, and it keeps its secrets until the very end while maintaining a constant feeling of dread. It is a book with such details that it is worth reading at a leisurely pace, and I typically read only a couple of chapters every night before bed (until the final confrontations, at which point I could not stop).
Basil Copper inserts a wonderful bit of history into The Black Death that I was previously unaware of! I have mentioned that the character Simon Hemmings has a collection of automatons: self-operating machines that often mimic human or animal life. When giving a tour of his collection, Hemmings refers to the Baron von Kempelen who, in his words, “more or less invented the whole world of mechanical figures.” His chief accomplishment, as described in the novel, was the construction of a chess-playing automaton that could defeat some of the best players in Europe!
This immediately brings to mind the modern case of IBM’s “Deep Blue” computer, which was programmed to play chess and in fact beat grandmaster Garry Kasparov in 1997, winning 2 to 1 with three draws. But von Kempelen introduced his chess-player, The Turk, in 1770, unveiling it at Schönbrunn Palace at the court of Maria Theresa of Austria. From there, it became wildly famous and eventually toured Europe, even challenging then-diplomat Benjamin Franklin to a match in Paris in 1783. When von Kempelen died, the machine was sold, and in a new tour it took on Napoleon I in a series of games in 1809. Eventually, its popularity faded, however, and it was relegated to a small museum, where it was destroyed in a fire in 1854.
Had Wolfgang von Kempelen discovered the secret of artificial intelligence in 1770, using only mechanical means? Of course not! The Turk was a skillfully constructed hoax, in which a talented chess-player would sit within the cabinet on a sliding seat and move pieces with magnets. Before each match, von Kempelen would open various cabinet doors, showing only machinery inside; however, the machinery panels could be moved about, so that the operator could switch locations and remain hidden as successive doors were opened. In the 1820s the machine was finally exposed for what it was.
Why did he build it? Reading descriptions of von Kempelen’s reactions to The Turk’s fame, one gets the impression of an elaborate prank that got out of hand. At a previous appearance in the royal court, he had witnessed an illusionist performing spectacular magic tricks, and he vowed to return with an invention that would top the illusions: namely, The Turk. Even from this simple passage, one suspects that he was trying to match illusion with illusion, but that it worked far too well: demand for demonstrations of The Turk exploded. Von Kempelen first brushed off those demands by claiming the automaton had been disassembled, but at last in 1781 he was ordered by the Emperor to reassemble it for demonstrations! From there, The Turk took off on its European tour and became a legend, albeit simply an illusion itself.
I love novels that teach me something weird about history! The Black Death certainly does that, but it is also a wonderfully dark atmospheric novel and one I would recommend. It was only printed in a limited run of 1,000, so it may be difficult to find copies. I got a perfectly new one for a very inexpensive price, however, so it is well worth looking.
One final note: the cover of The Black Death is fantastic, and was done by illustrator Stephanie Hawks, whose bio is prominently featured on the inside sleeve.