“The Overseer” by Tim Casson

I don’t know much about Tim Casson, and can’t even find a web presence for the guy, unless he’s also a dancer. While he doesn’t get the recognition of people like James Cooper and Joel Lane, with four credits to his name Casson is one of the most regular contributors to Black Static, and this story from #16 marks his most recent appearance in the magazine.

The story appears to be set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, though no dates are actually given, so before proceeding a ‘history lesson’ seems in order. For the benefit of younger readers, the Great Depression began in 1929 and continued throughout the 30s, eventually leading into World War 2. A time of economic turmoil, it has come to be symbolised by the image of guilt ridden bankers jumping to their deaths from the tops of skyscrapers. Compare this with the current economic crisis, where the financial institutions are bailed out with public funds and the bankers trouser as much of this as they can in the form of bonuses, while the Tory Party and their media lapdogs blame it all on Gordon Brown failing to change the batteries in his pocket calculator and the cupidity of a couple of hundred work shy benefit cheats in Clapham (the low rent part). That was a public service announcement brought to you on behalf of the hang ’em high and leave ’em to rot party, and proof of the old adage that those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are doomed to repeat them.

Anyway, back at the story. Our protagonist Darius is a rich man fallen on hard times. Thanks to his penchant for alcohol and shagging debutantes, he failed to action his father’s instruction to sell everything and invest in land. Not only that, but he failed miserably to enact his own suicide, though he does believe (erroneously, as it turns out) that he killed his father. So here Darius is, down to his last few pennies and living in a doss house, fearful of being evicted and finding himself on the street. Along with the other men he lines up each day hoping to be chosen by the foreman to work at the mill.

And then, one day, Darius’ luck is in, and the foreman spits on his shoes. He and Blair and Adcock, the closest he has to friends in his reduced circumstances, are selected and get to work for a pittance within the dust clogged confines of the mill, forced to endure back breaking and potentially hazardous labour under the watchful eyes of the bullying foreman and the distant Overseer, who wears a strange mask that reminds Darius of an Anubis mask once owned by his father.

A chance to escape the mill and this terrible life is offered to Darius, when he is found by Grace, a woman from his past, but instead he gets involved in criminal activity with his friends. Adcock murders the Overseer, and to cover up the crime Darius agrees to wear the man’s mask, only to then find that he cannot remove it. Grace tries, but finds that she cannot accept him with this hideous headgear, and so Darius has no alternative but to return to the mill and play the role of the Overseer in earnest.

The years stretch away, and he does his best to ameliorate the lot of the mill’s employees. He discovers that his father owns the mill, and cursed the Overseer with the mask that he now wears, also learning something of his father’s attitude to himself, an indifference bordering on contempt. When the mill is destroyed by German bombers, Darius hides in the ruins, eventually emerging to take part in the VE Day celebrations, with his mask dismissed as just another gas mask.

The story is a relatively straightforward one, with the only outre element the way in which the Anubis mask clings to the face of whoever wears it. When the mask is removed from the Overseer, the man’s face is described as ‘a mass of ripples and grooves, as white as mutton fat’. Darius discovers that ‘The mask had moulded to the contours of my face. I pinched the leather and felt pain, as if I were pinching my own skin.’ Darius’ father reveals that he used the mask as a way to test the original Overseer – all the man had to do was sell it to be set up for life, but he could not resist the temptation to try it on, believing it a gift intended as protective headgear, and thus he was doomed to his fate. The moral here seems to be that greed is good, that using things (and by inference people too) as commodities is the only way to get on in the world, and attributing other’s motives to altruism is the greatest folly. So much for the father’s world view and moral perspective.

There’s a hint of Greek tragedy about “The Overseer”, especially in the antipathy between Darius and his father, with the latter coming on like some tyrant out of the amphitheatre. The father despises his son, the offspring of a fling with a factory girl, and considers him to be doomed by his slum background and breeding. In the father’s description of his son, we see something akin to Nazi eugenics, and the personification of the most grotesque form of egotism. The father cares about no-one and nothing, except his money.

Sticking with the ‘classic’ aspects of the story for a moment, the significance of the Anubis mask needs to be touched on. Anubis was an Egyptian god of the dead, one of those who presided over the afterlife, and this is reflected in Darius’ situation; he is undergoing an ‘afterlife’ of sorts. And, in the harsh confines of the mill, with its hard graft and drudgery, we find a form of afterlife, a hell on earth in which the damned despair. Casson is especially good at conveying the attributes of this workplace, making it seem every bit as macabre and void of the life spark as the similar environs found in the work of Thomas Ligotti. Bags are mentioned, but the purpose of the mill, the things it produces, is never pinned down. Existing simply to make money for its owner, serving no other function, the mill is beyond dystopian. It stands as a symbol of capitalism, a place of contradictions, a place without hope and at the same time offering the only hope for those who work within. Finally, the Overseer holds the fate of the workforce in his hand, with the power to judge and find wanting, just as Anubis would decide the fate of the human soul in the Egyptian system of metaphysics.

But the story is also a moral fable, an exercise in stepping into another’s shoes. The old Darius, the pre-Depression Darius, was a selfish hedonist, perhaps not as callous as his father, but certainly en route to becoming a chip off that old block. Seeing things from the other side of society, from the perspective of the downtrodden poor, those he would previously have ignored if they registered with him at all, Darius grows as a human being, takes on something akin to a moral dimension. When Grace offers him a way back to his old life, yes, he wants to take that escape route, even if he doesn’t really care about Grace at all, but at the same time he recognises that he has debts and obligations to Blair and, even, Adcock, whom he doesn’t particularly like. These people are now ‘his own kind’, and he goes back to save them, in complete contrast to his earlier abandonment of his wealthy friend Dutton. He has developed a sense of social responsibility through suffering. And when, as a result of this, he finds himself trapped in the role of Overseer, he doesn’t don the mantle of a tyrant along with the mask, instead initiating a gentler regime at the mill, even if his efforts are met with suspicion by the workforce.

And, at the end, having atoned for the sins of his past, Darius achieves a form of redemption. In part this is done through self-deception, the reinvention of his history to give it all softer edges – Grace is reconfigured as a woman he was truly in love with, whereas in reality he was only using her for sex and didn’t care about her at all. But playing counterpoint to this, there is the acceptance extended to him by the common people. All the distinctions of rank, wealth and social standing are forgotten in the euphoria of VE Day, and Darius’ fearsome visage is discounted as simply a gas mask, something he could remove but chooses not to. Like the hero of Vonnegut’s Mother Night Darius has become the person he pretended to be, even if the pretence was not of his own choosing, but forced on him by cruel circumstance.

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